Microsoft, Xerox Invest in Innovation

Lead Microsoft and Xerox technologists tout the benefits of research in the quest to deliver the next big thing in IT and computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Emerging Technologies event. Signifying its commitment to invest in finding next-generation technology, Microsoft has opened a research lab near MIT called Microsoft Research New England.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Emerging Technologies event here Sept. 23 to 25, Microsoft and Xerox stood among several leading companies describing their view of the future of the computing world.

Microsoft's chief strategy officer, Craig Mundie, basically said anything game-changing typically takes a long time to develop. "The things that really change our lives broadly, they take a long time," Mundie said, noting that Windows and Office "took at least a decade" of initial development and many versions before they could displace existing systems or ways of doing things.

Mundie, of course, is right that game-changing technology tends to take a long time to get right. That's why Microsoft has invested heavily in its research arm. Most recently, Microsoft opened its Microsoft Research New England facility, which borders on the campus of MIT. I recently visited the facility and spoke with Mundie there, but I'll write more on that in a separate post.

Microsoft officials said Microsoft Research New England will focus initially on the combination of core computer science-especially as it relates to new algorithms-and the social sciences, including economics, psychology and sociology. An additional team of researchers also will focus on design. The combination will bring together form and functionality in the context of how people use-or want to use-technology, with the goal of envisioning and beginning to develop the technological experiences of the future.

Microsoft officially opened its newest lab on Sept. 22. The lab is expected to benefit other research and academic institutions in the New England area, providing opportunities for collaboration and connections with top Microsoft researchers, the company said. The lab already is working on two joint seminars with MIT, one with the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and another with the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Microsoft Research New England also is interacting with Harvard University's Initiative in Innovative Computing and Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as well as the Janelia Farm Research Campus, a new stand-alone interdisciplinary biology institute founded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

According to the news release announcing the opening of the Microsoft Research New England lab, other collaborative projects underway in the lab include the following:

"The lab already has hosted several prominent economists from MIT and Harvard for its work on aspects of the economics of ad auctions.Another cross-disciplinary team is working on the game theory of matching algorithms, which are widely used to match residents with medical schools, kidney donors with recipients and other complex associations.A prominent physicist from Torino, Italy, has been working with several lab members on a promising new class of network algorithms that could solve a wide variety of problems, from matching ads with advertisers to reconstruction of gene regulatory networks.Another visiting researcher from Boston University has been working with the lab on models of stability for Web search engine crawling, dealing with how to most efficiently process massive amounts of data."

Meanwhile, Mundie, in his keynote at the MIT conference, said he focuses on technology that is likely to have an impact "in the three- to 20-year range." Mundie said he is looking at areas like parallel computing platforms, live platforms, the cloud, modeling, robotics and a lot more.

"Space is the next frontier," he said, noting that computing will become more context-centric with more surfaces and a much more immersive environment. The spatial computing environment will be seamlessly connected, context-aware, model-based and personalized, and will use sensors, and speech, vision and gestures will be accepted means of interacting with the system, he said. Mundie then demonstrated how a system such as he described might work.

In a separate keynote on innovation, Sophie Vandebroek, CTO of Xerox and the president of the Xerox Innovation Group, said a lot of the focus of researchers at Xerox relates to helping its customers deal with the information explosion. Indeed, Xerox has an Information Overload Research Group, she said.

In addition, Vandebroek said the annual cost to companies is about $650 billion a year in lost productivity based on information overload. "Xerox sees this as an opportunity," she said.

Because so much of the information coming in is unstructured, "We're making documents smarter by leveraging natural language technology" and adding intelligence and structure to documents, Vandebroek said, echoing Mundie's interest in natural language technology and "natural user interfaces." She said Xerox has more than 5,000 scientists and engineers.

Vandebroek also demonstrated reusable paper, an environmentally friendly technology from Xerox that enables users to reuse paper more than once in printing. The paper wipes itself clean after a period of time so it can be reused.