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June, 2014

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.

June, 2014

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Nurturing the future of computer science

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    Each year since 2005, Microsoft Research has awarded Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowships to promising, early-career academics who are engaged in innovative computing research and have the potential to make significant advances in the state of the art. These fellowships—which include a cash award and access to software, invitations to conferences, and engagements with Microsoft Research—allow bright young academics to devote their time to pushing the boundaries of computer science research, freed from the distraction of grinding out grant proposals.

    Rising stars of the future of computer science

    So it is with immense pleasure that we announce the 2014 Faculty Fellows: seven young professors from around the world who are exploring groundbreaking, high-impact research—the kind of research that has the potential to solve seemingly intractable societal problems. They now join the more than 50 talented academics who have received our past Faculty Fellowships.

    Here, then, are this year’s Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows and a brief description of their current research:

    • Vinod Vaikuntanathan, assistant professor of Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
      Professor Vaikuntanathan’s main research interest is in the theory and practice of cryptography. He has played a prominent role in the development of lattice-based cryptography and leakage-resilient cryptography, and more recently has focused on the theory and practice of computing on encrypted data.
    • David Steurer, assistant professor of Computer Science, Cornell University
      Professor Steurer investigates the power and limitations of efficient algorithms for optimization problems that lie at the heart of computer science and its applications. A focus of his work has been the Unique Games Conjectures, whose resolution—no matter in which direction—promises new insights into the capabilities of efficient algorithms.
    • Roxana Geambasu, assistant professor of Computer Science, Columbia University
      Professor Geambasu works at the intersection of three computer science fields: distributed systems, operating systems, and security and privacy. Her research aims to improve privacy in today's data-driven world. Her goal is to forge a new world, in which web services are designed from the ground up with privacy in mind, and where users are more aware of the privacy implications of their online actions.
    • Yong-Yeol Ahn, assistant professor of Informatics and Computer Science, Indiana University Bloomington
      Professor Ahn’s research develops and uses mathematical and computational methods to study complex systems, such as cells, the brain, society, and culture. His recent contribution includes a new framework to identify pervasively overlapping modules in networks, network-based algorithms to predict viral memes, and a new computational approach to study food culture.
    • Percy Liang, assistant professor of Computer Science, Stanford University
      Professor Liang’s research interests include parsing natural language into semantic representations (for example, executable code) for supporting intelligent user interfaces, and developing machine learning algorithms that infer rich latent structures from limited supervision (such as program output), balancing computational and statistical tradeoffs.
    • Byung-Gon Chun, assistant professor of Computer Science, Seoul National University
      Professor Chun is interested in creating new platforms for operating and distributed systems. He is currently developing a big data platform that makes it easy to implement large-scale, fault-tolerant, heterogeneous data processing applications. He has also built systems that seamlessly integrate cloud computing with mobile devices for improved performance, reliability, and security.
    • Diego Fernández Slezak, assistant professor of Computer Science, School of Exact and Natural Sciences, University of Buenos Aires
      Professor Fernández Slezak’s work focuses on novel methods for text analysis in massive-scale repositories to find stereotyped patterns in human thought. The goal is the development of machine-learning techniques to study digital text corpora associated with cognitive processes, aiming at identifying the mental operations underlying behavioral processes, with application to mental health and education.

    For the tenth year of the program, we selected seven 2014 Faculty Fellows from the following five regions:

    • Latin America and the Caribbean
    • Europe, the Middle East, and Africa
    • The United States and Canada
    • Australia and New Zealand
    • Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore

    Microsoft Research is committed to creating opportunities for researchers around the world to make an impact, and we are delighted to provide these fellowships to recognize the work, and nurture the careers, of tomorrow’s academic research leaders.

    Jaime Puente, Director, Chair of Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship Program, Microsoft Research Connections

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    “Beauty of Programming”—delighting in the art of coding

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    2014 Beauty of Programming contest

    What is the “beauty of programming”? In our eyes, it is the act of creating a program that is in itself beautiful—a program that uses sophisticated algorithms to solve real problems, meeting the user’s needs while ensuring the best experience in the least amount of time.

