Life lessons from artificial intelligence: What Microsoft’s AI chief wants computer science grads to know about the future


Harry Shum: Thank you, professor, for inviting me to offer my thoughts to this amazing group of people. What a privilege to celebrate with you and your family and friends on this special day as you head out into the world with a hard-earned, prestigious degree in computer science and engineering from UW. Congratulations to the class of 2018.

I don’t think there’s ever been a more extraordinary time to be in the field of computing, and I can say this with a lot of gray hair and the experience of more than 30 years in the field. I grew up in China in the 60s, during a time of monumental technological advancements, mainly space, satellites, supersonic jets. Computers were just coming up, and they were at the heart of so much progress. Most people in China at that time, including my dad, a high school math teacher, hadn’t seen a computer. But they had heard about computers would be big, potentially world changing.

My dad encouraged me to pursue my studies in this totally new field and I was fortunate to come to the States to continue my studies. My generation of graduates were fascinated by AI, developing areas like computer vision, speech recognition and robotics. When I graduated with my Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon in the 90s, however, AI students couldn’t find good jobs, because AI was not yet working.

But now, if you can train 5 layers of neural net, you can ask for at least 6 figures. And if you can design and train 50 layers of deep neural net, you can demand 7 figures. Almost as much as a rookie NFL quarterback.

So today with the convergence of big data, massive computing power and advanced machine learning, you as CS graduates have the opportunity to speed innovation and to transform our world for the better, perhaps more than any other profession. As an adjunct CS professor myself, I thought about giving a technical talk today about quantum computing with Marianas formula, AI with deep learning, and mixed reality with HDR. Sounds good?

But since you know about all of these areas already, thanks to your great UW education, instead I thought I’d offer some life lessons from each of those areas. First, lessons from quantum computing.

At Microsoft, we have been investing big in quantum for nearly 15 years. We have some of the greatest minds globally pioneering an approach called topological computing. Despite our efforts, we have yet to produce our first topological qubit, but I have no doubt it will happen. Quantum has a lot to teach us beyond physics.

The biggest life lesson for me is about embracing uncertainty, as you follow an unknown paths of exploration and discovery. Often reporters ask me, “What can quantum computing do?” My answer: I don’t know. You may wonder, “But Harry how did you not know? You have been spending hundreds of millions.”

Imagine asking a CS professor in 1980 what a smartphone could do for society. Even the best minds of their time couldn’t predict the road ahead. The great Dr. Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943 famously said, “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.”

Nobody really knows what the future holds. So you have to be open and adapt your mindset to take advantage of the unknown and the unexpected. Especially when you play the long game in areas like quantum.

Second, lessons from AI. When it comes to AI, many are concerned about the job loss or robots taking over. My concern is AI bias. We have to build AI systems that hear all voices and recognize all faces, equally well across our diverse world, to create the best future for everyone. But what AI has mirrored back to us from data sets and models is how we as a society are biased ourselves.

So how do we code programs that don’t reflect and amplify our thoughts? That’s a big problem that technology alone can’t solve. It starts with us people: how we widen our own perspectives and appreciate our differences. Sir Isaac Newton said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

As someone who has grown up in two countries and led global organizations, I have seen first hand how diverse teams drive the best outcomes. Let me give you an example. Microsoft Research. Our first lab was started in Redmond, just across the lake.

But we went on to build 7 more labs around the world, from Cambridge, U.K., to Beijing, China, to Bangalore, India to bring together the brightest minds far and wide. We have been able to solve some of those tough computer science problems because of our international makeup and differing points of view.

It’s this kind of collaborative and diverse approach that the world needs to guide AI’s future development. I encourage all of you to pursue an assignment that allows you to experience a different culture and perspective. Be open-minded. Travel to faraway places. Learn from others. Your thinking will be better as a result. You will build better products for everyone.

Third and lastly, lessons from mixed reality. Many of you may have used the Hololens in your vision and graphics class at UW. Hololens is one of my favorite products, because it represents what I believe is the multidisciplinary approach that is the future of computer science, spanning hardware, software, silicon, optics, vision, graphics and so much more. But the life lesson of Hololens goes far beyond technology. The tech line for Hololens sums it up: when you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see.

May you be inspired to see life differently, to pursue something new. May you be inspired to follow your dreams to places unknown. May you be inspired to explore a possibility you think impossible. We are only limited by our imaginations.

I look forward to seeing the contributions that you will bring into our world. Thank you very much.

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