Microsoft Research and Microsoft Research Asia organize every year a conference called “Computing in the 21st century”. The subtitle was “New Horizon of Computing”.
This year’s version had no less than 3 Turing award winners (Turing awards are something like the Nobel Prize of computing), the Senior Vice President of Microsoft, and a Managing Director at Microsoft Research Asia and at the same time IEEE fellow (a very prestigious title of one of the largest and prestigious scientific community in the world).
Shall you have any interest in the future of computing, based on this prestigious casting, common sense would tell anyone to cancel everything and just go get your get enlightened by insightful talks.
After an opening session in which Microsoft Research seemed to re-invent Google Maps and present that as innovation, and a remarkable speech reading at the public from officials at NTU and NUS, speech was given to the first keynote speaker, Turing award winner Raj Reddy. Although I do respect his good intentions on giving the poor a chance of education though e-learning, disappointment settled down when he presented a completely obsolete piece of work running on Internet Explorer 4 or 5 (a 1998-looking online library web page included ASF videos and text on various topics).
Later, Senior Vice President of Microsoft, Rick Rashid, mentioned solving the heat problem in data centers by better distributing spatially the processes in the data center so that the hot machines aren’t close to each other, thus using less air-conditioning.He stressed that fact that this was done to preserve the environment. That’s 50% of the computer energy consumed: Data centers, the other half being computers of people like you and I. It’s better to listen to this when you do not know the meaning of symptom-solving or Microsoft Vista 🙂
Later, Managing Director at Microsoft Research Asia and IEEE fellow Hsiao-Wuen Hon really got us discreetly laugh at Microsoft, presenting totally irrelevant innovations such as :
- image debluring, a topic fairly obsolete nowadays in digital imaging.
- a tool that tells you which word is more used than another if you hesitate between the two (that’s what EVERYBODY does using the Google number of results as a metric for word popularity and use, it takes a few hours to program from scratch for a graduate student in computing).
- Gigapixel images. Again that’s very obsolete. Especially of you do that by stitching (=putting together) images taken at different angles. Guess what? That’s what they do. He showed how cool it is to be able to zoom and (unlike in classic images) be able to still get high definition. They innovate all the more by adding ambient sounds and audio descriptions as you flyover different monuments or locations, it also allows advertising because you would see the stores on the pictures by zooming. Waw! This part may have been of interest to anyone having been in jail for the past 5 years thus never hearing about nor using Google Maps.
- a bilingual search engine that allows inputs in both Chinese and English. It’s open source since I did very complex reverse engineering and am glad today to share this with you: Take a dictionary, take a search engine, shake well, add decoration ( 2 tbsp. of marketing and a whole fancy logo). Tadaaaaaa !
- A collaborative travel website based on Google Maps (oops Microsoft Map). I don’t really get how on earth they intend to draw the attention of internet users that are just fed up hearing about new collaborative social networking websites.
Finally, a Microsoft speech on the future could not go without showing how cool Microsoft Surface is. Firstly, this system was invented by Jeff. Han and not by Microsoft Research as they claim. Secondly, the technology is great, but what do you do with it that is useful? Jeff. Han designed various novel uses of a multitouch system that do create an added value to government agencies for example. That’s precisely where Microsoft fails by sticking to obsolete and useless examples of use of the multitouch function. A technology alone is nothing, the added value that it brings to people should be it’s reason to exist. Multitouch interfaces and other gadjets are typical of this gap between technology coolness and real-life usefulness.
The Q&A session was a series of people asking questions that the board would answer right away even if they did not fully understand them. You know…when you hear an answer and you forgot the question. And the one answering usually ends with “I hope that answered your question”, and the guy who asked says Yes just out of politeness… If you never felt that you probably never went to school 🙂
To the computing safety, the answer of Turing award winner Raj Reddy was “Charge Emails one cent or penny to avoid spam”. Mhh Okay..
Always look at the bright side, the snack were good and in spite of a tremendous lack of insight, it was comical. Thank you Microsoft Research 🙂
More seriously. Take home lesson:
- A very good researcher is generally much less realistic and much less in phase with business than any very bad entrepreneur.
- When someone has a long list of awards in a specific topic, assuming that these people are well-rounded or pertinent about other topics is generally a wrong assumption.
- Not because you have a room full with 2000 people should you make no effort to bring insight the attendants, especially if your name is big and your conference is named “Computing in the 21st Century”.
- Not because you work for Microsoft Research does it mean you will work on innovative or hot or possibly marketable projects. All the “innovations” I saw today were all either obsolete (no or irrelevant market demand or market potential) or just mash-ups of what other companies have done earlier and better. Microsoft apparently can afford investing in such useless projects as most of those presented. Is it just investment in corporate image, or are they really adopting a strategy or exploration and risk? If the latter, their projects should really be shortlisted to try and reach something close to the relevance of Google Labs’ projects. Or is Microsoft Research working on really interesting things yet to be seen and does not want to talk about them yet? If so, they should be aware sometimes better to show nothing rather than low-quality contents because that clearly destroys one’s credibility.