Whether you’re part of the Boston-Cambridge technology community, or just an interested observer, you’ve probably been to the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center (known affectionately as NERD) at least a few times in the past year. But do you know what Microsoft is actually working on there? I didn’t.
Until last week, that is, when I visited Microsoft Research New England, one of the main groups at NERD, housed near Kendall Square. The tower at One Memorial Drive rises majestically from the banks of the Charles River, but it guards its secrets closely. Jennifer Chayes, the managing director of Microsoft Research New England, which occupies the 12th floor, reveals the projects her group is working on slowly. But she does reveal them.
OK, it’s an open research lab with hundreds of visitors and collaborators from academia and industry, so secrecy isn’t the culture here—at least, not amongst the research community. But from the lab’s opening in 2008 until now, Chayes, an expert in discrete mathematics, networks, and game theory, has said very little to the technology and business media about what her teams have been working on—and what it all has to do with Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) business. And that’s just fine, because I’m about to tell you.
Microsoft Research New England is three years old this month. Although the full-time research staff has doubled in size since inception, it’s still a fairly small operation—12 staff researchers (including deputy managing director Christian Borgs), another dozen postdocs, a half-dozen software development engineers and support staff, and any number of students and interns. Their research breaks down into six main areas—computer science (including algorithms, cryptography, machine learning and vision, and security), computational biology, economics, mathematics, networks, and social media. (Microsoft declined to say how much it has invested in the lab so far.)
It’s not a typical lineup for a Microsoft research lab, of which there are six worldwide, including the mother lab in Redmond, WA. “Our lab has gone into certain areas that haven’t been nearly as emphasized by the other [Microsoft Research labs]. Most of them are fantastically strong in mainstream computer science disciplines,” Chayes says. “One of the reasons for opening the lab here was because we wanted to help advance the state of the art at the boundaries between computer science and other fields. And Cambridge is a place—of course it’s very strong in computer science—that’s phenomenally strong in other fields.”
Take empirical economics. Susan Athey, the renowned Harvard economist (and Microsoft consultant), heads up a year-old group in the lab that’s focused on analyzing huge datasets that Microsoft has access to—things like online advertising trends and performance, search-engine user behaviors, Xbox Live networks, e-mail and instant-messaging patterns, healthcare trends, and so on. Chayes pitched the idea for the economics group to CEO Steve Ballmer in December 2009, and he said to go for it.
The group’s goal is to find patterns in databases that could make various systems more efficient. Little did they know this would lead to the lab’s first technology to become a Microsoft product. … Next Page »