Chance encounter becomes a career of innovation for alumnus Steven Bathiche
June 7, 2019
It takes a certain type of visionary to build a remote-control car steered by a cockroach. That was Steven Bathiche in 1997 as a senior undergraduate electrical engineering student at Virginia Tech.
These days, the only bugs Bathiche works with would be of the computer variety. As a technical fellow at Microsoft, Bathiche is one of the minds behind some of Microsoft’s most celebrated technologies, like the ubiquitous Microsoft Surface lineup, a suite of computers with touch-screen interfaces.
Fresh off a New York City launch event for yet another of his projects — the Surface Hub 2 — Bathiche stopped by Virginia Tech in spring to give a lecture as part of the Virginia Tech Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Bradley Distinguished Lecture series.
It was his first time back on campus since graduating 22 years ago. One of his first stops on arrival was a particularly unremarkable bulletin board in Whittemore Hall.
“From that bulletin board on, my life took quite a different turn,” Bathiche said, in an interview the morning before his talk. In 1994 at that bulletin board, he walked past a flyer for a scholarship funded by Microsoft — the beginning of it all.
“Had I not walked by there that day, or that flyer wasn’t up, I probably wouldn’t have applied, and I probably wouldn’t have run across it, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship,” he trailed off.
Left unspoken are the other wouldn’t haves: he wouldn’t have earned an internship with the burgeoning company back in the mid-90s. He wouldn’t have later influenced founder Bill Gates to transform Microsoft from a software company to its now dominant position in the hardware arena. And he wouldn’t have been named one of 20 living Microsoft Technical Fellows — an honor reserved for only 40 total employees in company history.
What Bathiche won’t admit is how prepared he was for this path from an early age. His unyielding humility pins his success on a chance encounter with a flyer.
By the time he arrived at Virginia Tech, Bathiche was already armed with an intense curiosity in bio-mimicking robotics. When he decided he wanted to build a swarm of ant-like robots that follow the scent of pheromones, his devotion to inventing brought him to the expertise of a professor in the Department of Chemistry within the College of Science, Raymond Dessy.
“It actually turned out to be harder than I thought,” Bathiche said, laughing. But the project led to another — the cockroach car that, after relentless experimentation and a realization that moths move faster, would become known as the Mothmobile.
More importantly, it was the start of a mentorship. Bathiche still cites the influence of the now-professor-emeritus for cultivating an appetite for learning more than engineering alone.
“One of the things he taught me was to essentially make myself stand out and unique by combining a unique set of skills, and pulling from really different subject matters,” Bathiche said. “And I mean different.”
Bathiche crammed a majority of his electrical engineering curriculum into three years, leaving his final year open for pass/fail courses in anything that interested him: psychology, animal physiology, biology — subjects that didn’t have an immediate relevance for his engineering degree. Ultimately, the topics that most fascinated him were always “about interfacing man and machine,” Bathiche said. “That is, in the end, what I've been working on for the past 22 years.”
It was one of the underlying messages of his on-campus lecture (which Dessy attended as a member of the audience): “Multi-disciplinary thinking and fusion of different disciplines gives you a diversity of thought and gives you a greater holistic viewpoint,” Bathiche explained.
Fitting for a room packed full of young, eager engineers in Goodwin Hall. They’ll soon enter a computing landscape changing rapidly with the rising tide of machine learning and artificial intelligence. These tools can be harnessed in ways only limited by imagination — where broadness of knowledge reigns supreme.
“[Machine learning] is going to have tremendous impact on our society, on our culture, on technology, and how we use information,” he said. “Some things that you can imagine, some things you cannot.”
This Virginia Tech alumnus is driving some of those possibilities. During his talk, Bathiche previewed impressive technology created by the team he leads at Microsoft in the Applied Sciences Group. One of the most compelling — the Magic Window — will one day allow users from any corner of the globe to meet virtually, brought together by a massive whiteboard-like screen and helpful features like real-time translations.
For Bathiche and his group at Microsoft, developing new technology is not about anticipating human needs of the future, because, Bathiche said, they never change. For all of human history, the need to communicate, to connect, to be entertained, to listen to music, to barter — they’ve always existed.
“Technology doesn’t change the fundamental needs of people,” Bathiche said. “It changes how people meet those needs.”
Therein lies Bathiche’s speciality. Since his days working with the Mothmobile, Bathiche has been obsessed with the idea of human-machine interfaces and how machines fulfill human needs. The Mothmobile, of course, was never about giving a cockroach or a moth a car. The insight gained from the experimental design was intended to aid in the development of a wheelchair that could be controlled more easily by people with handicaps.
On a higher level, Bathiche recognizes the end result of new technology is increased productivity. But clearing the hurdles of human needs frees up more time for what’s most important.
“People need purpose, to strive towards a dream, have an impact, you know, have meaning to who they are and what they do,” Bathiche said. “In the end, I think people just want to just hang out with their friends and be happy.”
So the cycle of innovation continues. As a society, Bathiche said, “we invent new tools. And we take those new tools, and we invent newer tools. And we continue on and on and on. We essentially build on the shoulders of giants.”
“Our biggest fallacy has always been, ‘We're done,’” Bathiche said.
— Written by Erica Corder