Microsoft Research’s Jennifer Chayes: 5 Projects for the Future of Computing

When people talk about the future of technology, they tend to mention the same big players (what I might call the four horsemen of the consumer apocalypse): Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. And if they want to get more cutting-edge, maybe they’ll throw in a viral newcomer or two like Dropbox or Pinterest. Who they don’t tend to mention these days is Microsoft (the Lumia 900 notwithstanding).

And that’s just fine with the venerable old software firm (NASDAQ: MSFT). Microsoft seems content to chip away at consumer markets while still making most of its money with business-related products—and continuing to invest boatloads of cash into basic research, which is quite unlike other tech companies of its time. Last month, Microsoft ran its annual TechFest R&D show in Redmond, WA, where the usual array of dazzling demos were on display: image and video processing tricks, machine translation, search data visualization, and human-computer interfaces. But what impact will these kinds of projects have on Microsoft’s business—and on the future of computing?

These thoughts were in my head as I sat down with Jennifer Chayes, the managing director of Microsoft Research New England. Every techie within a five-mile radius of Kendall Square knows about Microsoft NERD (New England Research and Development Center) from all the events it hosts. But few people seem to know about all the research going on there. That’s starting to change.

The last time I spoke with Chayes in depth was July, when Microsoft Research New England turned three years old. Chayes told me about the first Microsoft product to come out of the lab—a piece of software called Readmissions Manager that is part of Amalga, a healthcare package used by hospitals. She also talked about some of the lab’s research in empirical economics, computational biology, and social networks.

A couple weeks ago, she fleshed out some of the newer projects emerging from the center, as well as giving me a broader update on the state of the lab, which has grown to 15 full-time researchers, 13 postdocs, half a dozen research assistants and software developers—and far too many students, interns, and visiting researchers to count. “We hire slowly, but we are hiring,” Chayes says.

On how Microsoft will impact the future of technology, Chayes points to a few key themes. “I think the defining questions of this era of science and technology are going to be the ‘big data’ questions. And a natural user interface for how to interpret this data and act on it,” she says. “The themes of big data and natural user interface run all through our products. They’re under the hood of all of our products in a way that makes them be able to personalize to you, to figure out what you actually want and how to get it to you in a better way.”

So, I wondered, how does she see computing and information flow in daily life continuing to evolve? In other words, what’s after search engines and social networks, say, five years from now?

“There is going to become a seamless personalization that will take in the social, and also take in what we do and what other … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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