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John Winn - Principal Researcher

John WinnWhat did you dream you would be when you were younger?
I’ve always been fascinated by computers yet amazed by how many dumb mistakes they make. Even when I was at school, I was curious as to whether I could make a computer that had some ‘common sense’. I haven’t managed it yet – but I’m still trying.

Why did you become a researcher and how did you go about becoming a one?
Being a researcher is about being the first person in the world to understand something or to achieve something. It’s an enormous amount of fun dreaming up crazy ideas of things to try that no one has tried before.

As a researcher you are given the time and opportunity to see which of the ideas will actually work. In my case, I was very lucky to work with some of the world’s leading researchers in machine learning and machine vision during my Ph.D. Their crazy ideas gave me the knowledge and experience to start having some of my own.

What's it like working at Microsoft Research and what do you do?
Working at Microsoft Research is a lot of fun, because there is a lot of freedom to investigate the ideas that I find interesting.

Doing machine learning means extra freedom because it can be applied to so many different problems – I’ve worked on medical applications, bioinformatics, climate modelling, document understanding, machine vision and many more. At MSRC I’m lucky to be surrounded by experts in each of these areas which means I can go and get their help when I get stuck. In a typical project, I have to find and understand the patterns in the data, and then try to get the machine to find the patterns for itself.

It’s a bit like teaching a child to ride a bicycle – at first you need to give a lot of guidance and support but eventually you can let go and just watch (with a similar feeling of satisfaction!). And, as with all teaching, you learn a lot yourself as well.

What are your aspirations within your role?
My aspirations are to do with my research – I’m still trying to make a computer with ‘common sense’ – one which can see and hear and understand. There’s a long way to go but we are making encouraging progress.

How has working at Microsoft Research affected your career/research goals?
MSR is an unusual research environment in that there is freedom to pursue your own ideas but also there are opportunities to get your ideas into products that will have enormous impact world-wide. Whilst I’m still pursuing ambitious long term research goals, it’s also rewarding to see what ideas along the way could be useful to people right now.

Tell us an unusual/interesting fact about yourself?
I have cystic fibrosis – which means that I have to spend an hour or two every day taking medications and nebulisers to stay healthy. This can sometimes be quite a challenge on top of a full research workload, but the help and support that I’ve been given at MSRC has made it possible to do both.