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October, 2012

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, 2012

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Try Try F#

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    We’re happy to announce that the beta release of the new Try F#  has arrived! We’re proud of this new release, and with good reason: Try F# makes programming in F# 3.0 easy to learn, simple to use, and straightforward to share—all through the browser.

    F# 3.0 is ideal for analytical, data-rich, and parallel component development, harnessing the power of functional programming.

    If you are a researcher who’s been longing to learn the basics or learn about the incredible new type providers in F# 3.0 that deliver information to your fingertips, then Try F# is for you. Likewise, if you’re a teacher who wants to introduce students to the power of this elegant and pragmatic language, then the Try F# browser-based platform with easy-to-use tutorials is also for you.

    What’s more, you’ll be treated to a new “learn” experience, complete with sample materials to get you started and a way to give us feedback so that you can tell us what you think about the look and feel and ease of navigation. The Try F# beta even includes new “create and share” experiences that help you write simple code to solve complex problems and then easily share snippets or sample packs with others. And remember, Try F# is in a browser-based environment, so it’s accessible from any operating system.

    We would love for you to be part of the Try F# beta, which provides the tutorials, resources, and tools to begin working with F# right away. By participating, you’ll experience F# 3.0’s unique, information-rich programming features for Big Data analytics, and you’ll get the power to solve complex problems more efficiently.

    F# communities make it easy to get involved:

    Here’s that beta site again. Now get out there, try Try F# and give us your feedback so we can keep improving Try F#.

    Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing, Microsoft Research Connections, and Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technology Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Preserving Mayan Language into the Next B'ak'tun

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    Mayan calendarThe best way to describe how I’m feeling is deeply honored and emotionally moved. This is the feeling I get every time we start a Microsoft Translator Hub project in language preservation or translation because it is always an honor and privilege to work on preserving a language. Whether it’s in Fresno, California, working to preserve Hmong, or in distant Dhulikhel, Nepal, working to provide translations for Nepali, the feeling’s the same—a visceral sense of making an impact. I can attest that this feeling is a distinct benefit of being a part of the Microsoft Research Connections team.

    The last week of September, I visited the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo—or more accurately, I was warmly welcomed to these homelands of the Mayan people. Together with my colleagues Erick Stephens, director of technology at Microsoft Mexico, and Adrian Hernandez Becerril, a program manager at Microsoft Mexico, I came to the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo to finalize a project to preserve the Mayan language. Our visit marked the culmination of months-long discussions with the university and various government officials and was, in my opinion, a significant day on any calendar (more on calendars below).
     
    The future of the Mayan language is uncertain. University president Francisco Javier Rosado-May said it best when we first spoke back in May at the 2012 Latin American Faculty Summit in Cancun: “If we do not do anything to stop it, Mayan will be extinct within two generations.” President Rosado-May is extremely motivated to turn the tide, to change the future of the Mayan language, and his enthusiasm is infectious. So we and our partners in Microsoft Mexico decided to sponsor a project at his university along with Assistant Professor Martin Esquivel-Pat, to enable Mayan to survive the present and leap into the next b'ak'tun (in other words, the next long cycle of the Mayan calendar).
     
    For those of you who are concerned that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world this December 20, let me assure you, as my hosts in Quintana Roo assured me, this is simply the end of a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar developed by the Mayans—a timekeeper more accurate than our own Julian calendar, by the way. What the Mayans say is that this December 21, we will be starting the next b'ak'tun, and with that, we hope, an era where Mayan remains a viable language for generations to come.

    On arrival at the university, we were greeted by Javier Díaz Carvajal, head of the Secretariat of Economic Development for Quintana Roo, who, on behalf of the governor, extended me the honor of being made an “adopted citizen” of Quintana Roo. Afterwards, we signed an agreement with the government and the university to work on developing a Mayan language translation system that is solely built by the community and shared only when they decide to do so. And that is the real benefit of the Microsoft Translator Hub: it places the power of developing automatic translation models into the hands of the community where it belongs.

    For the remainder of the day and the one that followed, we gave presentations and trained our hosts, professional translators, and students at the university on using the Microsoft Translator system, both through the Hub interface (which any bilingual person can use with a little training) and programmatically (which requires some technical knowledge). The latter is significant, as the university is looking to establish a computer and information science program, and this programmatic work with the Microsoft Translator Hub can help them build expertise in this area. My colleagues and I wanted to assist them in this endeavor in every way possible.
     
