In college, it pays to know the right people -- especially the ones who can lead you to free food.
So imagine a friend whose sole purpose is to scour online campus event notices day and night to give you a ready cheat sheet of free campus eats, from steak to pizza to nachos, each ranked 1 to 10 based on quality, quantity and how awkward it would be to show up unannounced at a gathering and start grazing.
You now have the idea behind "Food-bot," a website for starving college students.
It was created by Greg Woloschyn, 23, who last spring received a bachelor's degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.
What began as a way for Mr. Woloschyn and his undergraduate buddies to stretch their food budgets has evolved into a fledgling, free online service used at Stanford and Duke universities and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as Carnegie Mellon.
Think of it as one hungry young man's attempt at applied research, or perhaps what can happen when somebody really bright has some time on his hands.
His website -- food-bot.com -- doesn't waste words explaining its noble mission.
"College is expensive," it reads. "Don't waste money on things like food."
The service started with a gmail account that Mr. Woloschyn created for himself and his friends during his senior year. It acted like a spam filter, capturing and deleting any electronic message that did not include a word suggesting food.
It worked fine, for what it was. But Mr. Woloschyn wanted a more advanced food scavenger, so he began applying concepts learned in an artificial intelligence course team taught by Ziv Bar-Joseph, an associate professor of machine learning and computational biology, and Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor of robotics.
The result was Food-bot.
Adorned with an image of a robot noshing on pizza, the site includes a monthly calendar specific to individual campuses. Groups looking for publicity can submit a notice for placement on the calendar, but more often the food is sniffed out by Food-bot as it scans websites and the thousands of electronic mailing lists to which Mr. Woloschyn subscribes.
Is Duke's career center planning an event with free appetizers?
Rest easy. Odds are, Food-bot will be all over it.
If a group on Stanford's campus decides to serve a free dinner to accompany a screening of the Belgian film "Le Huitieme Jour," Food-bot won't miss a morsel.
The site scans notices using a database of words, each assigned a numeric value based on their relation to food.
"It will do a computation of all the words to see how likely it is that the event is a free food event," Mr. Woloschyn said.
If Food-bot thinks it has struck pay dirt, Mr Woloschyn will get an email. "I don't do anything. I just sit there," he said.
All he has to do is type in a confirmation, and the event is automatically added to Food-bot. Those who subscribe to Food-bot will get an email about the event.
Food-bot even ranks the likely time commitment involved in showing up at each event.
Make no mistake, not all foods are created equal in the eyes of Food-bot, thanks to a ranking system created by Mr. Woloschyn.
"I can tell you right now, steak is a 10 out of 10. Stir fry, Jimmy John's -- those are all 10s. Seafood is a 10. Chipotle is a 10," he said. On the other hand, pizza is pretty routine fare and rates only a three.
Vegetarians beware: Meatless fare gets even less respect from Food-bot. "It's a one," Mr. Woloschyn said.
Food-bot is not infallible.
In fact, it recently scanned a meeting notice at Berkeley and mistook the words, "Please feel free to bring a bag lunch," for notice of a free event.
In another case, it confused the words "ducked in the bushes" for an event serving complimentary duck.
But Food-bot did correctly capture the words "delicious free food" from a reception notice posted online at Carnegie Mellon Wednesday announcing that Mr. Woloschyn would receive the school's "Smiley Award," named for the Smiley emoticon, :-), created at Carnegie Mellon in 1982.
The Smiley Award for technology innovation includes a $500 prize and is given by the university's computer science department and Yahoo!
Mr. Bar-Joseph said the computational challenge behind the site his former student created was "how to turn unstructured data into structured data." It's a research area with applications in fields like medicine, where vast amounts of unwieldy patient data are more useful if they can be instantly categorized and searched.
Mr. Bar-Joseph, 39, said he's gratified that concepts taught in his class are being applied in real life, but after thinking a bit more about Food-bot, he added, "At my age, maybe I should use it as a way of avoiding free food events."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.