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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.

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    Celebrating Excellence at POPL 2013

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    Arrivederci, Roma: As the 40th ACM Principles of Programming Languages conference (POPL 2013) drew to a close on Friday, January 25, 2013, I was struck by how much it was a celebration of excellence, and I was pleased that Microsoft Research could play a big part in that. With three of our labs represented—Cambridge, India, and Redmond—Microsoft Research attendees presented 10 of the 43 papers in the main conference and 11 more throughout the week, hosted a new workshop, and lent a substantial hand in the conference’s organization. 

    Just getting in to POPL—with its 18 percent acceptance rate—signifies excellence, but as the following highlights demonstrate, the level of achievement among this year’s attendees was off the charts.

    Judith Bishop (left) of Microsoft Research Connections and Natarajan Shankar (right) from SRI, on the Verified Software Initiative, present Xavier Leroy (center) from INRIA with the Verified Software Milestone Award 2012.
    Judith Bishop (left) of Microsoft Research Connections and Natarajan Shankar (right) from SRI, on the Verified Software Initiative, present Xavier Leroy (center) from INRIA with the Verified Software Milestone Award 2012.

    Georges Gonthier from Microsoft Research Cambridge presented the opening keynote address. In a rousing manner, he described how he and a team at INRIA (France’s national institute for computational sciences) spent six years chasing a proof in group theory, and how they finally managed to solve it by using Coq, a language and tool that is available across various platforms, soon to include Windows 8. Group theory has been used to explain how atomic particles combine and serves as a base for cryptography, itself an important part of security, a theme that recurred throughout the conference. I spotted Georges chatting with students at the Microsoft table during the breaks, carefully explaining his work and encouraging his listeners to go further. I felt proud to have him as a colleague.

    INRIA was mentioned again when I presented the second Microsoft Research Verified Software Milestone Award to Xavier Leroy, architect of the CompCert C verified compiler and the leader of the INRIA team that implemented it. This award, initiated by Microsoft Research’s Tony Hoare and offered by the Verified Software Initiative, honors true milestones in verifying software. Xavier was a very popular choice, and I reflected on how important it is to engage in such research as we face increasing cyber attacks on every program we write.

    From celebrating the present we went to looking at the past. POPL began in 1973, and Dartmouth’s Doug McIlroy, who had been at that first conference, gave a humorous account of the topics that were covered and how they differed—and yet did not differ—from what we discuss today. Then there was a true moment of excellence: the most famous Italian computer scientist, Corrado Böhm, was recognized with the presentation of a scroll by Roberto Giacobazzi, general chair of POPL. In 1953, before FORTRAN and ALGOL were even specified, Corrado wrote a thesis on compiling a language in itself, using lambda calculus. He went on to train generations of computer scientists in Italy. With his wife and family by his side, he received a standing ovation from the POPL community.

    Back at the Microsoft Research table, the 22 researchers at POPL had many interesting chats with students and faculty, focusing on how we face the challenge of making our research and teaching—in the words of Corrado Böhm—“simple, general, and abstract.” Better languages, with better security and wider applicability, help us achieve those goals. I’m certain that the next POPL will find us another step further along in the pursuit of excellence.

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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    On Helium and Chocolate

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    Powerful Research Tools Shared at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

    We love our jobs at Microsoft Research, and a big part of that is about how much we love physics and technology. And chocolate. Consider: if you place helium in a (well-made) bag and let it go, there is nothing to prevent it from ascending to the very edge of outer space; a free ride for a small payload using nothing more exotic than a canister of helium available for $39.95 at your local party supply store. The payload in our case is a GPS and a radio built on .NET Gadgeteer (more on this below), the purpose is atmospheric research, and the underlying technology is from Microsoft. This blog is about sharing our technology and tools with Earth scientists at their annual convention in early December in San Francisco.

    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth
    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth

    We set up our booth at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The exhibit hall is an enormous space where universities, specialized companies, non-profits, and government agencies (such as NASA) were displaying their own exhibits in parallel with the massive intellectual swap meet going on in the poster and lecture rooms—and in the hallways in between. The underlying subject: how does the Earth work and where is our ecosystem headed? This is serious business, and we at Microsoft Research are trying to help get answers by providing support on the technology front.

