STORY: Alum Creating Microsoft Assistive Tech for Users with Visual Impairments

May 11, 2023 

Emma Pan ’21 is leveraging her Olin degree to create ethical, impactful technology.

In her role as a software engineer for Microsoft, Emma Pan ’21 is developing assistive technology with the Seeing AI team. Her career arc with the global company started at Olin—first when she was brought on for a summer as a software development engineer intern, and then as she completed her SCOPE (Senior Capstone Program in Engineering).

“Through my SCOPE project, I interviewed people with visual impairments about their user experience on the web, as well as employees at Microsoft about the technology they were developing,” says Pan. “We were trying to find ways that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning could improve web accessibility in impactful ways, which was especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Emma Pan'21

Image of Emma Pan'21 in the Collaborative Design Classroom.

After graduation, Pan first completed a Coding it Forward’s Civic Digital Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services before accepting a full-time job offer at Microsoft.

“My first team at Microsoft was focused on the backend security of cloud computing,” says Pan. “I enjoyed the work, but I didn’t feel very passionate about it, in part because I didn’t have any interaction with users.” Pan decided to reach out to the manager of the Seeing AI team—who she had interviewed as part of her SCOPE project—to see if he had any openings. Lucky for Pan, the team was growing and she was brought on board.

Seeing AI is an assistive app for the blind that uses AI and augmented reality to help narrate things about the physical world,” says Pan. “We’re relatively small—only 12 people—and we’re creating an app that’s used by hundreds of thousands of people with different abilities. It’s exciting to know that we’re helping so many people.”

Pan works on both software engineering and some of the user interviews that her SCOPE project helped her prepare for. She’s also engaged in research on what’s new and interesting in the assistive technology and AI fields to make sure her team stays on top of opportunities and user needs

In addition to Pan’s focus on computing while at Olin, she also “spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to do engineering with impact.” She tried different ways to include social impact in the work she was doing, such as co-founding Olin’s student-run public interest technology (PIT) organization (now called PInT). She also took an Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE) course in which she worked on a multiyear project with a mission to abolish the carceral system in Massachusetts.

Pan is still very much dedicated to examining the ethics of technology; she was recently accepted into the prestigious Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE) program. Through this fellowship, she will spend a week each in Germany and in Poland studying technology ethics through the lens of the Holocaust.

“My college advisor at Olin sent me the email about the FASPE program, and I am so excited to have been accepted,” says Pan. "I’m interested in learning more about the positions, assumptions, and decisions of people who created technology that enabled harm to be inflicted at mass scale. What societal structures, events, and cultural norms were the tinder for the Holocaust's flames? The work we’ll be doing will be really revealing about the choices people have made through history, but it’s also relevant today. I hope that considering the impact of new advances in technology can help us be more aware of existing and potential harm this time around.”

With this new knowledge, Pan hopes to come back to her Seeing AI team at Microsoft with ideas about the technology they’re using and whether there are any ethical considerations that they haven’t yet begun to explore.