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Interview: Dr. Babak Parviz on Society and Technology

October 24, 2016

Dr. Babak Parviz. Photo credit: Sean Smith, NASA

Dr. Babak Parviz. Photo credit: Sean Smith, NASA

UW EE had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Babak Parviz. In addition to his appointment as an affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington Department of Electrical Engineering, Dr. Parviz is also a vice-president at Amazon. Before Amazon, he led the development of Google Glass while at the search giant. He has also excelled the research for “smart” contact lenses – ones that could monitor glucose levels. Dr. Parviz continually works at the intersection of society and technology for large-scale impact.

What does societal impact mean when developing technology?

At Amazon, we like to articulate very clearly how we can make the life better for an individual. As we evaluate impact for a single individual, we determine how we can scale the impact to affect many more people. We ask – how can this aggregate to a larger population. Often, it is not enough to account for broad impact on society without looking at an individual, at a single person’s experience.

Why is it important?

It would be difficult to argue otherwise. The impact has to be clear to a group of people. For example, if it’s clear to a group of engineers that their work can have an impact on an environment, the group will rally around the concept and make it happen. If it’s not as obvious, it’s usually more difficult to inspire a group into action.

What is one of the first things you worked on where you said – “wow, this has the potential to change lives?”

While I was completing my postdoctoral research fellowship in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, I worked on a biosensor that was meant to operate in resource-poor settings. As the device began to take shape and we could see growing success in our tests, I realized that our work could have real impact and change lives.

Why is EE at the UW a good place to foster this type of societal impact?

Amazon is very committed to the Pacific Northwest and growing a strong, healthy ecosystem. Additionally, the University of Washington is a great university, and the Department of Electrical Engineering is an incredibly strong department. By supporting EE at the UW, we are investing in cutting-edge, societally focused research. UW EE touches many things at the device level and at the systems level, which has a very sizable impact on the society. The department works on so many different things – from mastering DNA storage to building medical biosensors. The work also crosses many disciplines; the development of power grids is an example. UW EE touches people and touches society, and I am excited to be a part of it.