    Exhibits at major scientific meetings are a great way to show scientists some of the powerful tools that are available from Microsoft Research, and so that is what we did, mostly one conversation at a time. One of my favorite aspects of working in an exhibit booth is the look on people’s faces after I’ve shown them some technology we provide for open use and then tell them it’s free: a scientist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment is a great reward for years spent building these tools.

    Steven Johnston chats with visitors to the Microsoft Research booth as the weather balloon hovers above.“But where do the helium and the chocolate come in?” you might ask, a fair question. We spent a lot of time prior to the AGU Fall Meeting pondering, “What do people respond to?” because we wanted them to have a positive experience at our exhibit. Well, for me, chocolate and toys are good, and happily, our .NET Gadgeteer team sent their lead technologist and jack-of-all-trades Steven Johnston to join us from Great Britain. .NET Gadgeteer is a whole passel of rapid prototyping technology “toys” [think computer plus sensors plus radio—all modular] supported by a free software development toolkit. Steven's backpack was packed with .NET Gadgeteer devices plus a weather balloon; one quick stop at Ghirardelli and another at the local party supply store and we had chocolate for the booth visitors and helium to inflate the weather balloon. We were ready for business. (The balloon stayed safely tethered, though Steven regularly releases them into the atmosphere back home.)

    The AGU Fall Meeting ran December 3–7 with more than 22,000 attendees. Our (welcoming!) booth ran four of those days, during which we collected surveys on data challenges, handed out a metric ton of chocolate, and engaged countless stoppers-by with our ensemble of technologies. This growing ensemble today includes .NET Gadgeteer, Layerscape for data visualization, CLEO, DataUp, Bing Maps, FetchClimate, and more. On a whim, we also brought in an ersatz campfire to conjure up fireside chats, and, to our delight, these were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators (and Kris Tolle’s inspiration). Of particular note: Matthew Smith from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Computational Ecology group presented his research on improving Earth models via data integration—work that is vital to understanding and improving how our predictive models show where we are headed in coming decades.

    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators.
    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success,
    thanks to our scientist collaborators.

    To cap off the event, Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, gave a session talk on who we are and how we can help academic researchers. Tony’s presentation brought in lots of additional visitors, almost all of whom came away with a deepened appreciation of Microsoft’s collaborative work with the academic community. To get a sense of some of what we talked about, check out Getting Started with Layerscape and its many links.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Initiative Celebrates Industry-Academia Collaboration

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    Snow fell across the United Kingdom on January 18, 2013, but it was not about to deter some of Microsoft Research’s leading visionaries from making their way from the brand new Cambridge lab down to University College London (UCL). They headed to UCL for a special day that would commemorate the deep and long lasting intellectual ties between the two organizations by unveiling a new initiative: beginning this year, Microsoft Research Connections will annually co-sponsor four PhD scholarships at UCL.

    UCL students and Microsoft Research visitors at DemoFest
    UCL students and Microsoft Research visitors at DemoFest

    These new scholarships will promote collaborative projects between UCL and Microsoft Research—and build on a history of collaboration in computer and computational sciences, including such major joint projects as 2020 Science, with Professor Peter Coveney, and Resource Reasoning, led by Professor Peter O’Hearn. Although UCL is one of England’s oldest universities, it is also one of the most forward-looking, as is evident in the innovative work of its students, researchers, and faculty.

    University College LondonThe scholarships form part of Microsoft Research Connections’ PhD Scholarship Programme in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), which has supported more than 200 doctoral students since its inception in 2004. The highly competitive program supports PhD scholars at research institutions across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in research areas ranging from core computing to biological and social sciences. Recipients receive half of their funding from Microsoft with matching funds from the university. As with all scholarships provided by the PhD Scholarship Programme, the UCL recipients will receive a three-year bursary and invitations to the Microsoft Research annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge, where they will 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 “champion.” In addition, some students may also be offered an internship at Microsoft Research.

