2010: A Year of Peerless Accomplishment
December 22, 2010 9:00 AM PT

From its inception in 1991, Microsoft Research has hewed to a remarkably unwavering mission. Its tenets are threefold: to invest in basic research to advance the state of the art in computer science, to transfer technologies into Microsoft products when appropriate, and to collaborate openly with the scientific community.

The year 2010 has not varied from this established, successful tradition. But unlike 1991, when Microsoft Research was in its nascent stage, the organization is now fully mature, has grown into a worldwide presence, and has gained eminence as that modern-day rarity: an industrial research unit dedicated to pursuing pure research, in dozens of areas, that is helping to transform the future.

Such a track record, naturally, has its own rewards. It’s little surprise, then, that a review of Microsoft Research’s 2010 highlights are bookended by a pair of illustrious awards, with others—including the biggest—sprinkled throughout the year.

Let’s take a leisurely look back at a most eventful annum:

January

For Microsoft Research, the year began a day early and on a celebratory note. On Dec. 31, as part of the annual New Year Honours list, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed Andrew Herbert, Microsoft distinguished engineer and then-managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to computer science.

  • On Jan. 22, Microsoft Research India celebrated its fifth anniversary by hosting TechVista, its annual research symposium. As part of the proceedings, the facility launched ResearchandYou.com, a portal for the computer-science community, and announced its support for the Unique Identification Authority of India’s effort to create a unique number for every one of the nation’s 1.2 billion citizens.
  • Three days later, The Bing Translator team announced that its service had added Haitian Creole translation services, the result of an intense, rapid effort by Microsoft Research Redmond to provide assistance in the wake of the country’s devastating earthquake.

February

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) signed a memorandum of understanding with Microsoft, which agreed to provide NSF-supported researchers with access to Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud-services platform. Dan Reed, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research’s eXtreme Computing Group (XCG), said the agreement could support thousands of scientific research programs. This democratization of cloud services spread to Japan, Europe, and Australia in a series of additional announcements over the course of the year.

  • Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research was named to BusinessWeek’s list of the world’s most influential designers.

March

This was a busy month, but none of the developments could compare to the news that Chuck Thacker, technical fellow at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, had been named the 2009 winner of the A.M. Turing Award, presented annually and popularly regarded as the Nobel Prize of computing. Thacker is best known for his design and subsequent work on the Alto, the first modern personal computer. After joining Microsoft Research in 1997, he helped establish Microsoft Research Cambridge and led the design of the earliest prototypes of tablet computers.

  • On March 3 and 4, Microsoft Research hosted its annual TechFest event, a two-day technology extravaganza for Microsoft employees. Scores of demos were available for perusal, covering a broad swath of cutting-edge computer-science projects. Among those that gained the most attention were ones focused on natural user interfaces, client-plus-cloud interactions, and computers able to work on the user’s behalf.
  • The External Research division of Microsoft Research announced the availability of the Chemistry Add-in for Word, which enables students, scientists, and researchers to insert chemical labels, formulas, and 3-D depictions into Microsoft Office Word documents.
  • danah boyd of Microsoft Research New England delivered the opening keynote for the South by Southwest Music+Film Interactive gathering. One of the world’s foremost authorities on social computing, boyd discussed the changing nature of privacy in the digital age.

April

The season of major computer-science conferences began in earnest, with Microsoft Research making a splash during both the World Wide Web Conference and CHI 2010, the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM’s) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

  • F#, a functional programming language for the .NET Framework, made its debut as part of Visual Studio 2010. The language, invented and incubated by Don Syme of Microsoft Research Cambridge, took as its catchphrase “F is for ‘fun.’”
  • Jaron Lanier of XCG was named to TIME magazine’s annual list of the 100 people who most affect our world.

May

A pair of high-profile events occurred on consecutive days in early May. On May 5, Microsoft Research Cambridge staged its second annual Enabling Innovation Through Research event. Following a keynote address from Andrew Herbert, visitors got a chance to examine demos from the host facility and its collaborative institutes.

  • Not to be undone, Microsoft Research Silicon Valley hosted its fifth biennial Silicon Valley TechFair the next day. Also featuring 22 demos, the event included a keynote talk by Rick Rashid, Microsoft Research senior vice president, and a presentation called eScience in the Cloud, a collaborative effort between External Research and the Berkeley Water Center to develop a digital watershed for Northern California’s Russian River.

June

LambdaMART, a boosted-tree version of the ranking algorithm LambdaRank developed by the Machine Learning and Intelligence group at Microsoft Research Redmond, won its track of the 2010 Yahoo! Learning to Rank Challenge.

July

The most significant news of a busy month came on July 15, when Peter Lee was announced as the new managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond. Lee, known for his groundbreaking work in software security and reliability, had served as founding director of the Transformational Convergence Technology Office for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He earlier had served as head of the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University. Lee, who assumed responsibility on Sept. 27, took over for Henrique Malvar, who had been named Microsoft Research chief scientist and had been asked to help set the technical direction for the organization’s facilities worldwide.

