Microsoft’s Craig Mundie on Future Interfaces, Computer Science Education, and Life After Bill G

Craig Mundie is a geek, and I mean that in the best possible way. Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, the 17-year veteran of Redmond, WA, still talks like an engineer, throwing out terms like “heterogeneous machine architectures,” “GUIs” (graphical user interfaces), and “clouds and clients” like there’s no tomorrow. It’s kind of refreshing, given that he is in charge of setting the long-term agenda for one of the most powerful companies on the planet.

Mundie is in the midst of a weeklong tour of some top universities around the country. He called me yesterday from Cambridge, MA, where he had just finished a presentation to Harvard University students, faculty, and guests. He visits the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (my alma mater) today, and comes to Kane Hall at the University of Washington tomorrow afternoon. It’s similar to the college tours Bill Gates used to do.

From what I can tell, the goal is to stir up interest in computer science, give audiences a glimpse of future computing systems as Microsoft sees them, and stimulate discussions about how these technologies can help solve some pressing global problems. (You can read more about Mundie’s tour and demos in this Seattle Times story.)

Besides hearing Mundie’s thoughts on computer science education and the future of computing, I wanted to drill down and ask him about the challenge of taking on Microsoft’s strategy development (after Gates stepped down last year) in the most difficult economic times in recent memory. I also wanted to ask him about the deeper culture of Microsoft, the renewed role of research in the company’s future, and the importance of nurturing relationships around the world—and his secret ally in that quest.

Here are some edited highlights from our conversation:

Xconomy: What are you trying to get across to university audiences on this tour?

Craig Mundie: In these presentations, I’m trying to get them to think not only about how computing evolves, but with that evolution, what kinds of problems will become approachable, and what are the new methods? Several things are evolving in parallel [and leading to more heterogeneous and complex machines]. That begets the requirement of how to do programming around parallel computing. With very high-scale computing facilities, the cloud and the client come together to form one system that people will program. They will use those things together with new display and sensing technologies.

Just as the GUI revolutionized computing, we could see a similar revolution with more natural interactions with machines, rather than just “type and point and click.” That will expand the number of people who can interact with computers. With the diversity, rooms can become computers [for instance]. You won’t think of them so much as a computer.

X: What are some of the global problems you think advanced computing will help solve?

CM: Beyond the computer science realm, I’ve talked about energy and the environment. I show one piece of research work we’re doing to compose computational models, a simplified climate model, at Princeton and Microsoft Research. It shows linkages between deforestation in the Amazon and atmospheric temperatures around the rest of the world. If you were a policy person, these kinds of things would give you tools to support your decision making.

In energy, we’re doing computer modeling and direct visualizations. I showed a model, loaned to us from TerraPower [the nuclear power firm spun off from Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures … Next Page »

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