The Keynote Address from the 2021 XR Access Symposium, presented by Chike Aguh (Chief Innovation Officer, US Department of Labor) with an introduction from Bill Curtis-Davidson (Co-Director, Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology or “PEAT”)


Bill Curtis-Davidson:
And now, without further ado, I’d like to introduce the first of today’s conversations.

I’m deeply honored to introduce our distinguished keynote speaker, Chike Aguh, Chief Innovation Officer at the U.S. Department of Labor. Mr. Aguh was sworn into this position on January 20, 2021. He is responsible for the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to use innovative technologies, partnerships and practices to accelerate the Department’s mission of ensuring that every American is included and respected in the future of work.

Welcome, Chike!

Chike Aguh:
Good morning, Bill. Thank you so much for that generous, generous introduction.

Let me start off where I should always start off with some thanks. First of all, let me thank
Dr. Shiri Azenkot, Associate Professor at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech for inviting here me to speak today. As a Co-Founder of XR Access, we really appreciate your efforts and all the efforts at Cornell Tech to make this happen.

We want to thank Verizon Media and a really particular thank you to Larry Goldberg, who’s been the Head of Accessibility there and also another Co-Founder [of XR Access]. The Department of Labor deeply appreciates the work that you have put in to make this happen.

And, lastly, I cannot help but give deep thanks to my DOL colleagues. Particularly, in the Office of Disability Employment Policy and in PEAT. I want to first thank Jennifer Sheehy who has
served the past 6 years as the Acting Assistant Secretary for that Office. Her leadership has been critical in guiding the Department towards the innovative areas of work including the accessibility of XR tools which is on display here today. And lastly, but definitely not least, Bill Curtis-Davidson, the Co-Director of the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology. and the entire PEAT team which has been instrumental in fostering these types of collaborations.

I want to say to all of you who are registered – over 600 of you from 32 different countries, on behalf of the Biden Administration, on behalf of my Secretary, Marty Walsh, thank you so much for being here and welcome, welcome, welcome.

And really where we start is: Why are we here? Why am I here?

As someone who’s been a former business person, I know how important it is to use technology to make the most of all of the talents of all of our people. I have seen that it makes a difference in terms of the morals of the workplace but also in the bottom line of a business.

I’m here also because I’m a former educator who started my career in New York City and taught students with special education needs who contributed so much to our classroom and who are now young adults who are contributing to the workforce and to our country.

And I’m also here as a parent of a child with special needs. And I think about what I want for my son. when he becomes a worker, and the work we are doing here, and talking about here, is going to be really critical. I want to again welcome you here because the future that I want for my son is going to be possible because of the work that you all are doing.

If we go back a few decades, 20 years ago, I don’t think any of us would have imagined how critical a technology like the smartphone would be to our lives or videoconferencing would be to our lives. And the question will be: 20 years from now how critical will technologies like XR be to our government, to our country, and to our future?

What’s great about the XR Access Community is that you all are already thinking about this and how XR is going to impact the immersive workplace and the question that you all are asking which is the reason why we are here is not only: How can we make sure that XR doesn’t just work, but that is works for everyone.

Today I want to frame our critical efforts to an inclusive future by sharing some insights from the XR Association report, A New Reality in Immersive Technology, which is a survey of folks in the country and within the private sector about the impact of XR technology. 75% had heard the term “XR technology” before.

Almost 94% believe it would prove — and provide useful applications to their specific field.

And roughly 3 out of 4 leaders believe their organization will spend more on XR in the next 5 years than they did in the last 5 years. This shows how important XR is going to be and again it’s why it’s even more important that it work for everyone.

Before my time in government I worked in a number of jobs that focused on the future of work. And from what I’ve seen, whether it be from the retail space where we are using XR to train people in terms of customer service, whether it be in terms of companies like Tailspin, which is using XR to train claims adjusters, where literally you put on this headset and you are in a house that had a fire and you have to investigate that, and that’s how you are going to be trained. This XR is going to create a brave new world for us.

And the question, again, is brave new world, but for whom? And again, that “for whom” has to be for everyone. And that’s why we all and here, and it’s why I’m so excited to keynote this today.

