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

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a computer learning a sequence of steps by watching how a person goes through a repetitive task such as formatting bibliographic references or sorting addresses for invitations or greeting cards. The idea is the computer can learn to do the formatting automatically. (You might imagine something like this being incorporated into a future version of Office or Excel.)

“Butler said he thought about doing this 15 or 20 years ago, and he convinced himself it was theoretically impossible,” Chayes says. “They found a language which is rich enough to encompass what most people are doing and yet small enough that it’s not this outrageous exponential search. It’s technically a phenomenally difficult problem.”

3. How information flows in social networks and offline. This is a major area of research for the lab. Senior researcher Markus Möbius, an empirical economist, is doing a study in which his team tracks the flow of digital coupons tweeted out by mobile food carts. The food carts tweet their locations and menus along with a discount code, and the researchers analyze which coupons get used. “They can see where one coupon code spreads out beyond just who it got tweeted to,” Chayes says. “Think of Groupon. There are lots of online businesses based on social media. How word of mouth is supplementing the effects of social media is a big business question.”

A somewhat related project in the lab is led by postdoc Andrés Monroy-Hernández (who’s moving to Redmond as a staff researcher). He and his collaborators are trying to understand the social and behavioral principles behind how news spreads through alternative channels such as Twitter, by analyzing micro-blogging reports from the deadly Mexican drug war.

4. Social effects in health and wellness. Another study led by Möbius is tracking the impact of incentivizing kids to eat more healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias. The study compares how kids behave when they take part in the program by themselves, when they’re paired with a friend, and when they’re paired with a random partner. Healthcare is an important application area of the “economics of information flow and how information sticks in social networks,” says Chayes. “That’s a really big area here.” (As Microsoft gets more active in healthcare, we’ll see if there are new product areas for promoting health and wellness online.)

5. Video de-blurring in real time. And last but not least, researcher Ce Liu, a former intern and associate researcher from Microsoft’s Beijing research lab, working with MIT professor Bill Freeman, has developed software for taking live video that’s out of focus and de-blurring it, using machine learning and other techniques. This is a longstanding problem in computer vision and image processing. “It’s actually stunning if you look at it. He’s been talking to a lot of product groups now,” Chayes says. “You can imagine you might want that in Skype, or you might want that on your phone.”

Liu is an example of the New England lab’s research going where its talent lies. Ultimately, this approach could be key in helping it push the frontiers of computing. “We weren’t even going to do vision research,” Chayes says. “We made [Liu] a postdoc, and he was doing so much, we made him a permanent researcher.”

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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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  • Start-ups lacking a value proposition squarely in one of these areas face an arduous and unsatisfying trek along Sand Hill Road. Successful entrepreneurs explicitly need a Zen understanding of how data drives business value in their target market. Successful products explicitly need to be able to help extract the value buried in ever-larger quantities of data. And successful pricing models explicitly need to be founded on delivering value from the semantics of data. Period.

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  • Guest

    I have no doubt in my mind that Cambridge is a great place for Microsoft to do R&D. The next great centers of innovation will be in major cities and hubs of innovation (especially those near universities). The model of doing R&D in remote office parks where land is cheap just hasn’t been as productive in terms of innovation as we would like.

    With that said, I find Microsofts 5 ideas here to be somewhat important but not the kind of thing you’d put on the cover of a magazine. Compare what Microsoft is doing to Google (self driving cars), 23andMe (genomic research and services), IBM (distributed computing for studying proteins, vaccines, etc… with the World Community Grid) and of course Apple’s Siri.

    Microsoft has some great projects like Robotics Studio that could be much further developed in terms their capabilities and applications with real wow factor and market potential. When it comes to new technologies it would make sense for Microsoft to go further into hardware. The reason being is that in the software space, Microsoft has a great deal of competition from startups. When it comes to hardware, R&D is far more capital intensive, an area where Microsoft has a major advantage over the little guys.