    Andrew Blake, the laboratory director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, described PhD students as essential to research. He praised their willingness to try out new research projects and observed that “Working with them increases our ability to explore new ideas and contributes to the sustainability of the research lab.”

    Rick Rashid, the chief research officer of Microsoft Research, began the day with an inspiring talk on “Microsoft Research and the Evolution of Computing,” during which he described the growth of Microsoft Research over the past 20 years, regaling the audience with stories of how he has worked with product teams on all manner of projects—some of which have had a huge impact on users across the world. He then fielded questions from students and staff on topics ranging from Microsoft’s strategies on open source, to which developments in the pipeline at Microsoft are the most exciting, to how to manage research successfully.

    UCL scholarship winners—from left to right: Jan Kautz, Sebastian Riedel, Rick Rashid, Jade Alglave, and UCL Vice-Provost of Research David Price. (One recipient, Benny Chain, was missing.)From left to right: UCL scholarship winners Jan Kautz and Sebastian Riedel, Microsoft Research Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid, UCL scholarship winner Jade Alglave, and UCL Vice-Provost of Research David Price (UCL scholarship winner Benny Chain not pictured)

    At the end of his talk, Rick announced the four recipients of PhD scholarship funding and their selected projects:

    • Jade Alglave, Lecturer in the Programming Principles, Logic and Verification Group
      Weakness as a virtue
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge co-supervisor: Byron Cook)
    • Benny Chain, Professor of Immunology
      Experimental and computational studies on the human antigen-specific T-cell repertoire
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge co-supervisors: Neil Dalchau and Andrew Phillips)
    • Jan Kautz, Professor in the Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics Group
      3D Reconstruction of live scenes using multiple heterogeneous mobile depth cameras
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge supervisors: Shahram Izadi, Pushmeet Kohli, and Otmar Hilliges)
    • Sebastian Riedel, Lecturer in the Intelligent Systems Group
      Probabilistic databases of multimodal and universal schema
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge supervisor: Thore Graepel)

    The "Auto-Icon" memorializes Jeremy Bentham, UCL FounderA “DemoFest” was held after lunch under the watchful eye of “inspirational or spiritual” founder of UCL, Jeremy Bentham, whose preserved skeleton and wax head likeness, known as the “Auto-Icon,” sit in a glass case in the Cloisters. Among the living UCL luminaries in attendance were Vice Provost of Research David Price, Dean of Engineering Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences Richard Catlow, and several faculty members.

    The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement as researchers in computer and computational sciences showcased their latest work to Rick Rashid and Jeanette Wing, the new head of Microsoft Research International. A spectrum of demos showed the breadth and depth of work at UCL across domains, from distributed multi-scale computing, resilient and fast networking in data centers, and interactive images on the computer science side, to behavior-change technologies for enhancing health, diffusion MRI of the brain, and patient blood-flow simulation for surgical planning on the health and wellness front.

    Alongside the research were teams of proud computer science students, who reveal their inventive spirit through their use of cutting-edge Microsoft technologies—from Windows Azure and Windows 8 Embedded to Windows Phone and F#. They demonstrated some truly inspirational projects, including apps and devices to tackle real-world problems, such as using .NET Gadgeteer and Windows Azure to create a keyhole surgery instructional tool for trainees in pediatric surgery. The brand new Try F# website was presented, with tutorials in financial computing provided by UCL, just a few days ahead of its launch at POPL 2013.

    Collaboration between academia and industry can run deep, and UCL’s research excellence has attracted a number of Microsoft Research’s senior researchers to faculty positions at UCL, including Byron Cook, professor of Computer Science; Stephen Emmott, visiting professor of Intelligent Systems; Shahram Izadi, visiting professor of Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics; and, of course, Andrew Herbert, former head of Microsoft Research Cambridge, who is a visiting professor in Computer Science at UCL.

    The enthusiasm, deep discussion, and display of innovative collaboration between UCL and Microsoft Research on this snowy day in January exemplify the best of how academia and industry can work together to change the world.

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA
    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA
    Nour Shublaq, Strategic Program Manager, UCL Computational Life and Medical Sciences Network

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