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 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.