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March, 2013

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.

March, 2013

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Confronting Global Grand Challenges

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    Microsoft Research Connections Vice President Tony HeyOn March 12 and 13, I had the privilege of joining with more than 450 leading thinkers drawn from around the world and across disciplines at the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit in London. Organized by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the summit brought together engineers, artists, economists, designers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers, all striving to achieve the cross-discipline and international cooperation needed to solve global problems.

    The Grand Challenges were organized around six themes: sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology, and growth and resilience. The summit also included plenary addresses from Craig Venter, founder of J. Craig Venter Institute, who spoke about the promises and problems of creating synthetic life, and Bill Gates, co-founder and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who discussed challenges in global health. Among the other luminaries present were IET President and tech entrepreneur Andy Hopper, who addressed the technology and growth theme, and Dame Ann Dowling, who spoke on directions in education. The presence of David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and sciences, underscored the significance of the summit as a vehicle for innovations and learning. An additional highlight was the surprise address from will.i.am—singer in the band, the Black Eyed Peas—who made a passionate plea for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for underprivileged children. Acknowledging that many of these youngsters aspire to a successful music career like his, he wants these children to realize that a much wider range of career opportunities is open to them.

    I served on the joint organizing committee for the event, representing the Royal Academy of Engineering. My best contribution was organizing the Student Day, which took place on the Monday before the beginning of the summit. Microsoft Research Connections sponsored this event that brought together 60 undergraduate and post-graduate students to collectively tackle the following six grand challenges:

    • Provide access to clean water
    • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
    • Advance health informatics
    • Secure cyberspace
    • Enhance virtual reality
    • Advance personalized learning

    Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.
    Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.

    This event bore a resemblance to the popular US and UK television shows, The Apprentice, or The Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank. The 60 participants divided up into teams based on which challenges they wished to tackle, ultimately combining two challenges: “securing cyberspace” and “enhancing virtual reality,” resulting in five teams. The teams went away and engaged in a variety of exercises to demonstrate the creativity and collaborative nature of their ideas. After debating their ideas with their peers, they worked the best into business proposals. At the end of the day, representatives from each of the five teams presented their business innovation, based on their team’s challenge, to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea. The team on health informatics won, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. I was extremely pleased to introduce the winning team as they addressed more than 400 distinguished invitees.

    The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program.
    The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. (L to R): Nikhila Ravi (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Choe (MIT), Andrew Whyte (University of Bath),  Julie Shi (University of Washington), Michael Morley (IIT), Alison Gerren (University of Toledo) and Carolyn Damo (University of Toledo).

    Grappling with grand global challenges and encouraging the development of the next generation of problem solvers—it doesn’t get much better than that!

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Buildings Go Green…in the Cloud

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    As I listened to U.S. President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address in January, I was struck by the emphasis he placed on addressing global climate change and the need for clean energy. “The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” the president said, but he also noted that it will spawn technology that “will power new jobs and new industries.”

    Data-intensive analysis plays a key role in the design of energy-efficient buildings.
    Data-intensive analysis plays a key role in the design of energy-efficient buildings.
    © Starp Estudi

    Those statements had special resonance for me, as I had recently sat in on discussions of one such new technology: a set of next-generation architectural design tools that will use cloud computing to simulate a future building’s energy consumption. Researchers at Microsoft Research Connections and the Royal Danish Academy are collaborating with Green Prefab, a small startup in northern Italy, to develop these eco-friendly civil engineering tools.

    The technology to perform energy-use simulations—parametric building performance simulations, to use the precise terminology—has been around for a while. But despite its potential for optimizing building designs, these energy studies are rarely performed, because complex parametric analysis models require simulation on a scale that is nowadays only attainable in research laboratories that are equipped with enormous computing power. After all, architectural design firms, most of which are small or medium-sized companies, cannot afford the supercomputers that would reduce the simulation time to a manageable level. Happily, cloud computing has the potential to change this.

    Green Prefab is developing a library of prefabricated green building components that can be used to design eco-friendly buildings. During the design phase, architects will be able to access civil engineering services in the cloud to produce energy efficiency reports, conduct in-depth structural analysis, and view photo-realistic images of the building—long before the actual groundbreaking. Green Prefab is collaborating with Microsoft Research Connections to develop some of the first tools in the Windows Azure cloud computing environment. And the Institute of Architectural Technology of the Royal Danish Academy has conducted an experiment that proves the potential of this approach.