This year President Biden issued his American Jobs Plan and the goal is to create millions of good jobs and to rebuild our country’s infrastructure. And to do that we’re going to have to invest in a way we haven’t before. We have seen that investment in public infrastructure drop more than 40% since the 1960s.

And your work in the XR Access Community is a great example of the progress that we can build so the jobs are more accessible, more equitable. If we look at some of the priorities of the American Jobs Plan, we can tie them to innovations in XR.

In terms of advancing U.S. leadership in critical technologies, how do we make sure that the U.S. is not at the back of that line, but at the front? That we are developing the most cutting-edge in XR technology. And part of that cutting edge is making sure that this can be accessible and make the most of everyones’ talents.

And again, coming from the private sector, talent we knew was the critical resource and XR is a critical resource to make sure that we can make the most of that talent for everyone. Again, we don’t have a worker to waste particularly when we are competing with countries around the world that are growing and stepping onto the world stage. XR is going to be key to how we keep that lead in critical technologies.

How are we fostering equity in the development and the use of these technologies? How are we eliminating gender and disability inequities in R&D? In Science, Technology, Engineering & Math?

And part of that is going to be as we develop XR technologies, how do we make sure that people with disabilities, with special needs, are part of that? So again anything that is developed for that community is being developed by that community. We need that inclusive, inclusive co-design to make that long story short.

How do we train Americans for the jobs of the future? As we think about this again: we are down
relative to last year 7.5 million jobs because of the COVID crisis. And as we think about getting Americans ready for those new jobs XR has to be key to that because we have to get people back at a record speed, at a record pace.

Lastly, how do we think about expanded access to broadband for all Americans? And this is, again, a place — whether it be the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Program (which came out of the American Rescue Plan), as well as new applications of XR in new fields, like healthcare services, like virtual classrooms, XR is going to be critical to making the most of how we use that.

So let me just talk about some of the specific progress. And again, I am in month five of federal service and as I learned about the XR Access Community what astounded me is not only your charter, but what you have achieved in a short period of time.
You heard Larry Goldberg talk about it. This came from a conversation in early 2019. And we are now at multiple iterations of this particular venue.

Let me just run through some of the things that you all have done.
Finalizing your 2020+ Strategy.
Forming the XR Access Research Network.
And, again, establishing these topical groups that are looking at the specific applications of XR in specific spaces.
Collaborations with platform communities like the XR Association to provide input to the XR Association Developer Guide, particularly Chapter 3 on Accessibility and Inclusive Design
And, the Oculus Accessibility Virtual Reality Checks.
And again, the thing about the XR Community, again, in our last iteration of South by Southwest (SXSW) — hopefully we’ll be in person next year — but looking at this talk that was given about the future of work is accessible and accessibility in HR.
Collaboration with groups like W3C and again talking about user research in that, so that again, and that XR accessible for all.

The key trait of the XR Access Initiative which I mentioned previously but I want to talk about it here is nothing about us without us. Meaning, we cannot develop technology for community without that community not just being at the table but having a voice and a vote in how we develop that technology.

That’s coming from everything to make sure we have access to internships and education opportunities in XR, and making sure we have those communities are at the table for academic research, inclusive design consultants, and disability panels.

But we want to make sure that every step of the value chain as we create XR that the communities we look to serve — particularly the disability community — is included and at the front with a voice and a vote. And just to put this in perspective from my time in the industry,

I used to be a product manager and one of the first things you learn in product management as you are developing for customers, and that you have to talk to the customer

That’s the thing about our customer: our customer is the American worker, and in particular, American workers with disabilities, and therefore they have to be at the center of what we are doing. It is not an add-on, it is not a nice-to-have, it is a need to have if XR is going to achieve the outcomes that we want it to.

So, let’s think about as we have talked about the past, but let’s think about the future. And so as we’re looking at this future of inclusive and immersive workplaces, this is the motivation for our work at PEAT, and in this community here today.

And I want to close today by thinking about, “What is the wider impact that we can have?”

