University of Toronto Engineering Alumni Hall of Distinction

At an online virtual ceremony on Nov 6, 2020, I was inducted to the University of Toronto’s Engineering Alumni Hall of Distinction. “The Hall of Distinction is an assembly of extraordinary alumni, selected for membership by their peers for their lifelong accomplishments. These are graduates whose performances have ultimately defined what is most exemplary in our graduates and in our profession”. I was very humbled. They interviewed me and made a 90-second video played at the ceremony. The following is the more complete set of asked questions and my answers.

Q1. Introduce yourself, including your educational background and your current career.

I was born and raised in China in the 1960’s and 70’s. As a child I was curious and liked making things such as microphones, alarms, toys trucks and guns, and radios. I ran into plenty of minor accidents, but my parents never stopped me. Even though I made most of the parts I needed myself, buying a few transistors and capacitors wasn’t a negligible cost for my parents at the time.

My father was a very able engineer and a great teacher. He taught me most of the math and physics that weren’t properly taught in the schools paralyzed by the“cultural revolution” at the time. So with his help in 1977 when Deng Xiaoping reopened the universities I was able to pass the national university entrance examination, along with a lucky few

percent from the 10 years of backlog of students. Most of my 1977 classmates were many years older, some twice as old. Going to universities was unimaginable just a year earlier. So everyone took the precious opportunity seriously. By the end of the college education, I was once again the lucky few percent of undergraduates who were admitted to graduate school for more advanced training. After receiving a master’s degree which was still very rare in China in the early 1980’s, I started a university research and teaching career at the same university (Xidian). I actually run into students I taught back then today in Silicon valley, who remember fondly the classes I taught them. I was voted the best lecturer by the students in the first year of my teaching.

After a few years of teaching and research in China I felt the urge to get to the next level of world-class research. That led me to the University of Toronto where I received my doctoral training from 1989 to 1995.

Currently, I am a Principal Scientist at Google, where I work on the invention, design, research, and production of user interfaces, particularly for modern smartphones. We also publish academic papers on the models and principles foundational to these interaction methods.

Q2. Describe how you got to where you are today in your career.

I got to where I am today through the opportunities created by my mentors and mentees, teachers and students, collaborators and colleagues, technical communities (such as HCI) and institutions (IBM Research, Google). The University of Toronto played a pivotal role in launching my research and innovation career. It is truly a place where great minds meet. It has great people - professors, staff, and students from all around the world. It is at the heart of a vibrant, multicultural, and cosmopolitan city. The both bold and humble Canadian spirit makes a profound impact on its graduates - I am no exception.

Q3. How did your engineering education benefit you in your career?

I work on technological inventions. Great ideas require a great deal of creativity, but for these ideas to become reality, you need to apply principled (meaning science, logic, math or data-based) problem solving that is the core of great engineering education. The systematic, scientific or mathematical/statistical approach to formulate and solve problems I took to heart at U of T, guides my work every day.

Q4. What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most grateful for the many opportunities I have had. For example, the professors and fellow graduate students I learned from at U of T led me to develop my own original insights. For another example, after I joined IBM Research my colleagues and I realized that mobile devices would come to dominate the way people communicate and interact with information. But unlike electronics that had been scaled down in size year after year, no one knew how to scale down a typewriter onto a phone that could still be any good. Here I brought together collaborators and ideas to a journey of exploration, with many iterations published in the research literature. In the end, I was very fortunate to put together several key insights, including the information regularities in written language, and a set of human factors principles in memory, learning, and motor skills - the stuff I learned in Toronto, to form the hypothesis of “shape writing”, that is to use a quick stroke that roughly trace out each word shape on the on-screen keyboard to enter text. Today such gesture typing methods are practically on all smartphones.

Q5. What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career?

Pursuing innovation is always challenging. It requires pursuing the right idea at the right time and right place, with great people. Chinese call this 天时地利人和。Getting gesture typing into adoption was one huge and lasting challenge. It took 10+ years from the first conception of the key ideas (2000-2001), which themselves have partial roots in the minds and writings of many previous researchers and innovators, to the still expanding worldwide adoption of swipe typing capabilities in major mobile operating systems (Android in 2013, iOS in 2019). I thought of “This is it!” at each of the following inflection points I was deeply involved in, but only to realize still more research, innovation and engineering were ahead: the first research prototypes my very able doctoral student Per Ola Kristensson built (2001-2002), the first experiments and research papers we published (2003, 2004), the first test trial released from IBM AlphaWroks (2004) which were reviewed as “Text entry epiphany” and “The third way of writing” (San Jose Mercury News 2004), the first commercial-scale iOS app store release produced by the start-up company ShapeWriter Inc (2007) I co-founded, and the first version produced by some of my smart engineering and research colleagues at Google (2013).

In fact, some of the original vision of shape writing is still to be realized. Gesturing typing is easy to get started because most users are familiar with the Qwerty keyboard, so it gets a free lift from the user's prior learning. But the Qwerty layout is also particularly poor at defining the word shapes in clear ways - many word shapes overlap with each other. My colleagues and I are still working hard to computationally design new layouts and exploring ways for people to quickly learn a better layout. The ever more compute power on mobile devices and more advanced machine learning models are also getting text input into a new level of ease and efficiency.

Q6. If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would say/advice would you give?

If I could go back in time and talk to myself as a child, I would say “trust your grandma”. My grandma believed she could read the future of a child from their face. From my face, she saw a future in which I would be assisted by 贵人 or noblemen in my life. She was right, I have met so many noblemen like Prof. Paul Milgram, Prof. Bill Buxton, and Prof. John Senders. They opened the doors to the world of groundbreaking research and innovation for me. From them I learned not only science and engineering but also creativity, confidence, humility and decency.

Q7. How did you feel when you found out you were selected for this award?

I was humbled, considering the quality, history, and size of U of T. Engineering. There are so many others who deserve to be recognized. I also felt a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities U of T had created for my career.

Q8. What was your favourite Skule memory?

There are so many wonderful memories. Getting immersed in books and literature in the many wonderful libraries at U of T, losing a sense of time and place, stands out to me. I also remember when I first got to U of T my fellow graduate students who did their undergrad at “Skule” explaining to me what humor in it.

Q9. What are your plans for the future?

I want to remind myself that as technology innovators we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to invent and apply technology for the betterment of the world. I also hope to do more in creating opportunities for the next generation scientists, designers, and engineers.

Q10. Why is it important to stay connected to your Alma Mater. Why do you benefit both personally and professionally to do so?

I continue to draw strength from my Toronto roots. My advisors, professors, and fellow graduate students are among my dearest friends today.

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© 2018 by Shumin Zhai

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