    But back to building the language translation system. Microsoft Translator Hub makes the process easy, but it still takes time and commitment from the community—it doesn’t just happen overnight. It took our partners at California State University of Fresno and the Hmong Language Partners more than seven months to collect and add enough parallel data (between Hmong and English), upload it to the system, train, build, and release the Hmong translator.

    We got a preview of how the Mayan translation system might work at a workshop we ran in Quintana Roo—which focused largely on building a translator system between Spanish and Yucatec (a local Mayan dialect). Participants employed another distinguishing feature of the Microsoft Translator Hub that enables you to build translation systems directly between any two languages instead of pivoting (and propagating errors) through English. How long it will take to build a functional Mayan translator is unknown right now, but I know the community is very motivated to get it done early in the next b'ak'tun!

    I believe it is vital to future of the human race that we remember and preserve our past. My colleagues and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to play even a small part in making that happen.

    Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interactions Team, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking Honored by White House

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    On Monday, September 24, I got the thrill of a lifetime. I was a guest of the White House at the UN Head of State Reception, where I had the great honor of meeting President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I was also excited about the exceptional opportunity to discuss efforts against human trafficking—and my passion to grow the number of women in the field of computing—with interested heads of state from 150 countries and leaders of the top advocacy organizations fighting human trafficking in the United States today. The invitation was the result of my participation in efforts to use technology to combat the modern-day scourge of sex trafficking.

    President Barack Obama, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, announced his administration’s latest efforts to combat human trafficking
    President Barack Obama, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, announced his administration’s latest efforts to combat human trafficking

    In previous blog posts, I’ve talked about how danah boyd of Microsoft Research New England, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, and I are passionate about the possibilities of employing technology to disrupt this heinous crime. It was exciting to see the enthusiastic support for the work we’re doing, which was evident the following day, when the president announced his administration’s latest efforts to combat human trafficking in the United States and abroad.

    I was particularly moved by his saying that human trafficking “…ought to concern every person, because it’s a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name—modern slavery.”

    As part of his announcement, the president outlined several initiatives that his administration will undertake in the fight against human trafficking. These actions include providing new tools and training to help law enforcement and other government agencies identify and assist the victims of human trafficking, and increased social services and legal assistance for these victims. The announcement also directed the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to develop the first-ever federal strategic action plan to strengthen services for trafficking victims.

    For my part, I’ve been active in the efforts of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Women and Girls, serving on two committees and leading a third. As a group, we’ve brought together victims’ advocates, law enforcement leaders, technology companies, and researchers to brainstorm on three key issues: (1) how to share information more effectively with law enforcement; (2) how to harness the power of the Internet to reach victims; and (3) how to best provide victims of child sex trafficking with the help they need.

    I’m cautiously optimistic that we will make real progress in this area over the next few years. We know that it will take a partnership of experts, a foundation of policies, and effective technology to be successful.

    We’re seeing the right partnerships forming under the leadership of the White House. We are working to engage a multi-discipline group of experts to conduct the rigorous research needed to better understand the problem. In addition, with the president’s announcement and the work being done by attorneys general across the United States, policies are being put in place to help support survivors and more effectively prosecute perpetrators. Moreover, we’re making progress in the quest to understand technology’s role in trafficking and to determine what policies should be enacted to ensure that our children are safe online. Together, these developments should enable us to create technologies to deter and, better yet, help prevent human trafficking.

    As you know, I believe taking on social issues like human trafficking will inspire this next generation of girls to want to be computer scientists and help us solve these challenges through technology. I am already seeing young women's eyes light up as I discuss this work in middle schools and summer programs for girls. Although we are just in the early stages of our work, I’m very excited about the research we are supporting and the projects I am working on in this area. This week, I will share some of the work we are doing at Microsoft and Microsoft Research at the 2012 Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking in Lincoln, Nebraska. I'm pleased to be an active participant, speaker, and moderator at this gathering of researchers and organizations doing great work to combat human trafficking. In the coming months, I'll be back to provide more details about our projects and to report on the progress we are making.

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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