Meddling with the Future

In an exclusive interview with Windows Middle East, Roger Needham, director, Microsoft Research Centre (MSR), Cambridge, and Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s senior vice president of research, discuss the exceptional contributions made by the lab to Microsoft products, and the diverse, collaborative culture that made it possible.

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By  Vijaya George Published  May 28, 2002

I|~||~||~|Microsoft Research (MSR) Cambridge was Microsoft’s first research laboratory to be established outside the United States and was set up in July 1997 with three researchers. Today, 55 researchers, mostly from Europe, are engaged in computer research at the labs. The city of Cambridge, England, was the clear choice for the location of the facilities because of its world-renowned reputation and its rich history as a centre of learning. Cambridge has been the origin of fundamental advances in nuclear physics, molecular biology and computer science. Furthermore, Cambridge has become a centre for technological excellence in recent years. More than 300 companies and commercial laboratories specialising in computing and advanced technology are concentrated in the Cambridge area.

Nathan Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief technology officer, has described Microsoft’s goal with the centre as being “to create a home for those world-class researchers based in Europe who want to develop innovative new technologies and impact the lives of millions of people around the world.”

At the same time as it was establishing its Cambridge laboratory, Microsoft also invested $14.6 million in small technology firms in the Cambridge area, demonstrating its commitment to developing and fostering new technologies. This included the investment of $7.2 million in Amadeus I, a venture capital fund that supports early-stage technology companies with global potential.

Research at the Cambridge facilities focuses on programming languages, security, information retrieval, machine learning, computer vision, operating systems and networking. On the occasion of the lab’s fifth anniversary, Roger Needham, director of the Cambridge facility, and Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s senior vice president of research, discuss the exceptional contributions the lab has made to Microsoft products and the diverse, collaborative culture that made it possible.

||**||II|~||~||~|What have been some of the lab’s achievements?

Roger Needham: “We are proud of the research that we have done into all sorts of areas. From security, where we work closely with national and European Governments on technical issues surrounding Trustworthy Computing, to the contributions we have made to programming languages with common language runtime libraries and C#. Our researchers have had 225 papers published in independent academic journals and 93 accepted at academic conferences.”

Rick Rashid: “Some of that work has led to tremendous personal accomplishments for the researchers themselves. Tony Hoare was recently awarded the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, which is awarded annually by the Inamori Foundation in Japan. The Kyoto Prize is likened to the Nobel Prize and is one of the world’s highest awards for a computer scientist. Also, Chuck Thacker, who helped set up the lab back in 1997 and was instrumental in designing the Tablet PC, was named one of Microsoft’s Distinguished Engineers. These are just two personal examples, but I think our greatest achievement for the Cambridge lab lies is the strong group of researchers we’ve been fortunate enough to recruit. On a technical level, the Cambridge lab has been responsible for the Okapi IR system that is the backbone of Microsoft Search, the new CLR language development such as Haskel, as well as fundamental innovations such as the effort to support generics in the CLR, which is something no one has done before in a language neutral way.”

What are some of the key factors that have led to the lab’s success in such a short time?

Rashid: “Roger and his assistant directors, Chris Bishop, Luca Cardelli and Andrew Herbert, are instrumental to the management of the lab, but they’re also high-calibre researchers in their own right. Roger is an expert in security, and knowledgeable in several other aspects of computer science. Chris is well-known for his work on statistical learning theory and pattern recognition. Luca brings his expertise on establishing semantic and type-theoretic foundations of object-oriented languages.

Andrew, who worked closely with Roger years ago at the University of Cambridge, created and gained industry-wide respect for ANSA (Advanced Network Systems Architecture), which was an industry-sponsored program of research and advanced development in the area of distributed systems technology that ran from 1985 to 1998. Clearly, they all bring an unparalleled level of expertise to the lab. It is this kind of leadership that allows such solid growth in a relatively short period of time: they started with just three researchers in 1997, and now are about 60 strong. Additionally, they are all involved with their research communities locally and globally, which really greases the wheels for external collaboration. MSR Cambridge works very closely with the Computer Lab at the University of Cambridge and the University of Lancaster, among others.”

Needham: “I also think our success is partially due to the environment in which we work. We believe people want to work at Microsoft Research in Cambridge not least because of this. We’ve recently moved into our own purpose-built laboratory on the outskirts of one of England’s most beautiful cities, and Cambridge is a fast-growing technology centre in Europe. It’s known as Silicon Fen, with over 1,200 technology companies in the city. We also believe in providing our staff with the facilities and support that they need to develop technologies that will have an impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.”

||**||III|~||~||~|The lab is located near the University of Cambridge and a number of other commercial and academic facilities. What kind of relationship does your lab have with its peers in the region?

Needham: “MSR Cambridge works very closely with the Computer Lab at the university, working together on research projects, lecturing, and hosting students. We’re also collaborating with the University of Lancaster in Britain, Cisco, and Orange to conduct research into Mobile IPv6, a next-generation networking technology. MSR has similar collaborative relationships with numerous other academic institutions throughout the region and around the world. Collaboration between industry and academia will continue to play an increasingly central role in helping Microsoft to deliver on its vision for the future of technology. We’re constantly deepening our partnership with academia, and are committed to jointly developing new ideas and solving many of the key challenges in computing.”

Can you give us an example of how the lab works with the academic community?

Needham: “In March of this year, MSR hosted its most recent .NET Crash Course in Cambridge. Two hundred academic computer scientists from all over the world met in Cambridge for a four-day course examining the technology behind .NET. By allowing people in the academic community to freely access shared source code, they will be able to make changes that can push the technology forward. Essentially, we’re willing to invest much of what we’ve put into developing this code, into the research community as a whole. We believe very strongly that academia gets technology it can use, and with which next-generation developers can create great things.”

What does the future hold for Microsoft Research?

Needham: “We really think that the work that we’re doing in the realms of distributed networking and operating systems performance will have a real impact on how people design and use computer systems in the future. Self-organising networks will make it much easier for people to access information over the Internet at the same time as reducing Internet traffic, thereby making communications much more efficient.

This will become increasingly important as the next generation of applications around Web Services become more widely adopted. And technologies such as Jetstream, which intelligently detects edges and crops objects from images, will make it much easier for people to work with digital photographs and video.”

Rashid: “Our overall research goal has always been to push the state of the art forward and to make computing easier, simpler and better. We’re focused on solving some of the world’s toughest computing problems, and we have some of the best and brightest minds in the industry helping us make that dream a reality. So I expect lots of exciting things to come out of all our labs in the next few years.”||**||

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