Microsoft Research Lab Opens Quietly Next to MIT, Director Says Area’s Intellectual Climate Like “Dry Timber” Ready to Ignite
A Microsoft research lab announced in February quietly opened its doors in Kendall Square earlier this month, although the company doesn’t plan an official coming out party until late September. It’s Microsoft’s first research outpost in the United States outside the West Coast and its sixth worldwide—and the lab’s leaders have wasted no time changing the computer science dynamic in the Boston area. A small parade of renowned mathematicians, economists, and computer scientists has already joined the lab, which has also struck partnerships with two groups at MIT.
The lab’s managing director, mathematician Jennifer Chayes, says the reception illustrates the latent, simmering computer science potential of the region. “This is really the time for this area,” she says, citing its rich expertise in aspects of computer science theory, mathematics, economics, and the social sciences—fields that are now converging on “problems of real importance to business and the world.”
|Microsoft Research New England
|Lap Chi Lau|
Among those joining the new lab, called Microsoft Research New England, are Butler Lampson, a computer pioneer who has won both the Turing Award (often called the Nobel Prize of computer science) and the Draper Prize (the Nobel of engineering), and Susan Athey, an economist on sabbatical from Harvard University who last year became the first woman to win the Clark Medal, a 60-year-old prize given to promising economists under 40. Other visiting scholars include two top MIT economists, Glenn Ellison, a leader in economic theory who has been working on the design of auctions used to sell ads on search engines, and Daron Acemoglu, another Clark Medal winner whose specialties include network theory and economic growth.
All told, the lab has so far enlisted 25 members, most of whom are already on board. Their ranks include six founding staffers (among them Lampson, Chayes, and her husband and collaborator Christian Borgs, the lab’s deputy managing director), 11 post-doctoral researchers, eight visiting scholars, and a half-dozen interns.
The sudden convergence of these leading lights in economics, mathematics, and computer science seems to have ignited a mini-intellectual frenzy around some of the topics being pursued at the lab, which, like other Microsoft Research labs, intends to emulate academic institutions by publishing its research in the open literature. Chayes cites an early seminar on an esoteric aspect of game theory. Invitations went out to 10 people the day before the event “and 30 people showed up,” she says. And after she and Borgs sent notes to some 130 researchers letting them know about the lab and inviting guests and visiting scholars, they were swamped with responses.
“I just can’t believe how fast it happened,” says Chayes of the lab’s strong start. She describes the lab’s early days as “lightning strikes dry timber,” referring to the way it is both “tapping into the intellectually rich environment and helping to catalyze the interaction of different disciplines.”
I got a whirlwind update on the lab’s early days Sunday night from Chayes and Borgs over coffee, water, and beer (I was the beer drinker). They are quite the dynamic duo. Chayes is animated, almost effervescent, in her excitement about the lab. Borgs is far more laid back, but boy, do they both love what they’re doing. “No doubt you know the Nash equilibrium,” Borgs said to me (or words to that effect), and was about to dive into detail about one of the seminar topics until my blank stare caused him to back up.
The lab is located at One Memorial Drive in Cambridge, a 17-story luxury office tower (Microsoft has leased about half the building) overlooking the Charles River next to the MIT campus. Right now, the researchers are housed on the 14th floor, but when Microsoft finishes remodeling its space, the group will move to an as-yet-undetermined new location in the building. While operations began without fanfare in early July, Chayes says Microsoft plans an official opening on September 22 that will be along the lines of an academic symposium. A more formal public opening will come later.
She and Borgs identified four core areas of focus: computer science theory and mathematics, economics, social science, and design. They’ve started fast in theory, mathematics, and economics, because they know these fields best: for years now, the husband and wife team have led Microsoft Research’s mathematics, theoretical computer science, and cryptography efforts in Redmond, WA, where I first met them. But they expect to build up social sciences and design work quickly, because they feel the … Next Page »