Microsoft’s Annual Cruise: Faculty Murmurs, Shooing Seagulls, and What Bill Gates Will Watch at the Olympics
On Monday evening, I had the pleasure of sailing the Seattle waterways with Microsoft and several hundred of its university-faculty friends. We were all aboard an Argosy cruise ship for a three-hour tour that took us from the city dock in Kirkland, WA, across Lake Washington; past the University of Washington; through the Ballard Locks; and all the way down to Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle, where we docked near the aquarium. The weather was perfect and afforded us spectacular views of Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains, and open water.
It was all part of the annual Faculty Summit hosted by Microsoft Research, in which the company invites leading researchers from academia and government to Redmond for two days of talks with staff from all of Microsoft’s global research labs. This week’s summit included sessions on scholarly communication, artificial intelligence, and applications of Microsoft’s Virtual Earth—and plenty of tech demos. (The Seattle P-I did a nice piece on a new spherical-display technology.)
But enough about work… I was there to catch up with familiar faces, meet some new ones, and find out what people are talking about at the intersection of computer science and Microsoft. Over a buffet dinner of halibut, steak, pasta, and fruit, I got more than my fill. Just a few highlights here:
—I should probably start with what people weren’t talking about (at least with me). That would include Microsoft’s competition with Google, the bid to acquire Yahoo, and the abrupt departure of Microsoft senior executive Kevin Johnson. When you’re trying to do innovative research—really the long-term future of any tech company—these corporate dramas are probably just a distraction.
—Microsoft’s Beijing research lab is gearing up for the Olympics, which are the talk of the whole town, according to Hsiao-Wuen Hon, the managing director of the lab. The city will effectively shut down for the opening ceremonies on August 8. The airport will be closed. Street traffic will be highly restricted. All attendees will go through a two-hour security checkpoint. Thousands of Chinese army troops will be stationed next to the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing. There is a rumor that the top of the stadium is armed with anti-aircraft guns to shoot down any airborne terrorist threats. I asked Hon whether he gets to attend the ceremony. “Unfortunately yes,” he joked.
—Word has it that Bill Gates will attend the games, along with Warren Buffett and many heads of state, including President George W. Bush. Gates’s preferred sport to watch? Ping-pong (OK, table tennis). The table-tennis viewing will be hosted by Microsoft’s top people in China, as well as government officials. Suffice to say that every minute of his public appearances will be carefully managed and choreographed—not by Microsoft as much as by his gracious hosts.
—Shri Narayanan, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, had some interesting insights into the similarities between academia and industry. Narayanan, who spent five years at AT&T Labs-Research, noted that a lot of the challenges are the same when leading a corporate group and a university research group: fighting for funding, intensive recruiting, marketing, and managing workload. An academic research group, he quipped, was “like a startup with no stock options.” The tradeoff, of course, is a bit more independence and flexibility of schedule.
—A couple of Microsoft research projects caught my ear. One is by principal researcher Feng Zhao, who is designing sensor networks for energy-efficient data centers—more on this another time, but Zhao moderated a panel yesterday called “Browsing the physical world in real-time,” which relates a bit to Wade’s story this week about the “Internet of things.” And the other is smart Web-conferencing software by Zhengyou Zhang, another principal researcher in Redmond—this uses computer-vision algorithms to track the gaze and gestures of meeting participants, so as to give more clues about who is speaking or listening to whom. (Having worked out of a remote office for the past three years, I can appreciate the value of that.)
Lastly, as we were waiting to clear the Ballard Locks to enter Puget Sound, we passed through a waterway famous for its migrating salmon. Apparently the action of the lock creates turbulence in the water that brings baby salmon to the surface, where they are easy pickings for predatory seagulls. So the locks have high-pressure water jets to spray the surface and keep the birds away. I’m not sure what this says about corporate competition, but I found it touching.