Number one, how do we think about supporting pandemic recovery? Through clean energy investments that can be enabled by XR. You have heard this Administration be very clear that climate change is one of the biggest threats that we face as a country and as a world but it’s also one of our greatest opportunities. And so we at the Department of Labor are thinking about how do we support reskilling to build the workforce that’s going to build the green future.

There are times that I have said to get the green economy that we need we have the ability to create the economy that we want. and we know that for the economy that we want we have to be investing in the workers who are going to make that happen. Because they are the ultimate human infrastructure. So as we think about the Day One Proposal to train 50,000 solar energy
installers over the next four years by using XR training programs, there are so many scenarios
that we can think of. Everything from how do we use virtual reality-based simulations of safety
protocols in dangerous environments? How can we think about mixed reality on-site instructions for the use of new equipment particularly in clean energy but also in other emerging technology fields?

How do we have remote assistance, by co-presence and communication, and collaboration? To support mentoring in multi-generational workforces? And as described in PEAT’s presentation on Inclusive Design of Social AR, how do we use XR in ways we can’t even think of, to address challenges and create new applications that will allow this workforce and a workforce that has, at times, has been not included, to be part of the next phase of the clean energy, and frankly, the new emerging technology revolution.

Next, how do we think about leveraging the push between digitization and the expansion of telework capacities? And again, all of us have lived this over the last year. All of us that did teleworking but I don’t think anyone ever really did teleworking as we’ve seen in the last year until now. And we really had to think about telework not simply as a “nice to have”, but a “need to have” and something that all of us has to think about as we lead teams and as part of teams.

Since the outset of COVID-19, digitization accelerated so rapidly and what’s occurred in 8 months frankly if left in the normal flow of work would have taken — according to McKinsey and Company — 3 to 7 years. So as we think about telework, a question is: “How can XR make that more equitable as we think about, hopefully, the next crisis or the next opportunity.

PEAT is supporting XR Access’ explorations of immersive telework as part of its Telework and Accessibility work. And the rapid expansion of telework during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the potential for wide accommodations for employees with disabilities in ways that previously seemed impossible.

And this is a really important point. As we think about building back better, it is not simply going back to the normal we had before COVID. It is about how do we use technologies like XR to actually do better at work than we did before and particularly for folks in the disability community who have not always at the forefront and haven’t always been at the front of mind of how we develop workplaces. This is the opportunity and the time to think about that. What I love about this community is that you all are thinking about this right here right now and also thinking how to do something right here right now.

Next promoting disability-led research. In thinking about we include not simply the researchers themselves, but C-suite leaders and really have that sense of urgency.

And lastly, how do we build strong pathways to employment for all?

Let me end on this note. I’ve spent most of my career thinking about either technology or use of technology in terms of the American workforce and if we think about the last particularly few years we have had a conversation as a country about, frankly, is the internet, is social media, is technology in some ways tearing us apart as a nation? Is it creating divides between groups of people? And I think in some ways this community can be part of answering the opposite question.

The flip. Can we use technology to actually bring the country together? And looking at what you all have done so far. I think the answer is yes. We can use XR to make existing workplaces and existing jobs more accessible, more inclusive, more diverse for every community, particularly those that we have overlooked for too long. We have the ability to use XR to create new jobs and get people who have been excluded to be in those new jobs for the first time. And if we think about that question and using XR that way that’s what this community can achieve.

I go back to all the roles that I have had in my life. The one that again is most important to me is husband and father, and think about my son who is 4 years old and I think about what is the world he is going to inhabit and envision? I believe that this community is going to make sure that that world is one that I want him to live in. One where he is included, where he is respected and not just tolerated but celebrated because he is able to bring his talents to the table to his place of work and to his community. And XR as a technology and XR Access as a community is what and who is going to make that happen.

So I end where I began. Thank you to all of you for the work that you do. And I also issue a challenge. We have more to do. To make this a future of work that everyone can be in and that everyone can be involved in and we as a country can benefit from everyone.

So, XR Access, on behalf of the Biden Administration and the U.S. Department of Labor, I want to thank you all so much and thank you all for having me here today.