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October, 2011

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

October, 2011

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    Sound the Bagpipes: Joint Initiative in Informatics Announced

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    On October 5, 2011, on the stately campus of the University of Edinburgh, Sir Tim O’Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, and Rick Rashid, chief research officer of Microsoft Research, officially inaugurated a significant joint initiative in informatics. It was standing room only in a crowded lecture hall as Rick delivered a Distinguished Lecture on the topic, “It’s a Data Driven World—Get Over It.”

    From left to right: Stratis Viglas, Charles Sutton, Guido Sanguinetti, Rick Rashid, Amos Storkey, Jane Hillston, Andy Gordon

    Rick Rashid and Andy Gordon with the supervisors of the first group of PhD students in the joint initiative. From left to right: Stratis Viglas, Charles Sutton, Guido Sanguinetti, Rick Rashid, Amos Storkey, Jane Hillston, Andy Gordon

    The new initiative brings together researchers from two of Europe’s leading centers in informatics: the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics (the UK’s largest and foremost university research center in informatics), and Microsoft Research Cambridge. It builds on the deep intellectual ties between the two institutions—ties that include research into programming languages and semantics, bioinformatics, machine learning, computer vision, natural-language processing, and security. Microsoft Research Cambridge’s Managing Director Andrew Blake, Distinguished Scientist Christopher Bishop, and Principal Researcher Andy Gordon all hold part-time professorships. University of Edinburgh faculty members—including Paul Anderson, David Aspinall, Gordon Plotkin, David Robertson, Sethu Vijayakumar, and Bonnie Webber—have received funding for PhD scholarships and senior fellowships from Microsoft Research in the past.

    To celebrate and consolidate these relationships, we are delighted to announce that Microsoft Research Connections is co-sponsoring four studentships (PhD scholarships) to be awarded to students at the University of Edinburgh. As Rick Rashid said at the launch, “PhD students are the glue that binds together collaborations between Microsoft Research and the university.” The studentships, which are offered through the Microsoft Research Connections PhD Scholarship Programme, receive half of their funding from Microsoft, and half from matching funds obtained by the university. As with all studentships provided by the PhD Scholarship Programme, the recipients will receive a three-year bursary and invitations to the Microsoft Research annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge, where they learn about Microsoft Research Cambridge research projects, acquire key transferable skills, and share ideas with Microsoft researchers. All students are supervised by a university faculty member and co-supervised by a Microsoft researcher. In addition, some of the University of Edinburgh studentship recipients may also be offered an internship at Microsoft Research.

    Applications for the first round of scholarships closed in September 2011. University of Edinburgh faculty members submitted proposals for twelve research projects for the studentships and the following four projects were selected:

    • Machine Learning Markets (supervisor: Amos Storkey, School of Informatics; co-supervisors: Peter Key and Thore Graepel, Microsoft Research Cambridge)
    • Statistical Language Processing for Programming Language Text (supervisor: Charles Sutton, School of Informatics; co-supervisor: Andy Gordon, Microsoft Research Cambridge)
    • Holistic Evaluation in LINQ (supervisor: Stratis Viglas, School of Informatics; co-supervisor: Gavin Bierman, Microsoft Research Cambridge)
    • Machine Learning Methods for Formal Dynamical Systems: a Systems Biology Case Study (supervisors: Jane Hillston and Guido Sanguinetti, School of Informatics; co-supervisors: Luca Cardelli and Andrew Phillips, Microsoft Research Cambridge)

    The students who are selected to participate in these research projects will begin their studies in September 2012.

    Microsoft products have previously benefited from Edinburgh research—for example, the technology behind the Microsoft Visual F# programming language was derived from research at the University of Edinburgh. As reported in The Scotsman, it’s hoped that the new initiative will encourage a new generation of innovators in Scotland. So strike up the bagpipes—here’s to more Edinburgh innovations!

    Andy Gordon, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research Cambridge, and Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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    Creating Better Software for Next-Generation Computer Architectures

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    Computers are everywhere, controlling everything from phones and traffic lights to airplanes and buildings. And inside each computer is software: line after line of complex code that tells the program, and any attached hardware, what to do.

    It’s amazing how the world has come to rely on software.

    Testing is a vital step in software development, but it’s hard to test every possible path through millions of lines of code. For example, in 2003 the northeastern United States and Canada experienced a blackout that affected more than 50 million people due to an obscure problem in the energy management system software. It was admitted afterwards that even extensive testing would not have found this problem. So we need more formal methods to determine such program behavior in advance. This software verification—the science of deducing whether a program will execute correctly—is crucial for reliability in complex programs.

    Much of the existing work in software verification does not consider the processor design itself, which is a problem because new multi-core processors and more complex computer architectures are being designed for next-generation computing platforms—from mobile phones and tablet devices to cloud computing data centers. A new collaboration between Koç University in Turkey, Microsoft Research, and the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre is taking a unique multidisciplinary approach, bringing together world-leading researchers in computer architecture, formal methods, and systems to produce a coherent, end-to-end, robust methodology for computer architecture design.

    Dr. Serdar Tasiran from Koç University leads the discussion with his research team: Hassan Salehe Matar, Cansu Erdogan, Umit Can Bekar, Omer Subasi, Zeynep Su Kurultay, and Emre Gul.

    Dr. Serdar Tasiran from Koç University leads the discussion with his research team:
    Hassan Salehe Matar, Cansu Erdogan, Umit Can Bekar, Omer Subasi, Zeynep Su Kurultay, and Emre Gul.

