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Ever mistype your query in a search engine? Or just flat out misspell it? Of course you have—we all do, especially when our search involves “spelling demons” like minuscule, millennium, or embarrassment. Or personal names: believe it or not, there are more than 500 ways that Britney Spears has been misspelled on the web. Misspellings and typos make it difficult for search engines to give users the best results.
Better spelling algorithms can get users to the information they seek, without their having to carry around a dictionary or scroll through several pages of results. Quality spelling algorithms become even more relevant when the searcher is using a smartphone, as it is difficult to browse through page after page of results on those tinier screens.
With this in mind, Microsoft Research and Microsoft Bing launched the Speller Challenge, encouraging participants worldwide to compete in creating a spelling algorithm that generates the most plausible alternatives for web search queries. Participants were able to access real-world data at web scale by using the Microsoft Research Web N-gram Services. Moreover, participants were able to improve their algorithm and see how it compared to other spelling correction systems by using an evaluation service that we made available to them.
More than 300 participants registered for the Speller Challenge, representing every continent (well almost; no one actually registered from Antarctica) and including researchers from academia, research laboratories, and industry. Winners were automatically selected, based on how well their system performed with respect to figuring out the best spelling alternatives (for example, “Britney Spears” for “briteny spears”). On Tuesday, July 19, we hosted a workshop at Bing headquarters, where Harry Shum, corporate vice president of Bing, presented the winners their prizes. Congratulations to everyone who took part in the program:
Finally, here are a few remarks from first-place winner Gord Lueck:
“Microsoft has been a leader in offering visibility into search data for research purposes. Big data is the driver of many of the tools that make the Internet useful. Through Microsoft, some of that data is now available to the community at large to build up and design algorithms with. It’s this generosity and openness that has allowed many independent researchers, such as myself, to design a high quality software product that leverages these valuable data.
“A very good quality dataset for training was given to the researchers, providing a benchmark against which to compare their work in near real-time against other researchers in the same field. This quick feedback cycle undoubtedly helps to accelerate the pace of research beyond that which might have occurred in an environment where data and methods are hoarded and protected.”
Gord also noted that the competition focused on U.S. English spellings, pointing out that “it would have been nice to see some more variety in input languages and grammars.” Sounds like an idea for another contest!
—Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing, Microsoft Research Connections
One of the coolest things about working in Microsoft Research is the opportunity to see what bright students can do with cutting-edge technology. Project Hawaii is a perfect example. This project, which began in January 2010, offers students the opportunity to explore how the cloud can enhance our mobile devices, especially the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone. In Project Hawaii, we’ve provided students with tools, services, and equipment for creating their own cloud-enabled mobile applications. The current Project Hawaii platform consists of a Windows Phone 7 smartphone and several cloud services, including Relay, Rendezvous, Optical Character Recognition, Speech to Text, and Windows Azure for computation and data storage.
Some 300 students at 21 universities (see the list of schools) participated in the project earlier this year, building approximately 80 cloud-enhanced apps for the Windows Phone 7. Past Project Hawaii apps have ranged from MobiSafe, which alerts drivers when they have entered an area with a high risk of traffic accidents, to ReceiptManager, which provides one convenient location to consolidate and view all the digital receipts that are generated by the user’s mobile payment applications. Then there’s Flagged Down, an app that lets users search for and hail cabs in their vicinity.
Just imagine a scenario where MobiSafe alerts you—via a hands-free smartphone, of course—that you’re driving into an accident danger zone. You decide to park your car and, by using Flagged Down, you easily hail a nearby taxi, which takes you safely to your destination. You pay the driver with your debit card, and the amount is automatically added to your (unfortunately) growing stack of payments in the ReceiptManager.
Sound far-fetched? Well, so did GPS and robotic vacuum cleaners not too long ago. Really, there is no limit to the possible applications that these talented, motivated students can conceive.
Another Project Hawaii application has the potential to save lives by recording a heart patient’s EKG (electrocardiogram) and location and relaying these data to healthcare professionals via a web-based portal. Or maybe you’re a lonely zombie, pining away for another brain-chomping buddy. Fear not: a Project Hawaii game app will enable you to infect other players when they’re in physical proximity to you. Just think of the possibilities for a zombie mob-flash—or more seriously, the options for a variety of location-based games.
Professor Nilanjan Banerjee, whose programming paradigms class at the University of Arkansas developed the above-mentioned remote EKG monitoring app, exudes a level of enthusiasm that is characteristic of faculty members who are involved in Project Hawaii. “Hawaii is a platform that helps rapid development of fairly complex applications. With the help of cloud services that can be accessed through simple intuitive APIs, the time to developing a sophisticated application is reduced considerably,” he says. “This is especially important in a project-oriented course, where the system needs to be built and adequately tested within a two-three month time frame.”
“There are two ingredients that the Hawaii initiative provides that are key to the success of a mobile system or programming class,” continues Professor Banerjee. “First, for the instructor, it provides access to functional cloud services (and example source code) that he can use to demo cloud-enabled applications in class. Personally, I have found it very fruitful to demo services like the relay and speech-to-text in class and run my students through the client-side source code. Second, Hawaii provides us access to actual Windows Phones that students can play with—I have found that the interest of students is spiked when they work with real devices.”