    The Academy’s experiment used Green Prefab’s prototype web-based tools and cloud computing to execute parametric energy simulations, enabling an experienced architect to use 220,184 variable combinations for creating an energy optimization of a hypothetical office building. The objective was to show how architects could use cloud computing to do what heretofore had required extremely large-scale computation clusters. In a parallel experiment, the same architect used the business-as-usual approach on the same building, conceiving and testing 50 design options with a standard dual-core PC.

    In the end, the cloud-based approach achieved about twice the potential energy savings: 33 percent, compared to only 17 percent for the conventional method. And using the cloud reduced the computing time to a manageable level: running the 220,184 parametric simulations on a standard dual-core PC would have taken 122 days; running those same energy simulations in the cloud took only three days.

    Microsoft Research’s collaboration with Green Prefab leaves little doubt that new cloud-based tools have the potential to aid in the design of buildings that consume substantially less energy than most buildings today. Scientific breakthroughs like these are helping researchers make great strides worldwide in achieving the overall goals of green building—and puts us one step further down that path toward sustainable energy that President Obama envisioned.

    Dennis Gannon, Director of Cloud Research Strategy, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Computerworld Honors Microsoft Research for Breakthroughs in Pneumonia and HIV

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    Today is a proud day for Microsoft Research Connections and our academic collaborators, as two of our research efforts have been named 2013 IDG's Computerworld Honors Program Laureates. The Computerworld Honors program, founded in 1988, recognizes organizations and individuals who have used information technology to promote positive social, economic, and educational change. The program judges reviewed more than 700 nominations this year to select 269 Laureates from 29 countries. Microsoft Research is being honored for our collaborative work on combatting scourges that affect millions around the world: pneumonia and HIV infection.

    Working in collaboration with the University of Oxford, our research strives to make pneumonia vaccine more effective.
    Working in collaboration with the University of Oxford, our research strives to make pneumonia vaccine more effective.

    Pneumonia persists as a leading cause of death in children worldwide, despite the availability of a vaccine. To be properly vaccinated against the disease, children must receive a series of three shots over a period of several months. The research for which we’re being honored, “Adjusting Pneumonia Vaccination Periods to Save Lives,” strives to make vaccination more effective by changing the timing of the shots. In collaboration with the University of Oxford, we have developed software that can be used to create and deploy clinical trial support infrastructure in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost, of conventional methods. The system can collect well-defined and standardized data from multiple sources; however, the greater benefit is its ability to combine data simply and efficiently, enabling large-scale data analysis. Such analysis is now being used by the Oxford Vaccine Group to evaluate the effectiveness of revised schedules of immunization.

    Our HIV program involves support of the efforts of the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital to create an effective HIV immunization agent.
    Our HIV program involves support of the efforts of the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital to create an effective HIV immunization agent.

    HIV infection remains another prolific killer, taking the lives of approximately 5,000 people a day—despite the emergence of antiviral therapies that can control, but not cure, the disease. Until a cure is found, the best hope in controlling HIV infection lies in creating an effective vaccine. This is why our second honored program, “Uncovering New Ways the Human Immune System Fights HIV,” involves support for the efforts of the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital to create an effective HIV immunization agent. In collaboration with South African healthcare workers, the Ragon Institute has recruited large numbers of South African HIV-positive patients, whose blood samples enable studies of the body’s defense mechanisms in the laboratory. Joining the Ragon Institute in this effort are the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH). Microsoft Research is working with the Ragon Institute to quantify how the immune system attacks various fragments of HIV—data that we hope will, one day, lead to a vaccine.

    These two global research programs not only capture the very essence of our mission at Microsoft Research Connections: to collaborate with the world’s top academic researchers and institutions to develop technologies that fuel data-intensive scientific, but also help Microsoft Research improve “Big Data” algorithms to further advance Microsoft products. We look forward to the presentation at The Computerworld Honors Laureate Ceremony and Awards Gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 2013. 

    Tony Hey, Vice President of Microsoft Research Connections

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