As a Parkland shooting survivor, Kai Koerber understands the urgency of mental health awareness. As an advocate, entrepreneur and data scientist, he has a vision and a plan to make a difference.
Koerber enrolled at UC Berkeley intending to become a rocket scientist like his uncle. But he also came to the university as a public speaker advocating for youth mental health awareness, spurred by a shooting at his high school in 2018, now the third deadliest school shooting in the United States.
Koerber explains, “I came here wanting to be a rocket scientist, but I also had an interest in political science because I had done a whole lot of speaking about the Parkland shooting with various publications, everything from the Daily Show to Time magazine.” Koerber’s advocacy work includes establishing Societal Reform Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting mental health programs in schools.
Now in his third year at Berkeley, he is also the founder of the startup Koer A.I. With the help of the Data Science Discovery program, Koerber developed a model for identifying a user’s emotional state based on their tone of voice, and he plans to use this technology as a mental health and public safety intervention.
Discovering data science
Koerber credits his decision to major in data science to the support he received through the Discovery program, which included Koer A.I. in its roster for the past four semesters, enabling him to develop the company’s software, Project AEI. “After I started this Discovery project, I fell into the data science world because I figured why not truly be a part of the department that supported me so well. Ultimately, the decision to major in data science came from the department’s support of me and feeling like I couldn't have done it anywhere else.”
The Discovery program provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to complete a semester-long data science project in collaboration with faculty, nonprofits, government agencies or businesses. The program fuses UC Berkeley's cutting-edge curriculum in data science with the university’s mission to serve the public good and develop innovative solutions to challenging problems and urgent societal issues.
“The initial people who saw this kernel of my idea as something truly valuable – they made me feel this was a community I wanted to be part of,” Koerber says.
Koerber is one of more than 200 students who participated in over 60 projects through the Data Science Discovery program in spring 2022. Project partners range from the American Heart Association to BART to the UC Berkeley Seismology Laboratory.
Anthony Suen, director of the Data Science Discovery program, was particularly impressed with the breadth and quality of this year's projects. “The Discovery Showcase presented a whirlwind of innovative research in the areas of precision medicine, climate and sustainability, criminal justice reform – and more,” he said. “I'm proud that our students are tackling such substantial challenges and doing tremendous, meaningful work.”
For students and project partners, the program is a win-win situation: students gain vital experience managing complex data science projects and collaborating with leaders in a field of interest, and partners make significant strides in how data science informs their work. Koerber is the only student in the past five years of the program to participate as a project partner, recruiting a team of his fellow data science students to work on Project AEI.
“That was a new twist on things, and I was really surprised that the department was so supportive,” Koerber said, adding that Suen and Arlo Malmberg, a former Discovery program manager, were tremendous resources as he developed his project over the past four semesters.
Developing the Joy app
Koerber developed the Joy app in collaboration with Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. Keltner’s research describes 18 emotions that are universal across the face, voice and brain. The Joy app recognizes seven of those based on the speaker’s tone of voice, performing what Koerber calls an “acoustic emotional analysis” and recommending mindfulness content to the user in real-time.
“The average person is 63% accurate when recognizing human emotions,” Koerber continued. “Our model has yielded 75% accuracy on our test set, which is very promising. We think that the Joy app is going to provide a lot of people with an unbiased interpretation of their emotions, given their acoustic presentation of it.”
In the spring 2022 semester, Koerber’s team of talented Berkeley students included Jasper Hu, Ryan Johnson, Jacob Jossart, Pradyun Kumar, Elizabeth Lau, Danji Liu, Mohammed Zareef-Mustafa, Rishabh Singh, Sanskar Siddarth, Jerry Jia, Danielle Wong, Johnson Du and Xiaowen Yuan. Koerber says that the Discovery program enabled his team to receive research credit for their contributions, “eliminating the payment barrier for all of these awesome people.”
Keltner’s involvement in the project has been holistic: he advised on how to design the app for best user engagement and provided the content recommended to users – over 1,000 mindfulness audio tracks – which Koerber describes as “a Calm-app level of content.”
Koerber hopes to alleviate the burden of uncertainty some users may feel in identifying their emotions. “I want users to be able to open up the app when they're having a bad day and talk about it and receive something directly, without having to endlessly scroll or rely on past practices.”
Reflecting on their collaboration, Keltner said, “It's been exhilarating to work with Kai. He has led a strong team to reimagine mental health delivered digitally and to make contemplative practices more social, more nature-focused and more diverse. His work is so needed during these complex times.”
Exploring violence prediction technology
The other prong of Project AEI, involving violence prediction technology, is taking longer to come to fruition, though it was the impetus for Koerber’s study of acoustic emotional analysis.
“The summer after my freshman year was also the time of the George Floyd movement,” he said. “As a political activist and a Parkland shooting survivor, I was initially trying to push forward what I called at the time the African American Protection Act. The idea was to create a system that leveraged acoustic visualization and other phenomenological information to predict violence before it happened and save lives, particularly concerning police misconduct.”
Koerber’s ultimate vision for this technology, called Arkham, involves a body camera that would be able to predict physical violence, police misconduct or danger to both parties.
While he acknowledged many obstacles to advancing this work and “a lot of red tape,” Koerber sees Arkham as having tremendous potential. “One consultant told me that when police officers in the field face stressful situations, they always wish they had guidance from superior officers to get a clearer view or more objective view of what's happening and how they should respond,” he said. That more objective view is what Koerber hopes Arkham will provide.
“I want to pitch this as something that is not overly leaning towards protection of civilians or overly leaning towards protection of police officers but something that will benefit both parties,” Koerber added.
While Arkham is still in development, Koerber is clear about his goals for the project and how they connect with his greater sense of purpose. “I want to be seen as a young person who uses their aptitudes to make a difference in achieving positive change. Ultimately, that's what this project was about when I started during that summer when the George Floyd movement happened. It grew from exhaustion with the status quo and the troubles that my people as Black Americans have faced in this country.”
Achieving real-world impact
The Data Science Discovery program enables undergraduate students to apply their skills to real-world issues and make a discernible impact in specific research areas. For some students, this opens a new field of study or helps them land a job. Koerber’s success demonstrates that the Discovery program can also fuel an ambitious student-led startup. His Discovery project team won the Azure (Cloud Computing) Application Award for the second consecutive semester at the Discovery Showcase earlier this month, and Koerber is excited to share the Joy app with the world.
Koerber’s advocacy for youth mental health leaves him keenly aware of the importance of immediate relief during times of duress or even when navigating day-to-day struggles. “The Joy app will be a place where you can honestly say, ‘I'm having a bad day right now. I want to talk about this. I want to receive something to help me feel better right now in this moment,’” he said.
He expects to launch Koer A.I.’s Joy app this fall, and there’s currently a waitlist for those who would like to sign up for early access.
“I want this platform to be something that deeply impacts the UC Berkeley community and the city of Berkeley,” emphasized Koerber. “At the very least, I want to provide this tool that people in the Bay Area can say, ‘Wow, you know, somebody at this school created this thing. This is cool, and I like to use it.’”
This story was updated on May 26, 2022.