Microsoft Research Offers Peek Into Future
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA -- Watch out, your PC is cozying up to you.
Today's trends of faster processors, abundant memory, and massive storage are providing the framework to support systems that work more intimately with people, from
sorting your e-mail, to speaking in your own voice, to providing
Those are just a few glimpses of the future emerging from the labs of Microsoft Research (known as MSR), a pure research facility with four offices around the world. As is typical of pure research, many of the projects start as technology without a product. But not for long, says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of MSR. He spoke Monday in Microsoft's Silicon Valley Speaker Series, at the campus that in May became the latest site of MSR facilities.
"Our number one priority is to expand the state of the art in each of the areas in which we do research," Rashid says. The close number two: to transfer those innovations to Microsoft products.
Consider, for example, software under development that monitors and models human behavior. The initial implementation might be an intelligent e-mail sorter that assigns numeric values to all messages, based on past handling of similar e-mail. The boss's missives may rise to the top as among the most promptly read, routine cc's drop near the bottom, and junk mail hits the cellar. Microsoft uses such a filter internally.
An even smarter assistant will monitor your work habits and correlate them with your calendar. It may book extra time for an appointment that involves travel, based on commute data available from online traffic monitoring.
"Your notebook knows all that about you already," Rashid says. "We think we could put this information to use."
Some fruits of the research are fairly quickly evident. Specific products born of MSR endeavors include ClearType, the more readable text used in Pocket PCs, and the Tablet PC. Researchers have contributed to Microsoft's streaming media, notably Microsoft Audio.
Researchers also check for bugs in packaged software, and continue to develop new ways to test for bugs. Rashid estimates that as much as 20 percent of MSR's efforts are implemented in programming and development tools.
That Microsoft was able to simultaneously ship Windows 95 and Office 95 is due in large part to MSR's development of optimization technology that enabled the programs to require only 8MB of RAM. MSR was working on that technique several years before the Office and Windows product teams realized they could put it to good use.
"Today, it's hard to find anything we do as a company that hasn't been influenced by the research group," Rashid says.
Rashid came to Microsoft in 1991, the year MSR was founded. He had spent 12 years as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where he directed the CMU Mach Operating System Project. The Mach kernel is used by the Open Software Foundation as well as in corporate and academic research laboratories.
Because of Rashid's background and those of the many PhDs who work in MSR, the approach is heavily academic. The organization frequently partners with academic institutions on projects, and welcomes interns and academic visitors, he says.
Rashid won't say how many patents MSR has produced in its decade of operation, but says the number is substantial. MSR staff also regularly publishes professional papers at programming conferences and academic events. MSR has sites in Redmond, Washington; Mountain View, California; China; and Cambridge, the United Kingdom.
In its first decade, MSR has explored aspects of technology that have grown even faster than Moore's Law (the Intel adage that processor power doubles every two years). Described below are some of the areas that Rashid marks for significant advances in the next five to ten years.
First the software studies your voice patterns. "You have to have a throat mike on for four hours, talking constantly, to extract the auditory qualities of someone's voice," Rashid says. Then the system can produce and "play" that same voice, not as recordings, but actually producing new speech that mimics the lilts and tones of the speaker.
"It's a very early stage of the technology," Rashid says. "We get about
50 percent of the answers right." For now, he says, that technology is best
suited to help answer the very specific, expensive questions at the end of