  • The External Research division hosted its Faculty Summit on July 12 and 13. The 11th installment of the annual event included the announcement of the recipients of the Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows grant program. The event also featured a Design Expo, which promotes collaboration between the design and computer-science communities. The Faculty Summit also served as the opportunity to announce a partnership with NASA to offer a half-billion high-resolution images of Mars via WorldWide Telescope.
  • A few days before the Faculty Summit, External Research introduced the Microsoft Biology Initiative, designed to help biological scientists and programmers conduct research more efficiently and affordably.
  • danah boyd was named the Smartest Academic as part of Fortune magazine’s list of The Smartest People in Tech. Indrani Medhi of Microsoft Research India was the designer runner-up.
  • The summer intern season at Microsoft Research reached fever pitch, while researchers in internet search played a significant role in the ACM’s annual SIGIR conference on information retrieval.

August

Technology Review announced its annual TR35 list of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35, and no fewer than five individuals from Microsoft Research were honored by inclusion. The awards went to danah boyd; Ranveer Chandra of Microsoft Research Redmond; Medhi; T. Scott Saponas, who had just joined Microsoft Research Redmond from the University of Washington; and Jian Sun of Microsoft Research Asia.

  • danah boyd also was named winner of the 2010 Communication and Information Technologies Section of the American Sociological Association’s Award for Public Sociology.
  • Microsoft Research played a key role in two more major computer-science conferences: SIGCOMM, the annual conference of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communications, and SIGGRAPH, the analogous event from computer graphics and interactive techniques.
  • From Aug. 8 to 14, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Microsoft Research collaborated with St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University and the Academic Physics and Technology University to hold the Microsoft Data Structures and Algorithms School. Andrew V. Goldberg of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley served as school director, and Fabrizio Gagliardi of External Research was part of the organizing committee.

September

A brief calm before an autumnal storm, this month featured the Sept. 3 announcement of a prototype for ScholarLynk, a desktop solution designed to help researchers manage, organize, and share ideas and information more effectively.

October

Microsoft Research Asia took center stage in this most active of months, with a week chockfull of events held in Shanghai, China. University professors gleaned insights into the future of cloud-plus-client computing, natural user interactions, and the challenges of large data on Oct. 18 during the Asia Faculty Summit. The next day, the facility hosted its Innovation Day 2010, featuring 22 demos that collectively sketched a broad picture of the technologies that will shape our computing future. Microsoft Research’s Asia signature event, the Computing in the 21st Century Conference, took place on Oct. 20 at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, featuring, among others, Rashid; Hsiao-Wuen Hon, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia; and no fewer than three winners of the Turing Award: Barbara Liskov, Thacker, and John Hopcroft.

  • Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s vaunted new mobile-phone operating system, launched on Oct. 11, with key contributions from Microsoft Research.
  • Also debuting this month was the beta version of WikiBhasha, a multilingual content-creation tool for Wikipedia that enables contributors to translate existing articles into multilingual Wikipedias and compose new articles or enhance existing ones in the language of their choice.
  • External Research also enjoyed a productive month. It presented its eScience Workshop in Berkeley, Calif., where participants were shown an environmental project that offers researchers data resources for detailed climate-science study, based on MODISAzure, a pipeline for downloading, processing, and reducing diverse satellite imagery. During the event, Phil Bourne, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, was presented with the third annual Jim Gray eScience Award, named after the late Microsoft Research technical fellow and Turing Award winner.
  • Also during this month, three papers written all or in part by authors associated with Microsoft Research were named winners of the ACM Special Interest Group on Operating Systems Hall of Fame Award for significant research papers that have stood the test of time for at least a decade. Butler W. Lampson, Mike Schroeder, Gray, and the late Roger Needham were the Microsoft Research honorees.
  • Another award of distinction went to Christopher M. Bishop, Microsoft distinguished scientist based at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Bishop was named a vice president of the U.K.’s Royal Institution, for which he will be responsible for creating and delivering an online digital strategy. In 2008, he had delivered the renowned Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.
  • Microsoft Research also demonstrated several new, natural user interfaces during the ACM’s Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, including LightSpace—which combines elements of surface computing and augmented reality to create an interactive space in which any surface can be fully interactive—and new tools for pen-plus-touch computing.

November

Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge since 2003, was elevated to the role of chairman of Microsoft Research’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa region. He was succeeded as head of Microsoft Research Cambridge by Andrew Blake, who joined the facility in 1999, founded the Computer Vision group, and was named deputy managing director in 2008.

December

On Dec. 9, Microsoft Research New England hosted a workshop entitled Computational Aspects of Biological Information, which brought together more than 100 Boston-area experts to discuss challenges in computational biology.

  • The Path of Go, a new Xbox Live Arcade game, was launched by Microsoft Research Cambridge. Developed as part of that facility’s broader drive to develop and apply machine-learning principles, the game included artificial intelligence developed using F#.
  • As the year began to wind down, Microsoft Research received one more bit of heartwarming news. Tony Hoare, winner of the Turing Award in 1980, was announced as the 2011 recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ John von Neumann Medal, presented for outstanding achievements in computer-related science and technology.

A bit of celebration was thus in order. For Microsoft Research, 2010 proved quite a fruitful and rewarding year.