Microsoft Research Lab Opens Quietly Next to MIT, Director Says Area’s Intellectual Climate Like “Dry Timber” Ready to Ignite

7/29/08Follow @bbuderi

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convergence of these fields opens up tremendously interesting—and potentially valuable—areas for study, especially as the Web grows and Microsoft delivers more and more products over it.

As Chayes told Wade back in February when Microsoft announced its plans for the New England lab, “I think that putting the basic mathematics together with basic research in sociology, psychology, and economics will allow us to come up with the insights that we need to deliver a much better experience to our customers online.” (In their own work, Chayes and Borgs have used graphs to model interactions over the Web; one recent paper focused on defeating the “link spam” employed to artificially inflate website search-engine rankings.) And, she told me on Sunday, “The one thing we are really trying to do is get these people talking to each other.”

Partly to that end, the lab has already struck agreements to hold joint seminars or symposia with two MIT groups: the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (you guessed it, LIDS). Under the arrangement with CSAIL, the two labs will alternate as the hosts of “Crypto Fridays,” the Cryptography and Information Security seminars held most Friday mornings over bagels and coffee.

The lab’s opening is the latest example of Microsoft’s rapid growth in the Boston area, which itself has become a hotbed of computer science activity in recent months with the likes of Google, EMC, Akamai, and IBM all trying to boost their local staffs. Indeed, largely because of some key acquisitions that include Groove Networks, Softricity, and Fast Search & Transfer, Microsoft has seen its own workforce in the region grow from some 200 a couple years ago to more than 600 today. Their activities span the gamut from sales to product development, and now basic research. One Memorial Drive itself already plays host to some 100 employees of Microsoft’s SoftGrid unit (the new name for Softricity) and a just-launched concept development center run by former Eons CTO Reed Sturtevant that will be brainstorming and incubating novel product ideas: Chayes says that after the remodeling she hopes to locate her lab near Sturtevant’s, so that they can feed each other ideas and maybe people.

In the end, the new lab is all about people. Chayes says that when she and Borgs proposed the idea for a New England lab back in November, they had in mind tapping into both Microsoft’s own growing workforce and Boston’s incredibly rich academic community, which is full of “phenomenal people Microsoft would just love to attract who are not going to move to the West Coast.” For instance, she says, many Europeans just don’t want to move to Silicon Valley or Washington (the locations of Microsoft Research’s two other U.S. labs), because they will be too far from home. It just made sense for Microsoft to come to them.

Chayes and Borgs can’t reveal how big the lab is supposed to get. But Microsoft’s philosophy with its other labs (the one in Beijing was the subject of my last book, Guanxi, co-authored by Xconomy Seattle editor Greg Huang) is that they must be big enough to have critical mass in the subjects they pursue—otherwise they will become second-class citizens, both within Microsoft and in the greater research world. That typically translates to at least 50 researchers (roughly the size of the Silicon Valley and India labs), and even more in the case of Beijing and Cambridge, England, and of course the Redmond headquarters lab.

But however big the New England center gets, Chayes says she thinks the relative small size of the computer science community in Boston is a good thing that makes for better relationships and collaborations. “The fact that the community is not as big here as Silicon Valley I think is a huge advantage,” she says.

Presumably, smaller numbers of people entered into more meaningful collaborations translates into disproportionate impact, although Chayes didn’t say that outright. Still, for all those around here worried about how small Boston is compared to Silicon Valley, think about that—and play to your strengths. Microsoft apparently is.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • http://filipealvesferreira.googlepages.com/ FilipeAlvesFerreira

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  • http://danweinreb.org/blog Daniel Weinreb

    The original founders of this lab appear to be primary theory people. I wonder to what extent the lab will be focused on theory issues. I suppose they’ll do a wider range of things than that.

    Butler Lampson is a great catch for them. Lampson was responsible for a lot of the crucial technology produced by Xerox PARC in the seventies. H was one of the leading triumvirate of Xerox PARC SSL (System Sciences Lab (if I have that right), who, along with CSL, are responsible for the concept of single-user computers with high-resolution bit-map displays, mice, windows, and local-area networks. Their influence on the computer science world is immense.

    I wonder whether this means that Butler is leaving MIT. Hmm, from the Wikipedia article on him, I see he’s an Adjunct Professor, which presumably he could continue to be. That’s good for MIT. And for MIT to have a close tie to the new Microsoft lab is surely good for both of them.

    The only problem, for me, is that the lab will be competing for talent in the area, with my company and with Google.

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