    Every spring for the past three years, aspiring young programmers in China have had the chance to explore this coding ideal though Microsoft’s and IEEE’s annual Beauty of Programming (BOP) contest. Part of our ongoing effort to inspire future IT leaders, the 2014 BOP event drew more than 18,000 talented contestants and generated a wealth of innovative programs.

    The contest finalists gathered in Microsoft Research Asia’s sky garden.
    The contest finalists gathered in Microsoft Research Asia’s sky garden.

    Throughout the year, Microsoft Research Asia representatives visit numerous university campuses to showcase our latest technology and, coincidentally, to promote the BOP contest. This spring, we visited 21 schools in 12 cities throughout China, motivating young computer programmers to enter the contest and demonstrate their extraordinary skills. The 18,000 contestants in the 2014 BOP contest represented 150 universities and, for the first time, included students from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    This year’s BOP event introduced a new, more efficient way to judge the contestants’ programming skills. Instead of relying on Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) contest forms, as we had in the past, we evaluated the contestants during the early rounds by using Code Hunt, an online game that challenges contestants to demonstrate their coding skills while solving intriguing puzzles.

    Two contestants (left) explain their demo to a researcher (right).
    Two contestants (left) explain their demo to a researcher (right).

    The event started with a qualification round, followed by a preliminary round, a three-hour semifinal round, and then a final round. Fifty-six students, representing 25 universities, made it to the final round, where they undertook an urban informatics challenge designed by Microsoft researchers in collaboration with City Next, the Bing Maps team, and the Microsoft Azure team. This challenge was extremely timely, as urban informatics has attracted much attention recently. The young finalists had a choice between creating an urban analytics application based on real-word data from the city of Yangzhou or forecasting the mid-afternoon air quality index based on historical and current air quality and meteorological information.

    Jonathan Tien of Microsoft Research Asia, center, is flanked by first-place winners Xiangyan Sun (left) and Shan Wang (right).
    Jonathan Tien of Microsoft Research Asia, center, is flanked by first-place winners Xiangyan Sun (left) and Shan Wang (right).

    Xiangyan Sun from Fudan University in Shanghai and Shan Wang from Tsinghua University in Beijing earned first place. Working as a pair, they used historical, four-hour air quality data, along with temperature and meteorological information, to forecast a twelve-hour air quality index using support vector machine (SVM) classifier technology. Sun enthusiastically spoke about the impact of the BOP event. “I felt really happy during the contest and excited to be coding under a 12-hour deadline, while enjoying the experience of pair programming. Many thanks to Microsoft for providing such an invaluable opportunity.”

    Although the 2014 Beauty of Programming contest has ended, the contestants’ passion for computer programming remains, as do opportunities for those nine students who received awards during the event. These talented young people will be eligible for Microsoft internships—a win-win outcome, in that Microsoft can benefit from the expertise and enthusiasm of these aspiring young IT developers, while the students receive opportunities to work on innovative projects and further experience the beauty of programming.

    Beauty of Programming 2014 contestants and event organizers from IEEE and Microsoft
    Beauty of Programming 2014 contestants and event organizers from IEEE and Microsoft

    We at Microsoft Research are delighted to have co-sponsored of the BOP 2014 contest and to have witnessed the talented participants’ sophisticated algorithms on urban informatics. The passion and potential exhibited by these enthusiastic contestants will inspire and motivate Microsoft and the BOP contest well into the future.

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia
    Xin Zou, Principal Development Manager, Bing

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    Kinect for Windows helps decode the role of hand gestures during conversations

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    We all know that human communication involves more than speaking—think of how much an angry glare or an acquiescent nod says. But apart from those obvious communications via body language, we also use our hands extensively while talking. While ubiquitous, our conversational hand gestures are often difficult to analyze; it’s hard to know whether and how these spontaneous, speech-accompanying hand movements shape communication processes and outcomes. Behavioral scientists want to understand the role of these nonverbal communication behaviors. So, too, do technology creators, who are eager to build tools that help people exchange and understand messages more smoothly.

    To decipher what our hands are doing when we talk to others, researchers need to obtain traces of hand movements during the conversation and be able to analyze the traces in a reliable yet cost-efficient way. Professor Hao-Chuan Wang and his team at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan realized that they could solve this problem by using a Kinect for Windows sensor to capture and record both the hand gestures and spoken words of a person-to-person conversation.

