Posted by Rob Knies

Microsoft Research Redmond "fishbowls"

 

“The sun never sets on Microsoft Research.”

That’s Peter Lee, Microsoft distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond, making his introductory remarks Sept. 27 during an event in Redmond commemorating Microsoft Research’s 20th anniversary. But if you’ve been following this space for the past 24 hours or so, you already know that.

From Beijing to Bangalore; from Cambridge, U.K., to Cambridge, Mass.; from Silicon Valley to Redmond—across six locations on three continents, researchers, scientists, and academics have taken the opportunity to acknowledge the accomplishments delivered over two decades of Microsoft Research—and to get a glimpse of the great things to come.

Rick Rashid, Microsoft Research chief research officer, delivered a talk that went all the way back to the founding of the organization by Nathan Myhrvold in September 1991. Rashid recalled his determination that his group be modeled similarly to academia, and he discussed the many contributions his researchers have made to a vast spectrum of Microsoft products.

He also recounted Microsoft Research’s original mission statement, which has remained constant for two decades.

“It embodies what we believe in and our sense of values,” Rashid said. “It states, first and foremost, that our goal as an institution is to move the state of the art forward. It doesn't matter what part of the state of the art we're moving forward, and it doesn't say anything in that first part of the mission statement about Microsoft. It simply says our goal is to further research in the fields in which we work.

“The second part is equally simple: When we have really good ideas, our goal is to make sure we get them into use, that we change the world with our ideas and with our technology. We take our best ideas and push them into our products as rapidly as we possibly can. That's important.”

The final part of that mission statement is to ensure, via monitoring of technology trends and exploration of promising avenues, that Microsoft has a future. A few minutes later, he began to discuss the future of Microsoft Research.

“Somebody asked me the other day what I would expect in 20 years,” he said. “‘What’s the 40th anniversary going to be like?’ I said, ‘Well, first off, I’m probably not going to be here.’ More to the point, I don’t know. No matter what scientist or futurist you want to talk to, they’re not going to be able to predict what’s going to happen in 20 years. …

“At the same time, I think that it’s going to be an exciting world. My hope for Microsoft Research is that whatever the world looks like in 20 years, that the underlying principles, the core values of the organization, the respect for investing in long-term basic research, the approach that we have to working openly and freely with researchers outside of Microsoft, the contributions we’re making to the academic community … I hope that those things don’t change.”

The event was no occasion for glad-handing and backslapping, and after Rashid’s remarks, the gathering—a select contingent of external visitors, intermixed with Microsoft researchers—went to work. Six groups, named after mathematics and computing luminaries— Boole, Babbage, Gödel, Turing, Simon, Shannon—received the assignment of brainstorming a recommended response to this question: What advice would make a difference for tomorrow’s leaders?

Off they went, each group sequestered in one of six conference rooms—exposed to view on two sides, which is why they are known colloquially as “fishbowls” (see photo)—lining two sides of the atrium of Building 99, Microsoft Research’s headquarters.

For three hours, the groups enjoyed good-natured discussions, and by mid-afternoon, they began to deliver the results of their deliberations. Similar, telling words were invoked repeatedly, words like “passion” and “role model,” “influence” and “impact.”

Each of the presenters were external visitors, many of them academics, typified by Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.

“The most important point to be made,” Lazowska said, “is to be unbelievably bullish on this field—just indescribably bullish.

“If you want advances, if you want revolutions in transportation or energy or health care or education or national security, then you need revolutions and innovations in computing.”