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Creating a future for all: An interview with Saqib Shaikh, the force behind Seeing AI

Saqib Shaikh lost his sight at the age of seven, fell in love with computers as a schoolboy in Britain and grew up to become a top software engineer with an inspirational mission.

Standing at the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and inclusive design, he believes we can create intelligent machines to empower millions of people around the world with disabilities to achieve more and live enhanced lives. The knowledge gained from targeting and solving the problems of those with special needs, he says, can only drive technological innovation that benefits everyone across society.

Saqib has had a lifelong relationship with advancing digital technology. At a school for children who are blind or with low vision, he learned self-reliance and developed a burning sense of curiosity. As a 10-year-old, he was given a rudimentary talking PC, and that led him to learn how to program. His intellectual romance with computer science blossomed at university where he doggedly overcame all sorts of day-to-day challenges on campus to graduate top his class with a master’s degree in AI.

A dozen or so years ago, Saqib joined Microsoft and quickly proved his prowess as an engineer by helping to create products, services, and apps that many of us use every day, like Bing and Cortana.

His quest nowadays is to create greater accessibility and inclusion – to level the playing field for everyone. As the driving force behind Microsoft’s Seeing AI project, he is exploring how AI can enable people who are blind or with low vision to achieve more with freedom and confidence.

His team launched the Seeing AI app in 2017, giving those who cannot see a new way to understand the world through the cameras on their smartphones. Since then, it has helped customers with more than 10 million tasks. A user merely points his or her phone, and the app vocally says what it sees. It might be in a room, on a street, in a mall, or an office – customers are using the app in all sorts of situations. With facial-recognition technology, the app can name friends and acquaintances, describe physical appearances of people and even predict their moods.  It can read printed text in books, newspapers, menus, and signs aloud. It can even identify banknotes.

Saqib currently works and lives in London. We caught up with him on a recent visit to Singapore where he told audiences about how technology has helped him realize his potential and how it promises to improve the lives of everyone – and not just those disabilities.

“There are a lot of problems. But for every problem, there is a solution,” he says.

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