Meet Saqib Shaikh, Tech Leader of Microsoft’s Seeing AI

Saqib Shaikh has been a software engineer with Microsoft since 2006 and the Tech Lead for the Seeing AI Project in AI Research since 2015.  This internationally lauded project was publicly launched by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in 2016.  Saqib’s work focuses at the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Inclusive Design, asking “How can we create intelligent machines that enable us all to do more?”

QPlease tell us about how you became interested in working in computer science, and what has kept you interested over the course of your very successful career at Microsoft?

A:  My interest in computers started at a young age – I became blind at the age of 7, and along with lessons on key skills like reading Braille, I also started learning to touch-type. I was hooked by the ability to once again write things that my family and others could read.

As a teenager I learned to program, and enjoyed the ability to think up new ideas and create something that others could use.  As I went on to study Computer Science at university, and then do a MSc in Artificial Intelligence, it became apparent to me that technology had the ability to greatly improve peoples’ lives, and that has been a guiding principle throughout my career.

 

QHow have technology tools helped you work around your lack of sight and where do you see such tools working in the next few years?

A:  For me, technology has been essential for leveling the playing field. Software such as screen readers allow someone who is blind to operate a computer/phone, and produce work which is indistinguishable from someone who was sighted.

Artificial Intelligence is opening up new opportunities for computers to understand information, and to understand peoples’ needs. I am optimistic that this will lead to even more accessible solutions where machines can fill the in the gaps between what someone is capable of, and what the environment allows them to do.

 

Q:  Are you involved with technology solutions that involve cyber enhancement of human biological processes such as computer/brain interfaces?  Do you see risks as well as rewards in such processes, and have a perspective on how computer scientists and other researchers can appropriately manage such risks?

A:  This is not an area I have any specific experience in. More generally, however, it is clear that technology, like any tool, can be used for both good and bad purposes. Brain-computer interfaces are very exciting for people with disabilities, such as the ability to control a prosthetic limb. Equally, there are certainly harms (intentional and accidental) which can arise.  It’s important that engineers/scientists consider these risks – my colleagues have published a set of Responsible AI Principles. I’d also recommend Brad Smith’s book, Tools and Weapons.

 

Q:  You are a leader at Microsoft in the development of innovative tools like Seeing AI to allow people with disabilities make the most of their lives.  And you are a practicing Muslim.  Have your faith beliefs played a role in your choice of career objectives and career path?  How so?

A:  Yes, my faith, and its guiding principles, are key to all aspects of my life, at work and at home.

Throughout my career, finding ways to help others through technology has been an explicit goal of mine, but early on that was something I had to fit in on top of my day job. I recall many dinners discussing different project ideas with friends. But in 2015 I went on a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Umrah). That was a time for deep reflection, and a key focus for me then was to seek guidance on how to have a more purpose-driven career, and how to make helping others an integral part of my job.

I had already been tinkering with an AI side project to help people who were blind. But six months after going on Umrah, the project took a new turn as I met other like-minded engineers in Silicon Valley who were interested in this area. Within the year, we had a meeting with the head of research, and my manager let me work full-time on the project. Within 18 months I was on stage with Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella!

Since then, I have been blessed with many opportunities that I could never have imagined, from travelling the world, presenting to heads of state, speaking in some incredible venues, and most importantly – leading a team to carry on the Seeing AI project.

These are not opportunities that I specifically planned, or strategized – instead, as a Muslim I believe that as long as we each start every action with sincere intentions, seek excellence in our work, and always try to do the right thing, even when it’s not the easy path, we will be rewarded down the road.

I feel truly blessed to have found my life’s work, and believe that as long as I keep these principles front and center, who knows what’s next!

Thanks so much, Saqib.  Your work and that of your colleagues on Seeing AI is a real inspiration for the positive potential in AI-powered technology!

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