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Interview: Microsoft President Brad Smith

Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer at Microsoft, recently visited BCIT to deliver a keynote speech for graduating students. Last year, Microsoft partnered with BCIT to offer a new series of courses on Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), beginning with UX/UI Fundamentals and ending with an Applied VR/AR Project. Microsoft is also a founding member of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster – an initiative funded by $950 million in federal funds to help companies and post-secondary institutions advance technologies.

We couldn’t miss this opportunity to hear from a leader pick in Mixed Reality technology and ask him more about the impact of a growing computer sciences industry on schools like BCIT.

There’s no area of work life that will remain unchanged

What are the real world implications of mixed reality that you are most excited about?
Well, it’s interesting; I think it’s really changing the world of work more than anything else. I think when people were first thinking about mixed realty, they were drawn naturally to entertainment and games, and certainly virtual realty is having a bigger impact in the entertainment space. But Augmented Reality is really transforming how people work.

A couple of the examples we love to highlight are how it’s changing the way architects design things; their ability to envision things in 3D space. That one perhaps is not that surprising. But then you look at how an airline like Japan Airlines is using it to train mechanics on how to repair an engine. They used to have to take an aircraft offline so mechanics could learn by working on a real engine. Well they don’t have to do that anymore. They can use augmented reality. We see it in every area of life. We’re seeing it in people who are training in rescue scenarios; police and even people for military operations. It’s almost as if there’s no area of work life that will remain unchanged over the next decade from it.


How accessible do you want mixed reality to become in the next 5 years?
I think we should want it to be as accessible as computing is today. When you think about it, you might say the real breakthrough moment, the “a-ha” moment societally, was a couple of summers ago with Pokémon Go. Suddenly people realized every smartphone with a camera is a device that can be used for augmented reality.

We’ll probably see a range of devices. Obviously with Microsoft and the HoloLens, it’s more of a ‘full-field glasses’ scenario. But I think the world is still learning the various kinds of devices that will put augmented reality to use, certainly to the extent that we have more applications that can be used on devices like phones.

That will fan out and feed every other part of this digital transformation.

What are you most excited to see coming out of the Supercluster Initiative?
To me, the Supercluster Initiative is really quite extraordinary. I think it’s extraordinary in the way it’s brought the entire BC community together. That’s not something that you’ve really seen in other places around the world. From a broad perspective, what it’s really doing, is mobilizing every part of the economy to figure out how they can use digital technology to unleash the next wave of their own economic growth. So, whether it’s the future of mining, the future of fishing, the future of agriculture – all of these things have the potential to benefit and even be transformed from the work that is then coming out of the Supercluster.

Of course, then you take that back at its core to information technology and we see the opportunity — for Vancouver in particular — to continue to grow as a technology hub. And when it comes to what will be at the centre of the hub, I think it’s going to be the cloud, artificial intelligence and mixed reality. That will, in effect, fan out and feed every other part of this digital transformation.

Acumen Research and Consulting recently published a report saying virtual reality will be a $300 billion market in 5 years. What new positions could we see?
I think what we’ll see, perhaps more than anything else, will be centered around the creation of applications. A company like Microsoft is in something that we call the ’platforming tools layer.’ [A platform is the hardware and software that applications can operate off.] And we’ll be doing some of that work in British Columbia.

We’ll create the building blocks – and the hardware devices at times – that can be used for mixed reality. There will be many more people who will work in creating the applications that make use of technology. Some of these people will be in companies dedicated to creating that.

You already have really interesting examples of these young companies in British Columbia – whether it’s FingerFoods in the Vancouver Area or LlamaZOO in the Victoria area.

Ultimately, there will perhaps be even more people inside institutions that are creating more customized applications for their own institution’s use. It may be people at BCIT then creating a customized application for a specific course or classroom.

Finally, I think there’s going to be jobs that involve training. People are going to need ongoing training, people who use this technology for the first time are going to need to be trained. Ultimately what we’re creating is a broad ecosystem. If we think back to the evolution of the personal computer, it took almost a new army of people to train everyone who would work with this technology in those new ways, and this will be a very similar phenomenon.

We are entering a world where we’re going to ask computers to think more like humans.

What will our post-secondary students need to get to that level?
It’s a really interesting day to think about that, because here we are at convocation day at BCIT, and I think that the students graduating at BCIT in so many ways reflect the combination of skills that people will need.

Clearly we’re entering a world where more technical skills are needed — more scientific skills, in some cases, [and] more health-related skills. In effect, that sort of defines what people do with much of their day. But I don’t think that should cause us to dismiss the importance of the liberal arts.

Fundamentally, we are entering a world where we’re going to ask computers to think more like humans. We may need to know how to actually program the computers, but we need the computers to think within a broad range that we prioritize as ‘humanity.’ The future belongs to people who can bring the best of science, technology, engineering and math together with the liberal arts.

I think one of the exciting things about British Columbia – and, one of the really exciting things about a place like BCIT – is that it’s graduating more students who have that kind of broad background as they’re entering the workplace.

What courses would you like to see in the future?
I think it’s a great question. The first thing I’d say is, I’m not the leading expert. But I would say, if we step back and look at it, there is a set of four disciplines in the computing science field that keep getting more and more important to a broader range of people than was the case in the past. You go to so many institutes and universities today and you see that one of the most popular courses on campus is an entry-level course for computer science. That actually makes a huge amount of sense, given the nature of the world we now live in.

You then get into a series of applied applications of that space. What we’re seeing here today at BCIT are students graduating with real expertise in computer security. That’s a good thing. So you can think about applied dimensions of computing that get more important. I think what’s more interesting is what courses we’re going to see five years from now that either don’t yet exist or are being taken by only a small number of people.

I think this is where we’ll see more of this intersection between, call it ‘computer science’ and ‘social science’ (or ‘humanities’) when we think about what it takes to make computing work for, say, people with disabilities. There are more aspects of inclusion and what it means to make computers work for people who are blind or visually impaired, or who are deaf and hearing impaired, who suffer from intellectual disability. There are real breakthroughs in these fields. I think we’re going to see more courses that bring these disciplines together and I think those are going to become more important.


The first thing that comes to mind is the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
With the adaptive controller, what’s interesting is you first think about the disciplines that had to come together to create that; the understanding of the customer who would use it; the user scenarios; what their needs were. You could never create that solely based on an understanding of computer science and coding. You actually had to understand human needs. I think that, in many ways, is not just one of the next frontiers, but the most exciting frontiers for computer sciences.


Curious about BCIT’s Applied Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) statement of completion?

Watch Brad Smith’s Keynote speech from the 2018 June Convocation below: