A Shelburne Teen Tackles Straws, Artificial Intelligence and College Applications | Tech | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Shelburne Teen Tackles Straws, Artificial Intelligence and College Applications


Published August 1, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 1, 2018 at 10:35 a.m.

Milo Cress - SARA TABIN
  • Sara Tabin
  • Milo Cress

Seventeen-year-old Milo Cress of Shelburne has spent his summer fielding interview requests from National Public Radio and the New York Times for his role in inspiring a worldwide movement against plastic straws when he was just 9 years old.

As a boy, Cress had noticed that many restaurants automatically gave diners straws with their drinks. Some patrons didn't even use the straws, which seemed like a waste to Cress. He began asking local businesses to stop automatically providing straws with drinks. Tiny Thai Restaurant in Winooski was one that agreed to ask customers first.

Cress is adept at answering reporters' questions, and he's had plenty of practice. At age 7, he spoke confidently to the Bennington Banner after his solar-powered popcorn maker stole the show at a Live Green fair. At 10, Cress was eloquent and resolute when he discussed the science of plastic decomposition on CNN.

His Be Straw Free campaign has helped lead to changes around the globe. The cities of Burlington, Denver and faraway Manly, Australia, have formally adopted his "offer-first" policy as a recommended best practice for restaurants. The movement gained traction this year as chains such as Starbucks promised to end use of plastic straws and major cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, sought to ban them. Cress has never agitated for an outright ban on straws and said he thinks it's more powerful if people make their own choices about whether to use them.

He drew a national spotlight this summer when it was discovered that a widely cited statistic for the number of straws Americans use daily — 500 million — originated with 9-year-old Cress. Cress had come up with the figure by calling straw manufacturers and asking them for market estimates.

Now a rising senior at Champlain Valley Union High School, Cress is still an inventive tech enthusiast. Among his new interests: artificial intelligence systems, or AI. He enjoys studying math, physics and computer programming, as well as English. He's spending his free time this summer exploring local hiking and biking trails, playing ultimate Frisbee and following the Red Sox. When he has time to watch TV, he enjoys "The Big Bang Theory." His favorite drink is cranberry-lime seltzer — hold the straw.

Polite and soft-spoken, Cress greeted a Seven Days reporter with a firm handshake at the apartment on Henry Street where he lives with his mother, Odale, an artist and graduate student.

Cress smiled when asked how he balances schoolwork with straw activism, which includes giving speeches at schools and businesses.

"Sometimes it's sort of rough, but it's also an awesome excuse to get out of school," Cress said with a chuckle.

He stands by his 500 million-a-day estimate, despite controversy over the number's accuracy. This year the New York Times obtained straw-use estimates of 170 million to 390 million per day by various market research firms. Cress said it is possible the number has since changed, but that any unnecessary straw use is too much.

After years of campaigning, he isn't surprised by the recent traction, he said. He still sends emails and makes calls to businesses and cities, and he hopes to eventually "work himself out of a job."

His mother said she is happy that Milo isn't afraid to tackle big problems.

"I'm proud that he looks at situations and tries to think not only How could this be different? but How can I play a part in making that different?" she said. "I think that that's remarkable, really."

Classmate Bay Foley-Cox befriended Cress at the start of their sophomore year.

"I saw on his Instagram he had posted a picture of a fractal, a visualization of the Mandelbrot set," Foley-Cox said, referring to a complex math-based shape. He thought it was cool and made his own. "The first day of school, I saw him and I said, 'Hey, Milo, look, I wrote this code to visualize this fractal.' He said, 'Oh, cool' and actually convinced me to drop Intro to Art and take Computer Programing with him."

The two are on CVU's Scholars' Bowl team and spend time together coding and playing video games. Fame has not gone to Cress' head, according to Foley-Cox, who described him as curious, low-key and universally liked.

"There's always a new artificial intelligence thing or a cool application of a technology he's excited about," said Foley-Cox. "Just today he was texting me about some future of a programming language he thought was interesting."

Cress' interest in AI led to a new role: He serves on the state's Artificial Intelligence Task Force. Rep. Brian Cina (P-Burlington) sponsored the bill that created the advisory group during the 2017 legislative session.

After reading about the bill, Cress emailed Cina to learn more. Cress wound up promoting the bill with Cina on Vermont Public Radio. He also testified before the House Energy and Technology Committee. He discussed AI's potential as a tool for education but warned that expanded use could prove detrimental to society without proper planning.

Lawmakers added a student position to the group, and Gov. Phil Scott appointed Cress to the seat last week.

Cress, who has developed his own AI program to encrypt data, said he wants to help Vermont stay ahead of the curve when it comes to AI policies. He cited cellphones as an example of technology outpacing policy.

"A lot of laws for cellphone use — for example, texting while driving — were made after the fact in response to a bunch of tragedies where people died because of their phone use," he said. "What I hope is that AI technologies can be implemented and also that the regulations that surround them can be implemented before they get into mainstream."

The task force will meet for the first time by October 1 and is expected to deliver an initial report to the governor by mid-February.

Cress is thinking about his own future, too. Between Frisbee games and hikes, he's starting to prepare his college applications. Not surprisingly, he plans to study science and artificial intelligence.

Correction, August 1, 2018: A previous version of this story misidentified Bay Foley-Cox.