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May, 2014

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.

May, 2014

  • 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

    Computer science takes center stage in Chile

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    Where would you look to find new approaches to solving today’s economic, scientific, and social problems? If you answered Viña del Mar, Chile, from today through May  9, you’re right—as that’s where and when more than 250 thought leaders are gathered for the Microsoft Research Latin American Faculty Summit 2014. The attendees come from academia, government, and Microsoft Research, and represent an array of disciplines, including computer science, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

    Latin American Faculty Summit 2014: furthering innovations for economic and social development

    The theme of this year’s summit is “advancing science and technology through computing research.” To fulfill this ambitious objective, the participants are exploring the role of computing in modern research—especially in handling the data deluge that typifies much of today’s research, as well as the importance of computer science education, the emergence of what’s been called the “internet of things,” and the promise of machine learning. They are also examining trends in social computing and the use of computing in studying urban problems.

    Managing Director of Microsoft Research India, P. Anandan; Vice President of Microsoft Research, Tony Hey; Faculty Fellow Award Recipient, Carolina Fuentes; Chile’s Ministro de Economía, Luis Felipe Céspedes; GM of Microsoft Chile, Oliver Flogel; and Microsoft Research Faculty Summit Co-Chair, Jaime Puente
    Pictured from left to right: Managing Director of Microsoft Research India, P. Anandan; Vice President of Microsoft Research, Tony Hey; PhD Fellow Award Recipient, Carolina Fuentes; Chile’s Ministro de Economía, Luis Felipe Céspedes; GM of Microsoft Chile, Oliver Flogel; and Microsoft Research Faculty Summit Co-Chair, Jaime Puente

    The event is held in partnership with Chile’s Ministry of Economics, and, as befits one of Latin America’s premier computer-science conferences, the summit will pay particular attention to regional challenges. Microsoft Research has long been involved in this part of Latin America, given that Chile serves as the management hub for Latin American and Caribbean Collaborative ICT Research (LACCIR), a joint research center of Microsoft Research and top-tier Latin American universities. In fact, it was introduced in 2007, during the very first Latin America Faculty Summit, which was also held at Viña del Mar.

    Tony Hey delivers his keynote on Data-Driven Computing
    Tony Hey delivers his keynote on Data-Driven Computing

    The three-day program features speeches, talks, workshops, panel discussions, and a DemoFest. The keynote addresses cover a variety of topics, including:

    • Computing and astronomy, with a focus on ALMA (the world’s largest radio telescope) and astronomical visualizations via Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope
    • Big data, machine learning, and social computing
    • Twenty-first–century education and the need to inspire the next generation of computer scientists
    • Mobile and cloud computing
    • The importance of technology in preparing for natural disasters
    • The role of research in driving innovation

    We’re looking forward to three stimulating days, filled with exchanges between people who are intent on using science and technology to make the world a better place.

    Jaime Puente, Director, Microsoft Research Latin America

    Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing, Microsoft Research Redmond

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Microsoft Research – Inria Joint Centre: inventing today, tomorrow’s world

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    When world-class research organizations work together on a long-term basis, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That premise underlies Microsoft Research’s collaborative projects and joint ventures around the globe, including our recently renewed joint research center with Inria (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation).

    Since its founding in 2006, the Microsoft Research – Inria Joint Centre has innovatively applied computer science and mathematics to a host of scientific challenges, from formal methods for mathematics to distributed systems and security, computer vision and medical imaging, machine learning and big data, and social networks and privacy.

    From 4D cardiac MR images to mathematical components, researchers gather at the Inria Joint Research Centre

    Microsoft Research – Inria includes 100 researchers overall: 40 permanent researchers from Inria, 30 permanent researchers from Microsoft Research, and 30 non-permanent researchers (interns and postdoctoral and PhD students, representing some 23 nationalities). Today, May 19, the Joint Centre continued its quest to use computing to help solve big problems, hosting an event that reported on the ambitious projects currently underway (see the list later in this blog). The event also featured the following keynotes from some of the world’s foremost computing experts, including Jeanette Wing, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, who gave an inspiring presentation on how the joint research center is important to science, technology and society.

    Jeanette Wing, corporate vice president Microsoft Research
    Jeanette Wing, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research

    • Thinking For Programmers: Rising Above the Code”: Leslie Lamport, this year’s Turing Award winner and a principal researcher at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, discussed the need for programmers to create extremely rigorous specifications before coding complex systems, particularly concurrent and distributed systems.
    • “Machine learning for Brain Imaging: from pattern analysis to brain atlases”: Bertrand Thirion, director of research at the Joint Centre, spoke about using machine learning to extract patterns of neurological activity that can lead to a functional atlas of the brain.
    • Formal components for the odd order theorem”: Georges Gonthier, principal researcher and team leader at Inria, focused on how to combine software engineering, programming language, and formal logic techniques to package formal mathematical theories into components that lend themselves to computer-checked formalization of results.
    • Big Learning: New Challenges and Opportunities”: Francis Bach, a senior researcher and team leader at Inria, reviewed recent developments in machine learning—such as improvements in algorithm speed and the use of generalized learning representations—that are tailored to solving modern large-scale problems.

    Georges Gonthier, principal researcher and team leader at InriaGeorges Gonthier, principal researcher and team leader at Inria 

    Bertrand Thirion, director of research at the Joint Centre Bertrand Thirion, director of research at the Joint Centre

    The Joint Centre is currently focusing on the following projects:

    Projects on formal methods and their applications

    • Mathematical Components aims to develop the ability of existing proof assistants, such as Coq, to automatically check difficult proofs in mathematics.
    • Temporal Logic of Actions for Proof System addresses challenges in certifying correct behavior of distributed and concurrent systems, in which there is no certainty as to when distinct components will interact.
    • Secure Computing develops new languages and associated certification tools to prove that implementations of cryptographic protocols are sound, thereby improving the security of Internet transactions.

    Projects on machine learning and big data

    • Large-scale Structured Machine Learning develops new methods for achieving efficient trade-offs between statistical accuracy and computational cost. It also develops algorithms that efficiently trade off exploration with exploitation in active learning scenarios.
    • Z-Cloud Workflows develops solutions for efficiently instantiating workflows in a cloud-computing environment by mapping tasks of the workflow to specific machines. It conjointly optimizes the replication of data within the cloud computing nodes.
    • Interactive Network Visualization develops tools for interacting with and visualizing data that arises from both online social networks and brain imagery, with a particular emphasis on time series.
    • White Box Search-Based Software Engineering uses machine learning to improve software engineering by automatically determining software parameters and assisting developers through the recommendation of code snippets.

    Projects on computer vision and medical imaging

    • Video Understanding aims to extract rich features automatically from large video catalogues, in order to support semantically rich queries when searching such catalogues.
    • Medilearn develops personalized models that assist in the diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions. It also focuses on identification of human brain activation patterns induced by conducting specific cognitive tasks.

    Projects on social networks and privacy

    • Social Information Networks develops efficient recommendation of contacts and contents to users of online social networks. It also addresses the design of reward schemes for incentivizing efficient filtering of information by users.
    • Privacy-Friendly Services and Apps develops means for users to protect their private information, such as geo-localization traces, while preserving the ability of applications to provide value-added services.

    All told, this one-day event captured the essence of the valuable research taking place at the Microsoft Research – Inria Joint Research Centre, and it points out the value of our long-term investments in collaborative ventures.

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

    —Pierre-Louis Xech, Microsoft Research-Inria Joint Centre Deputy Director, Microsoft France

     

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