Tech Overlook

Elite football veteran takes what he learned on the field to a new game

On his first day at Microsoft, Phillip was taken to lunch by his manager. Bussing his table after the meal, he approached three bins labeled compost, recycle, and trash. He’d never been exposed to compost, much less this kind of container array for waste.

Phillip: “This is just for food? I’m going to need a second.”

Manager: “No worries, everyone has a difficult time sorting their waste.”

This got some sprockets spinning in Phillip’s head.

Phillip also began seeing signs for Microsoft’s 2018 Hackathon, held in July. The company-wide event encourages employees to work on new ideas they have to change the world. Phillip was one of more than 23,500 global participants that year. Phillip had an idea for an artificial intelligence solution to help people sort their waste. The project uses a camera to recognize waste items and cue the bearer, likely with an LED light, as to which bin each piece belongs.

A close-up photo of a man holding a Rubik's cubeOthers who have attacked the problem have typically focused on automating the process. But it was important to Phillip to include an educational aspect—in essence, teaching a machine to teach humans how to sort waste.

Two Rubik’s Cubes sit on Phillip’s desk at Microsoft. One is the traditional shape, and the other is shaped kind of like the Death Star in “Star Wars.” A blueprint of the first one—the original cube—hangs on his wall. He has solved the rotating brain teasers so many times since middle school that they now offer a kind of automated mindlessness.

He says he uses that state to unleash his creativity, something experts say otherwise cannot be summoned on demand.

“It’s a way of broadening the current range of sense experience,” he says. “Specifically, for me, it activates other creative ideas when I’m stuck on a challenge. “

The first real puzzle Phillip tackled, so to speak, was his inability to earn a way onto the North Dallas Cowboys select football team in fifth grade.

“Getting rejected took an interesting toll on me,” he says.

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