Another of Professor Banerjee’s classes, “Hot Topics in Mobile and Pervasive Computing,” developed Traveltant (shorthand for travel consultant), a Windows Phone 7 application that combines data from Facebook, Bing, and Yelp to provide personalized planning and recommendation to users while traveling.
Several 2011 Project Hawaii apps will be demonstrated at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, which is in progress in Redmond, Washington, from July 18 to 20. One that we expect to generate great interest comes from Stanford University and was developed by a group of students in Professor Jay Borenstein’s Computer Science Innovation class who collaborated with Microsoft Research to create myscience, a platform that enables scientists to launch citizen-science projects instantly. By using this Windows Phone 7 experience, citizens can capture data through sensors on the phone and submit the data to various scientific studies.
According to Professor Borenstein, “Project Hawaii was a key piece in enabling the sensor data from the phone to reach the Azure cloud in a reliable and efficient manner. In this case, Project Hawaii aided the development of software for creating substantial scientific data sets that would otherwise have been impractical to assemble. The tools made it possible for a team of students to create a full-featured application serving two audiences—scientists and ordinary citizens with Windows phones—in less than five months.”
Like I said, one of the coolest things about working at Microsoft Research is seeing what creative young people can do with technology. Oh, and the free soda—that’s pretty cool, too.
—Arjmand Samuel, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections
If you wanted to be certain that the best IT minds were focused on research into some of today’s most challenging societal problems, what would you do? How would you ensure that there is a global pipeline of computer-science talent? If you’re Microsoft Research, you would set aside US$1.4 million a year to fund the Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship program.
The 2011 Faculty Fellows receive their awards at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. Left to right: Microsoft Research Senior Vice President Rick Rashid, Brent Waters, Keith Noah Snavely, Anderson Rocha, Shwetak Patel, Alistair McEwan, Jure Lescovec, Krishnendu Chatterjee, Maria Florina Balcan, and Microsoft Research Connections Corporate Vice President Tony Hey. (Courtesy Microsoft Corporation)
Now in its seventh year, this program has named 40 academic researchers whose exceptional talent for research and thought leadership make them stand out in their fields. Each Fellow receives up to US$200,000 to pursue breakthrough, high-impact research. The grant is an unrestricted gift, providing the Fellows the freedom to plan their research, hire graduate students, build labs, and acquire equipment. In addition to the monetary grant, each Fellow also receives software, invitations to academic and professional conferences, and the opportunity to work directly with leading computer scientists at Microsoft Research.
During the 2011 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, currently in progress in Redmond, Washington (July 18 to 20), we were delighted to announce the recipients of the 2011 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowships. These stellar researchers were chosen through a rigorous, multi-tier selection process that involved more than 100 expert reviewers. The reviewers looked for future academic leaders who are at the beginning of their careers. Microsoft’s goal is to encourage these early-career faculty and help them work on the kind of high-risk/high-reward research that often is overlooked by traditional funding mechanisms.
With these goals in mind, the selection criteria included not only the capability to pursue cutting-edge research, but also the personal leadership skills that are necessary to bring those ideas to fruition and to communicate complex concepts in a way that inspires and intrigues. The review process winnowed the list of candidates down to 18 finalists, who were then interviewed in person by a panel of Microsoft Research executives and researchers, along with faculty members from some of the nation’s leading universities.
Out of this arduous process emerged eight of the best and brightest young researchers—men and women who not only have interesting research agendas, but who also have demonstrated the potential to do great work throughout their careers. So, without further ado, here are this year’s Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows:
So, how do the newest Faculty Fellows feel about their selection? The following are responses from two of them.
Shwetak Patel, an assistant professor at the University of Washington (departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering), conducts research in a variety of areas such as energy monitoring technology for the home and health-monitoring technologies that use mobile phones and a sensing system, and has been collaborating with Microsoft Research on natural user interface technologies.
Reflecting on the Faculty Fellowship, Professor Patel observed that “The biggest benefit of the fellowship is not just the award, but the exposure of my work to the rest of MSR [Microsoft Research] and the MSR connections that come from it. In addition, my students are going to equally benefit from working with MSR through these joint projects.
“This is a great honor and it is very respected by the community. The MSR Faculty Fellowship is probably one the most prestigious junior faculty awards out there and certainly the most prestigious corporate faculty fellowship.”
Anderson Rocha, an assistant professor at the University of Campinas (Institute of Computing), is working on new machine-learning and computer-vision techniques to help solve problems that are related to digital document forensics.
Professor Rocha proudly noted that his selection breaks new ground. “As far [as] I was told, I'm the first Latin American researcher actually working in Latin America to get this award. Therefore, it means a milestone in the sense it can motivate other young researchers in this region to keep working and believing they are also capable of achieving international recognition for their work.
“The award is an extra motivation for me and my students to keep pursuing digital forensics and innovative techniques to investigate solutions for helping law enforcement agencies in Brazil and abroad in their daily fight against organized crime.”
Professors Patel and Rocha exemplify the drive and intellect of all eight of our new Faculty Fellows. We are proud to welcome them into the fold, and we look forward to helping them advance computer science’s contributions to the future of society and our planet.
—Tom McMail, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections