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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.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    What if coding were a game?

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    Well, now it is. Today, we are pleased to announce the launch of Code Hunt, a browser-based game for anyone who is interested in coding. We built Code Hunt to take advantage of the fact that any task can be more effective and sustainable when it’s fun. And Code Hunt is fun! It uses puzzles, which players explore by means of clues presented as test cases. Players iteratively modify their code to match the functional behavior of secret solutions. Once their code matches, lights flash and sounds play, letting players know that they have “captured” the code. Players then get a score, which depends on how elegant their solution is, and are encouraged to move on to the next puzzle or level.

    Code Hunt is a browser-based game for anyone who is interested in coding.

    When we demoed Code Hunt a few months ago, we were amazed at the interest it elicited across groups at Microsoft, from those involved with K-12 education to those focused on college recruiting. However, today we want to talk about how Microsoft Research Asia used Code Hunt during their annual Beauty of Programming (BOP) event, a competition that attracts thousands of students in the Greater China Region (GCR).

    In the past, the BOP competition gave students specifications for problems and then checked their solutions automatically using a test suite. This is the traditional approach: students pit their wits against each other—and against the clock—to create a solution to a defined problem. While this kind of coding is similar to what they will encounter in courses or later in their careers, it isn’t necessarily fun.

    Code Hunt is different. Instead of giving students a problem and comparing their solutions to a set of fixed test cases, Code Hunt does the opposite: it presents an empty slate to the user and a set of constantly changing test cases. It thus teaches coding as a by-product of solving a problem that is presented as pattern matching inputs and outputs. The fun is in finding the pattern. Fun is seen as a vital ingredient in accelerating learning and retaining interest during what might be a long and sometimes boring journey towards obtaining a necessary skill—or in this case, winning a competition. The GCR team recognized that Code Hunt would not only make the BOP competition more fun, but it would also enable them to check the solutions more quickly and accurately.

    Once their code matches, lights flash and sounds play, letting players know that they have “captured” the code. With considerable optimism, we opened Code Hunt to BOP competitors in April. In three rounds, 2,353 students scored in the game, and the contestants solved an average of 55.7% of the puzzles. Since Code Hunt runs on Microsoft Azure, we have all the statistics. We could see that, on average, it took players 41 tries to capture the code for puzzles. However, we were really interested in the 350 top students who solved all of the puzzles—even the most difficult ones. These students needed only 7.6 tries on average to solve a puzzle, showing that Code Hunt can reliably surface the better coders. From these students, 13 were selected to proceed to the finals, and we wish them luck.

    Code Hunt was developed by a team in Microsoft Research led by Principal Development Lead Nikolai Tillmann and Principal Research Software Engineer Peli de Halleux. It is based on Pex, Microsoft Research’s state-of-the-art implementation of dynamic symbolic execution (analyzing a program to determine what inputs cause each part of a program to execute), which is available as a Power Tool in Microsoft Visual Studio.

    We look forward to Code Hunt’s further application and would be happy to receive inquiries regarding competitions or courses. But remember, anyone can play Code Hunt—for fun or to hone their coding skills. Just go to www.codehunt.com and start coding!

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research, and Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Microsoft Open Letter to Academic Research Community

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    I would like to thank the broad computing research community which has taken the time to share its thoughts and concerns about the recent closure of our research lab in Silicon Valley. I share with all of you a strong belief in the value of fundamental research and its importance for the long-term viability of our company, our industry, and our society, and want to reassure you of Microsoft’s commitment to fundamental research.
     
    Unfortunately, no organization—governmental, industrial, or academicis immune to change and the technology business in particular is defined by rapid evolution. Technology businesses need to constantly adapt in order to survive.  In July, our new CEO, Satya Nadella, discussed how Microsoft would transform to be the productivity and platform company for a mobile-first, cloud-first world, and evolve its culture to be more nimble. This transformation included reducing our workforce by 18,000 jobs. Each organization within Microsoft, including Microsoft Research, is accountable for driving changes in culture and organization, and each has to participate in the job reductions.
     
    No one at Microsoft feels good about the fact that a significant number of our friends and colleagues were laid off. These people contributed to the success of Microsoft over many years. As one can readily imagine, the decisions made about how the cuts were implemented within Microsoft Research were extremely complicated and personally painful. We feel with you the sense of loss that has been evoked by the closing of our Silicon Valley lab. We also understand the concerns that have been raised about the impact of these layoffs on certain parts of the community. We appreciate the community effort in helping those who have been impacted in the process, and we will be part of this effort.

    Please understand, though, that despite these layoffs, Microsoft maintains its commitment to fundamental research at a historically high level. Microsoft Research still stands strong with more than 1,000 people in labs worldwide, making it one of the largest research institutions of its kind in the world, either industrial or academic. Microsoft Research continues to be one of the very few organizations in industry that does true academic-style open research. We will continue to partner with the academic research community not only in moving forward the state of the art in computing but also in developing computing talent around the world. 
     
    As he was retiring from his role as Chief Research Officer more than a year ago, the founder of Microsoft Research, Rick Rashid, said that what he cared about most was that Microsoft Research and its people would stay true to its values: a commitment to fundamental research and a commitment to creating a future, both for Microsoft, and for the field of computing. I assure you that those values have not changed.

    Harry Shum, Executive Vice President, Technology & Research

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Our Top 10 Blogs of 2012

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    Once again, you’ve voted with your clicks and we’ve tallied the results. So…drumroll, please…here are the top 10 Microsoft Research Connections blogs of 2012.

    Our Top 10 Blogs of 2012

    Number 10: Try Try F#

    Who can resist such a redundantly titled post—especially when it offers information on how to get a browser-based tool for learning and exploring the power of F# 3.0? If you missed this one, we encourage you to “try try” it now.

    Number 9: Data Visualization Reaches New Heights with Layerscape

    Take a page from Jules Verne and journey to the center of the Earth with Layerscape, a free set of tools that gives researchers new ways of looking at lots and lots of data, both above and below the Earth’s surface. The author of this blog, Rob Fatland, was very excited about Layerscape. Apparently, our readers thought it was pretty cool, too.

    Number 8: Innovation in Software Research Recognized in 2012 SEIF Awards

    The Academy Awards put on a great show, but they’ve got nothing on the SEIF Awards in terms of impact. Just ask the many followers who avidly read about the SEIF 2012 winners and their groundbreaking applications of software engineering to mobile and cloud computing.

    Number 7: New Research Grants Aim at Combating Human Trafficking

    One of the greatest tragedies today is the burgeoning trade in human beings: human trafficking is now the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Small wonder, then, that our readers were eager to learn about research into combatting this form of modern-day slavery.

    Number 6: Addressing the Need for More Women in Computer Science Programs

    Last year, women accounted for only 14 percent of computer science college graduates in the United States. This popular post explored the incongruous fact that half the nation’s population is so badly under-represented in computer science studies, especially in light of the bountiful job opportunities in computing.

    Number 5: No Language Left Behind

    Can you appreciate the debilitating effects of being linguistically cast adrift from the Internet? You will, after you join the readers who perused this blog post and learned how the Microsoft Translator Hub helps preserve lesser known ancestral languages and makes it easier for linguistically isolated people to communicate with the rest of the world. 

    Number 4: Inspiring Computer Science Students in Our Backyard

    It gets discouraging to read about the dismal numbers of students who pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This post gave readers a refreshing tonic to those gloomy statistics, as it profiles three programs that are taking action to get students excited about career opportunities in these fields.

    Number 3: From Smartphone to Smart Home: Automating the Modern Home

    The computer-controlled home is a reality—but until recently, only for the tech-savvy or wealthy. Here’s a blog post for the rest of us, explaining how Microsoft Research’s HomeOS is advancing the development of smartphone apps that put the smart home in reach of the general public.

    Number 2: Presenting the History of Everything

    Yes, it sounds like the title of a Mel Brooks movie, but this incredibly popular blog post offers provocative ideas instead of laughs. What if we had a tool that brought together all the disparate collections of historical information, cutting across temporal, geographic, and discipline boundaries? ChronoZoom promises to do just that. Skeptical? Then read about—and try—it for yourself.

    Number 1: TouchDevelop in Your Browser

    So, what tops the wish list for our readers? It's TouchDevelop, a browser-based development environment that not only lets you create apps directly on your smartphone, but now also on your tablet. We were pretty sure that Santa’s elves weren’t working on this, so we were delighted to learn that Microsoft Research’s TouchDevelop Web App fills the bill.

    And there you have it, the 10 most widely read Microsoft Research Connections blogs of 2012. We hope you’ll be back to read 2013’s posts, which we hope will be equally, if not more, inspiring! Happy New Year from your friends at Microsoft Research Connections!

    —Lisa Clawson, Senior Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

     

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