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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

    Making machines speak like people

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    In the 1999 American film Bicentennial Man, the late Robin Williams played a robot who strives to achieve the physical, social and legal status of a human being. The character’s growing language capabilities—his capacity to communicate fluently with his human family—proved crucial in his quest. But long before Williams donned his robot suit, people were dreaming about talking with machines naturally, conversing with them as they would with another person.

    Earlier this year, Microsoft Korea hosted a roundtable on “Research on Signal Processing and Speech,” describing recent work on human-machine natural language communication. The research, a collaborative effort between Yonsei University and Microsoft Research, was led by Professor Hong-Goo Kang of the Yonsei’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Its ultimate goal is to make natural conversation between humans and machines possible.

    The roundtable on “Research on Signal Processing and Speech” (bottom row: Professor Hong-goo Kan and Miran Lee)"
    The roundtable highlighted signal processing and speech research using DNNs.
    (pictured in bottom row: Professor Hong-goo Kang, Yonsei University [left], and Miran Lee, Microsoft Research [right])

    The team focused on voice synthesis and text-to-speech (TTS) conversion, two elements crucial in achieving fluent, natural sounding machine speech. The mechanical, depersonalized voice of machines had been a limitation of previous TTS technologies, according to Kang, which is why the team focused on TTS technology based on deep neural networks (DNNs). DNNs attempt to replicate the neural network of the human brain, particularly the way neurons communicate with one another. By so doing, DNN facilitates a sophisticated type of machine learning that researchers call deep learning. Deep learning should allow machines to understand human speech and respond more relevantly and with a more natural sounding voice.

    “The copyright of the research result belongs to me, but other IT companies and everyone else can share it,” said Kang. “It’s hard to conduct this kind of long-term project with just the resources in academia. Therefore, we must work with companies, which is why collaboration with Microsoft Research was so meaningful.” Microsoft Research also offered an internship to one of Kang’s students, who subsequently published his research and presented it at an international conference.

    This collaboration is indicative of our commitment to create an ecosystem that connects companies and academic institutions, and our ongoing efforts to foster talented young computer-science researchers.

    —Miran Lee, Principal Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research

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    Announcing the Innovation Challenge: using data science to create “food resilience”

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    While we know that climate change will likely affect every aspect of the food system—from our ability to grow food, to the reliability of food transportation and food safety, to the dynamics of international trade in agricultural goods—we don’t yet know how to anticipate and mitigate against what may be negative changes. With this in mind, on July 24, 2015, Microsoft, in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), will launch the Innovation Challenge, a contest designed to explore how climate change will impact the United States’ food system with the intent of achieving better food resiliency.

    Innovation Challenge: Dig into data. Build solutions. Harvest insights.

    The challenge invites entrants to develop and publish new applications and tools that can analyze multiple sources of information about the nation’s food supply, including key USDA datasets that are now hosted on Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-computing platform.

    The challenge offers prizes—including a top prize of US$25,000—for applications that make use of the USDA data and provide actionable insights to farmers, agriculture businesses, scientists or consumers. In addition, through the Microsoft Azure for Research program, Microsoft is granting hours of cloud computing time and terabytes of cloud storage to be used to aid university researchers and students who take part in the challenge. With a November 20, 2015, deadline for entries, challenge participants have three months to submit their applications. Winners will be announced in December 2015.

    The food resilience theme of the challenge seeks to inspire the creation of tools that help users analyze and explore our food systems. For the first time, key USDA datasets are available in the cloud, where they can be accessed and blended with other data to obtain novel insights or produce new types of end-user applications. Combining USDA data with cloud-computing resources allows even very high fidelity and complex models to be processed in a timely manner and enables results to be delivered to remote users on their laptops, tablets or mobile phones.

    The increased prevalence and availability of data from satellite imagery, remote sensors, surveys and economic reports mean that we can analyze, model and predict an extremely diverse set of properties associated with our food production. Applications might combine data from the USDA and other government sources, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the United States Geological Survey, and can be targeted at farmers, scientists, food producers, insurance companies or consumers.

    Simply put, the intent of the challenge is to stimulate the exploration of the USDA’s data and to encourage new questions to be asked of these data, either in isolation or in combination with other data feeds or tools. We expect that many developers will start from existing data science tools, machine learning algorithms and visualization techniques; whatever the starting point, we are confident that participants will create valuable tools that promote the goal of food resilience.

