Microsoft Research’s Jennifer Chayes: 5 Projects for the Future of Computing

When people talk about the future of technology, they tend to mention the same big players (what I might call the four horsemen of the consumer apocalypse): Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. And if they want to get more cutting-edge, maybe they’ll throw in a viral newcomer or two like Dropbox or Pinterest. Who they don’t tend to mention these days is Microsoft (the Lumia 900 notwithstanding).

And that’s just fine with the venerable old software firm (NASDAQ: MSFT). Microsoft seems content to chip away at consumer markets while still making most of its money with business-related products—and continuing to invest boatloads of cash into basic research, which is quite unlike other tech companies of its time. Last month, Microsoft ran its annual TechFest R&D show in Redmond, WA, where the usual array of dazzling demos were on display: image and video processing tricks, machine translation, search data visualization, and human-computer interfaces. But what impact will these kinds of projects have on Microsoft’s business—and on the future of computing?

These thoughts were in my head as I sat down with Jennifer Chayes, the managing director of Microsoft Research New England. Every techie within a five-mile radius of Kendall Square knows about Microsoft NERD (New England Research and Development Center) from all the events it hosts. But few people seem to know about all the research going on there. That’s starting to change.

The last time I spoke with Chayes in depth was July, when Microsoft Research New England turned three years old. Chayes told me about the first Microsoft product to come out of the lab—a piece of software called Readmissions Manager that is part of Amalga, a healthcare package used by hospitals. She also talked about some of the lab’s research in empirical economics, computational biology, and social networks.

A couple weeks ago, she fleshed out some of the newer projects emerging from the center, as well as giving me a broader update on the state of the lab, which has grown to 15 full-time researchers, 13 postdocs, half a dozen research assistants and software developers—and far too many students, interns, and visiting researchers to count. “We hire slowly, but we are hiring,” Chayes says.

On how Microsoft will impact the future of technology, Chayes points to a few key themes. “I think the defining questions of this era of science and technology are going to be the ‘big data’ questions. And a natural user interface for how to interpret this data and act on it,” she says. “The themes of big data and natural user interface run all through our products. They’re under the hood of all of our products in a way that makes them be able to personalize to you, to figure out what you actually want and how to get it to you in a better way.”

So, I wondered, how does she see computing and information flow in daily life continuing to evolve? In other words, what’s after search engines and social networks, say, five years from now?

“There is going to become a seamless personalization that will take in the social, and also take in what we do and what other … Next Page »

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5 responses to “Microsoft Research’s Jennifer Chayes: 5 Projects for the Future of Computing”

  1. Start-ups lacking a value proposition squarely in one of these areas face an arduous and unsatisfying trek along Sand Hill Road. Successful entrepreneurs explicitly need a Zen understanding of how data drives business value in their target market. Successful products explicitly need to be able to help extract the value buried in ever-larger quantities of data. And successful pricing models explicitly need to be founded on delivering value from the semantics of data. Period.

  2. Guest says:

    I have no doubt in my mind that Cambridge is a great place for Microsoft to do R&D. The next great centers of innovation will be in major cities and hubs of innovation (especially those near universities). The model of doing R&D in remote office parks where land is cheap just hasn’t been as productive in terms of innovation as we would like.

    With that said, I find Microsofts 5 ideas here to be somewhat important but not the kind of thing you’d put on the cover of a magazine. Compare what Microsoft is doing to Google (self driving cars), 23andMe (genomic research and services), IBM (distributed computing for studying proteins, vaccines, etc… with the World Community Grid) and of course Apple’s Siri.

    Microsoft has some great projects like Robotics Studio that could be much further developed in terms their capabilities and applications with real wow factor and market potential. When it comes to new technologies it would make sense for Microsoft to go further into hardware. The reason being is that in the software space, Microsoft has a great deal of competition from startups. When it comes to hardware, R&D is far more capital intensive, an area where Microsoft has a major advantage over the little guys.