In March, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stood on a stage at the Build 2016 conference, in front of an audience of hundreds – with many more watching online – and introduced Seeing AI, a research project that aims to help the visually impaired or blind better navigate the world around them. The Seeing AI research prototype uses computer vision, image and speech recognition, natural language processing and machine learning to attempt to describe a person’s surroundings, read text, answer questions, and even identify emotions on people’s faces.
The announcement was a great moment for the teams of Microsoft developers and others who helped create the prototype. Among them was a group you might not expect: College students who served as Microsoft interns in Vancouver, British Columbia. These bright young people who attend school in Canada played a surprising role in the development of this innovative idea as part of their Microsoft experience.
“It felt great,” says Concordia University senior Elias Haroun, about seeing Nadella on stage introducing Seeing AI. “I had become so attached to this project, and worked hard to help bring it to life. Seeing the Microsoft CEO talk about it was incredible.”
Technology professionals who work at Microsoft’s British Columbia offices, which significantly expanded today with the opening of the Microsoft Canada Excellence Centre (MCEC), are especially proud of The Garage Internship Program, which includes 50 students from Canadian universities each year. Students are paid for their time, spending 16 weeks building apps for Microsoft’s newest and most exciting platforms and devices.
Seeing AI was initially created at Microsoft One Week, a three-day worldwide employee hackathon, in which thousands of employees work on projects that are meaningful to them. It was later brought to the MCEC, where interns were given the chance to help build out the prototype. That included helping servers communicate with Microsoft Cognitive Services, a critical piece of the research project that, for example, reads words aloud into an earpiece and also explains images or surroundings.
Shweta Sharma, a senior at McMaster University in Ontario, won’t soon forget her internship experience at Microsoft. “I was inspired by Saqib Shaikh, the Microsoft software developer, blind from an early age, who was one of our sponsors for Seeing AI,” she says. “Having an immense amount of responsibility and ownership over our project is not something you normally experience in an internship, and made the experience especially valuable.”
Also valuable, according to University of British Columbia junior Irene Chen, was the chance to collaborate with Microsoft employees in distant corners of the world.
“We worked with teams in Japan, Serbia and London, among others,” she says. Irene was responsible for the language understanding aspects of Seeing AI. “I watched it grow from having zero vocabulary to being able to comprehend simple questions,” she explains.
One of the reasons Microsoft expanded in British Columbia is that Vancouver – and Canada overall – is a hotbed for technological innovation.
“Vancouver is becoming a global center for technology, and we’re committed to helping grow Canada’s innovation economy,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith.
These bright, young students are perhaps the best example of the entrepreneurial, creative spirit of the region. De Martin, the MCEC director, is excited about what the future holds. “We look forward to seeing what the current group of interns can do, and to contributing to their development, and to the betterment of Canada as a whole,” he says.
For more information about Microsoft’s Garage Intern program in Vancouver, and to apply, visit https://mcec.microsoft.ca/internships/.