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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Microsoft Faculty Summit

Last week I participated in my first Microsoft Faculty Summit, an annual soiree where Microsoft brings about a hundred faculty to Redmond to see the latest in Microsoft Research. I love these kinds of meetings because I enjoy getting the chance to talk to computer scientists across the broad spectrum of research. Unlike other field, CS hasn't had a true annual meeting since the 80's so it takes events like this to bring subareas together. "Unlike other fields" is an expression we say far too often in computer science.

This was the first summit since the closing of the Silicon Valley lab and the reorganization of MSR into NExT (New Experiences and Technologies) led by Peter Lee and MSR Labs led by Jeannette Wing. Labs focusing on long-term research while NExT tries to put research into Microsoft products. Peter gave the example of real-time translation into Skype already available for public preview. Everyone in MSR emphasized that Microsoft will remain committed to open long-term research and said the latest round of cuts (announced while the summit was happening) will not affect research.

HoloLens had the most excitement, a way to manipulate virtual three-dimensional images. Unfortunately the summit didn't have HoloLenses for us to try out but I did get a cool HoloLens T-shirt. While one expects the most interest in HoloLens for gaming, Microsoft emphasized the educational aspect. Microsoft has a call for proposals for research and education uses for HoloLens.

I didn't go to many of the parallel sessions, instead spending the time networking with colleagues old and new. I did really enjoy the research showcase which highlight many of the research projects. I tried out the Skype translator, failing a reverse Turing test because I thought I was talking to a computer but it was really a Spanish speaking human. My colleagues at MSR NYC were showing off their wisdom of the crowds. Microsoft is moving their defunct academic search directly into Bing and Cortana. I tried Binging myself on the prototype and it did indeed list my research papers but not my homepage and this blog. They said they'll fix that in future updates.

Monica Lam showed off her latest social messaging system Omlet to improve privacy by keeping data on the Omlet server for no longer than two weeks though I was more excited by their open API. Feel free to Omlet me.

While the meeting had its share of hype (quantum computers to solve world hunger), I really enjoyed the couple of days in Redmond. Despite the SVC closing, Microsoft is still one of the few companies that has labs focused on true basic research.

10 comments:

  1. Unlike you, I am not convinced MSR is committed to basic research. In fact I believe MSR is pretty much over for TCS.

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  2. > "Unlike other fields" is an expression we say far too often in computer science.

    On the contrary. We don't say it enough.

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  3. I think both are used as shortcuts more often than they should: "that's the way other people do it" and "we are different" are no replacement for rational arguments. Other fields have gotten certain things right, such as the every four-years International Congress of Mathematics, as well as many things wrong. For example, the journal system in other fields is in no better shape than our conferences. To give a specific example, we are making a bit mistake by trying to replicate the fashionable requirement of C/N/S in the JACM and SIAM J. of Computing refereeing process.

    There are many other examples on both sides. Each to be considered on its own merits.

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  4. Lance, do you still stand by your summary, which mentions Microsoft and basic research in the same sentence? See today's post by Boaz Barak on Joining the new Harvard.

    And consider adding a disclaimer that your report is based on a sponsored trip, because it feels more like advertisement disguised as an objective blog.

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    Replies
    1. I do believe that MSR, in particular Jeannette, is committed to keeping basic research in MSR. How long MSR will keep that commitment is less clear given the recent changes and I'm not surprised some people are taking advantage of other opportunities.

      And, if it wasn't clear, Microsoft does cover most of the expenses of the attendees.

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  5. Lance, frankly i am disappointed by ur post. If Anonymous@227 had not pointed out that your trip was paid by MSR and that as a result this post is voiced with a few extra heart beats for the sponsor, I would have actually painted a much different picture. Now that the "disclaimer" is shown I grey scaled the color tone of what was an incredibly bright and colorful picture otherwise. Next time around, please make these things clearer for naive readers like myself. thanks in advance.

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    Replies
    1. In all fairness, trips to faculty summits (be them Google, Microsoft or Facebook) are paid by the organizer. This is common knowledge among faculty members, just like it is common knowledge that plenary speakers are paid by the conference. I would've likely failed to mention either one in a blog posting myself, forgetting that not all readers are privy to this information.

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  6. So...what the quantum computers look like?

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  7. A Fermi question  In regard to leaving MicroSoft to teach at Harvard, what total endowment would be required to support one percent of the global population, in any given year, to attend an institute of higher education comparably endowed to Harvard? Pick one:

    (i)  1.25 trillion dollars, versus
    (ii)  12.5 trillion dollars, versus
    (iii)  125 trillion dollars.

    Answer:  (iii)

    (sufficient to capitalize 330 Microsoft-sized companies)

    A modest proposal  The world would be well-advised to print the 125 trillion dollars, endow the universities, and wait the return on investment.

    Question  Upon what time scale, and with what level of assurance, would this investment in education be justified?

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  8. In regard to society's STEAM investments (at Microsoft Research and elsewhere)
    — — — — —
    Lance Fortnow tweeted  "The Manhattan Project was 70 years ago and tech has had multiple revolutions since, I'm surprised it's still hard to build an atomic bomb."
    — — — — —
    Some of the literature relating to Lance's exceedingly tough issue — which morally constrains all levels of global STEAM enterprise — is surveyed in a comment (#54), relating to shaped-charge technology, which is appended to Scott Aaronson's essay "Can Quantum Computing Reveal the True Meaning of Quantum Mechanics?", from which the following passage is excerpted:
    — — — — —
    "Systematic attempts to maximally substitute mathematical considerations of universality and naturality for considerations of physicality run head-on into very serious tensions between freedom of inquiry and freedom of pedagogy on the one-hand, and the interests of state-security and trade-secrecy on the other hand. […] Given these well-founded tensions, it’s unsurprising — perhaps it’s even a good thing? — that the most interesting and widely-applicable transport-related works of Dirac, von Neumann, Onsager, and even Feynman remain classified even in the present century."
    — — — — —
    Uneasy conclusion  STEAM history provides no strong basis to believe that even the most abstract complexity-theoretic research is unentangled from urgent interests of state-security and trade-secrecy.

    ReplyDelete