    For more information about the USDA partnership, read the Microsoft on the Issues blog.

    Daron Green, Deputy Managing Director, Microsoft Research

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    2015 Summer School inspires top PhD students

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    Participants of the 2015 Microsoft Research Cambridge Summer School

    The first week of July didn’t just see the arrival of extraordinarily high temperatures across Europe—it also brought extraordinarily high energy to Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK, as 81 top PhD students gathered for the tenth annual Microsoft Research Cambridge PhD Summer School. Hailing from 35 research institutions spanning 16 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the students brought huge diversity to the Cambridge Lab, not just in terms of national origin and culture, but also in their research backgrounds, which extended beyond computer science and engineering into the realms of design and various natural and social sciences. The event’s attendees included recipients of Microsoft Research PhD Scholarships, along with students whose work involves our EMEA Joint Research Centres and those who are collaborating on Microsoft Azure for Research projects or are otherwise partnering with Microsoft Research Cambridge.

    Microsoft Research Cambridge Laboratory Director, Andrew Blake, opened the Summer School, welcoming the students before they launched into an ambitious four-day agenda—a carefully designed mix of scientific talks and demonstrations, training sessions and other practical activities, and social events that offered lots of opportunities for networking.

    Following are the highlights of this year’s PhD Summer School.

    Talks from invited experts

    The invited talks began with considerable excitement when Hermann Hauser, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of such high-tech companies as Acorn Computers (famous for the BBC Micro, which dominated the UK educational computer market in the 1980s, and later spun out ARM and a number of other companies), gave a talk entitled “Technology Development.” Hauser first described earlier waves of computing, before concentrating on machine learning and artificial intelligence as technologies that could transform not just our economy but every aspect of our future lives.

    Other invited speakers included Marta Kwiatkowska, professor of computing systems at the University of Oxford, who explained aspects of DNA computing in her talk entitled “Computing Reliably with Molecular Walkers,” and Bernhard Schölkopf, director of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, who delivered a talk on “Empirical Inference in Intelligent Systems.”

    Researcher talks

    The researcher talks and demonstrations gave a broad overview of the activity in the Cambridge Lab, from environmental science and computational biology, to various aspects of core computer science, design and human-computer interaction. The students were especially attentive—you might even say awestruck—when Microsoft researcher and Turing Award winner Sir Tony Hoare spoke on “The Laws of Programming with Concurrency,” giving a historic account of his work on Hoare logic and communicating sequential processes (CSP).

    Researcher talks gave the students an overview of the cutting-edge work underway at Microsoft Research Cambridge.
    Researcher talks gave the students an overview of the cutting-edge work underway at Microsoft Research Cambridge.

    Code Hunt

    A special highlight was the Code Hunt contest, during which the attendees could demonstrate their C# or Java programming ability by solving a series of increasingly complex coding puzzles. About half the students participated, and the winners received special acknowledgement at the formal dinner on Thursday evening at Jesus College Cambridge.

    Training activities

    The training activities are an all-time favourite in the Summer School agenda. Besides professional coaching on how to deliver a research presentation and how to present a poster at an international conference, students heard lectures from senior Microsoft researchers, who shared their general learnings on research and how to pursue a successful research career.

    Poster sessions

     

    Lunchtimes provided food for the brain as well as the body, as the PhD students presented their posters to the 100-plus researchers (and almost as many summer interns) of the Cambridge Lab. Presenters got invaluable feedback from their peers and the Microsoft researchers, and also benefited from the insightful advice of poster coach Sue Duraikan from Duraikan Training, a consultancy that provides support in designing and delivering learning strategies.


    Even PhD students need to eat, and they dined in style at the formal dinner at Jesus College Cambridge. Ah, and you thought this was a photo from Hogwarts!


    The 2015 PhD Summer School closed with a packed lunch on Friday—not every meal can be as refined as the dinner at Jesus College! As in other years, I was sorry to see the event end, since I really enjoy getting caught up in the excitement of these students who are on the cusp of great careers. Fortunately, I can look forward to next year’s event, and hope that the weather will once again put the “summer” in the Microsoft Research Cambridge Summer School.

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research

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