    Research leader at Koç University, Serdar Taşıran, is excited about this new project, “After working together for many years, it is tremendous that we are beginning this formal collaboration between Microsoft Research and Barcelona Supercomputer Centre to look at the whole problem of software verification from the processor-up.” This follows a strong history of working closely with Microsoft Research in Redmond, Cambridge, and India.

    The team aims to create a holistic, robust approach to the development of novel computer architectures. This is required to simultaneously push the state-of-the-art while permitting application-driven scenarios to be taken into account at an early stage in the hardware design.

    Tim Harris, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, explains “Modern programming languages such as F# rely on multiple layers of software for activities such as garbage collection and managing parallel work items. This collaboration will help us develop new hardware techniques to accelerate these activities, while ensuring that the correctness of programs is not compromised."

    Mateo Valero, director of Barcelona Supercomputing Center, adds, “This collaboration simultaneously targets the three requirements that modern multi-core computing faces today: processors should be fast and efficient, they should be easy to program, and they should compute in a verifiable and correct way."

    Fabrizio Gagliardi, director of Microsoft Research Connections Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), is delighted. “This is a strong partnership that brings together world experts in software verification and computer architecture to solve this hugely challenging problem,” he says. “We look forward to this project paving the way to more reliable software on tomorrow’s hardware.”

    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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    Open Data for Open Science: The Rise of X-Informatics

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    Astronomy is rapidly becoming exponentially data rich, with data management, data exploration, and knowledge discovering becoming central to the research enterprise. This has brought about great opportunity for growth and discovery in both astronomy and computational science. It has also created many technical and methodological challenges. The emerging field of AstroInformatics provides a bridge between the scientific challenges that are associated with this rapid data volume growth and the inherent complexity of astronomy, engineering, computer science, and applied statistics.

    This fascinating field was the subject of the AstroInformatics 2011 Conference (AI2011) held in Sorrento in September. The four-day conference attracted a broad community of astronomical, biomedical, computational, and educational professionals from around the world. An estimated 10 percent of the conference speakers presented via Skype, in keeping with the spirit of informatics. I’m proud to say that a number of representatives from the Earth, Energy, and Environment (E3) division of Microsoft Research Connections were active participants, both as attendees and presenters—including several keynotes.

    Dan Fay presents at the AstroInformatics 2011 Conference

    Keynote by Dan Fay, director of E3 at Microsoft Research Connections,
    on “The Rise of X-Informatics.

    Demonstrating Thought Leadership

    The conference began with a keynote by Dan Fay, director of E3 at Microsoft Research Connections, on “The Rise of X-Informatics.” Dan’s presentation successfully guided the discussion throughout the event on engaging scientific research with advanced computing technologies such as WorldWide Telescope, Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer, and OData.
    Later, Jenn Lin, senior test lead, Microsoft Silverlight, presented “Interactive Visualization of Massive Datasets Using Microsoft PivotViewer.” During the session, Jenn demonstrated compelling examples of how PivotViewer, an interactive data visualization tool, can be used to visualize and facilitate discovery of hidden science in large datasets. Audience feedback to Jenn’s session was positive.

    “We should really explore interactive visualization tools like this while doing our data mining,” commented visionary scientist George Djorgovski. Another attendee, May Wang, immediately began visualizing ways to integrate the tools into her own work. “My (biomedical informatics) research can really benefit from PivotViewer,” she noted.

    Building a Better Scientist

    On the final day of the conference, I had the honor of opening the Computational Education for Scientists Workshop with my keynote presentation, “Building a Better Scientist.” I should note that several of the researchers who attended AI2011 have been significant contributors to—and supporters of—the Microsoft Research Transform Science effort since 2007. They recognize not only the importance of interdisciplinary computing for sciences, but also the urgency of creating a generation of computationally empowered scientists. “Computational literacy and data literacy are critical for all,” said Kirk Borne, a professor at George Mason University.

    The day’s presentations stimulated a passionate discussion within the audience. Many people expressed their great expectation for Microsoft to help create computational thinkers among young scientists. “‘Building a Better Scientist’ will be a reserved topic at the next AstroInformatics meeting,” said Professor Giuseppe Longo a professor at the University Federico II in Naples, Italy, and a co-founder of the annual AstroInformatics conference.

    The grand finale of AI2011 was a half-day workshop on Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (WWT). A dozen local science educators from high schools and a regional science museum joined the session attendees for this fascinating workshop.

    I began the workshop by introducing Microsoft Research’s twentieth anniversary and presented WWT as a showcase project. Next, I introduced Alyssa Goodman of Harvard University who presented “Seamless Astronomy Enabled by WWT,” in which she discussed research that we recently featured on Science@Microsoft (see WorldWide Telescope and Seamless Astronomy). Her enthusiasm for WWT was reflected in her presentation. “WWT has made it to the community beyond personal levels,” she said. Speaker Ed Valentijn demonstrated WWT and Kinect in his session, the aptly named “Demonstrating WWT Live to 5,700 Festival Visitors.” (“The same will happen in Italy soon,” noted Professor Longo.)

    During an hour-long Q&A session, I demonstrated how easy it is to create an astonishing WWT tour by combining data and images in WWT, with additional presentation materials in almost any form: astronomical images, music, clip art, narrative audio, etc. The excited audience couldn’t help but discuss it amongst themselves (in Italian). Although I could understand only a little of their conversation, I knew that—once again—WWT had wowed the audience.

    Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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