Math is also important. You need to understand math to really understand AI.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Honary.
Ryan Honary, 13, of Newport Beach, California, has a deep passion for environmental issues. Seeing footage of the California Camp Fire in 2018 led him to begin creating a wildfire detection system for his fifth-grade science project the following year. The project earned numerous awards and recognitions including winning the Ignite Innovation Student Challenge, ultimately leading to the creation of SensoRy AI, a startup dedicated to saving the world through disaster mitigation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I’ve loved animals my entire life — I had always wanted a dog and in first grade, I got one! That love played a role in my passion for the environment. My parents weren’t activists when it came to either subject, but seeing the devastation climate change is having on our planet and its inhabitants had led me to become one.
I was also interested in technology when I was really young. In first or second grade, I started learning just the basics of coding through coding books and a bit from my dad. I also took a coding class at Arden Academy, as well as a research class.
I would see news on TV of species going extinct or animals being endangered. It always made me feel terrible and I wanted to do something about it. Obviously, back then I was really young, and I couldn’t really do anything as a seven-year-old boy who was still learning to add. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued to work hard, advocating for our planet and the implementation of technology to help save it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I think the story of how my career got started is interesting on its own.
In fifth grade, my science teacher gave us all a project to build something. I decided to work on a solution that would detect wildfires and other disasters immediately to ensure a faster, more efficient response. The first version was a simple fire detector on a breadboard. It worked, but all it really did was turn on a light and make a buzzing noise.
Seeing the continued destruction of wildfires made me decide to enhance my idea. After a series of competitions and a lot of work to develop it further, SensoRy AI was founded. I had no idea when I created that first concept that it would become what it is now. When the company received funding from the Office of Naval Research’s Small Business Innovation Research (ONR SBIR) program, it was like a dream.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been working on this project for about two and a half years now, so there have been multiple people that have helped me along the way. But most notably, the science teachers at my school, who mentored me and taught me about how to actually start a science project, and a family friend who was a graduate student at UCLA and taught me AI and machine learning.
I think that it’s important to have mentors. It’s not completely necessary, but without getting any help at all, you can’t create a very effective process. That would be like trying to run a company while you take every position of the company. Obviously, it’s not going to work very well. You need some people to help you along, I think.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” CS Lewis.
This is relevant because if there was something in the past I could have done to make the process more effective, just thinking about it and mourning over it would waste more time. However, I can think about what I’m doing at that moment and find a more effective way. If I just keep worrying about things in the past, I’m going to miss more because I’m not focused on what I’m working on now.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I think two traits, empathy and determination, go hand-in-hand. There has to be something that really drives you. For example, the Australian bush fires killed around 3 billion animals. That’s so close to our population at 7.9 billion. That motivates me because it breaks my heart when I hear about all of these animals being killed. It’s not even their fault — they don’t know any better and they can’t do anything about it. I’m determined to do something because they can’t.
That determination is vital when you’re working on the technology. There were many times I’d have one problem for multiple days that I just couldn’t solve. I would keep trying and trying before getting it right. Once I solved the problem and fixed the error, it was a relief. When I would start to get frustrated, I’d keep the animals in mind. I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for them.
Also, I think my creativity has played a role in my success. In order to develop solutions, you have to be able to take creative approaches to problem-solving.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on the planet and the environment. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
The primary reason I developed my sensor network was to tackle the effectiveness of wildfire response. In high wind conditions, fires can travel up to 15 mph, making early detection crucial.
Existing solutions, such as satellites or high-end cameras on geological stations are very expensive and deploying them widely is difficult. Hence, they can’t be readily available at high-risk locations, like near high voltage lines, for example.
How do you think your technology can address this?
My technology can be used to mitigate the destruction of a disaster through early detection and faster response. For example, my network can detect a wildfire at the spark. From there, it immediately notifies authorities and provides accurate data and predictions regarding growth speed and direction.
In addition to wildfires, I’ve been working to develop other applications alongside members of the SensoRy AI team including the detection of methane gas leaks, air quality and water contaminants. Funding from the Office of Naval Research is allowing the company to focus on mitigating equipment-related disasters, as well.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I was traveling in November 2018 when I saw news on TV about the California Camp Fire. At first, it looked like hills very similar to where I lived, so I panicked and called my mom back home to make sure she was okay. I kept following the news with dismay as 85 people were killed and more than 18,000 structures had been destroyed.
When I found out that most of the damage (and almost all of the deaths) happened within the first six hours, I was shocked. How are we so focused on sending people to space when we can’t handle a fire in our own backyards?
I did some research and realized that this is a global problem and it’s only going to get worse. I knew there had to be a better way for early wildfire detection and growth prediction that would be low cost and easy to deploy and I wanted to find it.
How do you think this might change the world?
Using this technology effectively on a large scale can help us handle environmental disasters differently. Beyond preventing death and destruction, we can help mitigate the financial impact of a natural disaster. For example, the wildfires in California in 2018 caused economic losses of about 150 billion dollars and the impacts went beyond the state border.
One drawback would be if my detector malfunctioned and caught fire. The odds of that happening are slim, but it could. The only way to solve that would be to put a fireproof casing around the detector. That defeats the purpose of low cost because it would add hundreds of dollars to it, and obviously, the detector needs to be able to detect fire.
That’s what I think could be one major problem, but I’m also working on ways that could be addressed.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?
- First, I would say coding. If you want to build any type of program for any device, then you need to be able to code.
- In my case, a knowledge of Artificial Intelligence was essential. In order to predict how an environmental disaster could play out, I needed to know AI.
- Third, I would say hardware. If you want to build a solution, you need to know what you’re working with. One example for me would be Raspberry Pi.
- Math is also important. You need to understand math to really understand AI.
- Finally, I’d say science because it teaches you how to understand the problem.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
We are the ones who will be affected most by these disasters. Climate change means they will only get worse and if we don’t do something now, there will be no way for us to just bypass it and hope the next generation fixes it. If we don’t act quickly, our world will be destroyed. We can’t keep waiting for someone else to solve the problem.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to have a private dinner with Leonardo DiCaprio because he has worked to bring attention and funding to the protection of biodiversity, ocean and forest conservation and climate change. Also, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation supports over 35 innovative conservation projects around the world that protect fragile ecosystems and key species. Even though he is already a very successful actor, he’s decided to spend his time working to help the environment, which really inspires me to be like him.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about SensoRy AI at SensoRy.com and ryanhonary.com. I’m @ryanhonary on Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Thank you very much for your interest in my work and your time!