    This photo shows the actual laboratory setup, in which Kinect sensors were placed to accommodate face-to-face and video-mediated conditions.

     This photo shows the actual laboratory setup, in which Kinect sensors were placed to accommodate face-to-face and video-mediated conditions.

    “We thought to use Kinect because it’s one of the most popular and available motion sensors in the market. The popularity of Kinect can increase the potential impact of the proposed method,” Wang explains. “It will be easy for other researchers to apply our method or replicate our study. It's also possible to run large-scale behavioral studies in the field, as we can collect behavioral data of users remotely as long as they are Kinect users. Kinect's software development kit is also … easy to work with.”

    With the advantages of Kinect for Windows in mind, Wang collaborated with Microsoft Research Asia to use Kinect for Windows to capture hand movements during conversation. “I knew that Microsoft Research was conducting some advanced research with Kinect,” he notes, “so we were very interested in working with Microsoft researchers to deliver more good stuff to the research community and society.”

    During the resulting collaborative research, the team placed two Kinect sensors back-to-back between two conversational participants to document the session. The sensors captured the speech and hand movements of each of the interlocutors simultaneously, providing a time-stamped recording of the spoken words and hand traces of the interacting individuals.

      Schematic depicting the placement of the Kinect for Windows sensors during the experiments

    Schematic depicting the placement of the Kinect for Windows sensors during the experiments

    To demonstrate the utility of the approach, the researchers compared the amount and similarity of hand movements under three conditions: face-to-face conversation, video-mediated chat, and audio-mediated chat. The two participants could see each other during the face-to-face and video chat conversations, but they had no visibility of one another during the audio chat.

     The researchers encountered some unexpected results. “First, perhaps counter-intuitively, we found that people actually gesture as much in an audio chat as in face-to-face and video chat. This suggests that people gesture probably not for others but for themselves, as it's clear that people are still moving their hands even when their partners cannot see it,” Wang remarks.

    This chart shows that people "talked with their hands" at about the same rate during audio-only conversations, suggesting that hand gestures are more for the speaker's benefit than the listener's.

    This chart shows that people "talked with their hands" at about the same rate during audio-only conversations, suggesting that hand gestures are more for the speaker's benefit than the listener's.

    The investigators also looked at the relation between the conversation participants’ comprehension of the whole communication and the amount of gestures used. Surprisingly, they didn’t find a correlation between a participant’s level of understanding and the amount of gestures their conversation partner used. Instead, they found an association between a participant’s understanding of the conversation and that participant’s own gesturing, strengthening the possibility that hand movements are not necessarily “body language” for producing and conveying messages, but rather self-reinforcers or signifiers related to the consumption of messages.

    This graph shows the association between self-gestures and the level of understanding, suggesting that hand gestures actually function as self-reinforcers.This graph shows the association between self-gestures and the level of understanding, suggesting that hand gestures actually function as self-reinforcers.

    The potential applications of using Kinect sensors in this method are broad, covering theoretical and practical objectives. For example, it is possible to deploy studies in the field to examine the usability of particular communication tools (for example, whether Skype gets people to move their hands when they talk). In addition, researchers may be able to use the technique to accumulate experience-oriented design insights at a speed and scale unavailable previously.

    “It's easy to set up and program Kinect, so it greatly reduces the overhead of applying it to cross-disciplinary research, where the goal is to spend time on studying and solving the domain problems rather than technical troubleshooting,” Wang explains.

    A full paper about Wang’s collaboration project with Microsoft Research Asia was presented at CHI 2014, the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, which was held in Toronto, Canada, this April.

    “I really enjoyed working with Microsoft Research Asia. I received both great support and freedom to pursue the topics of interest to me. This makes the collaboration really unique and valuable,” Professor Wang says, “and I hope to closely collaborate with Microsoft researchers to scale up the current work. The proposed method has the potential to help us better understand communication behaviors in unconventional communication settings, such as cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communications, and in educational discourse, such as teacher-student interactions. Because language-based communication often doesn't go well in these situations, the non-verbal part may become more functional. Deeper understanding of the processes is likely to inform the design of technologies to better support these situations.”

    Winnie Cui, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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