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Some consider MSR India Mecca of theoretical computer science: Jeannette Wing

Interview with Corporate vice-president, Microsoft Research

Itika Sharma Punit  |  Bangalore 

Jeannette Wing
Jeannette Wing

Established in 1991, Microsoft Research (MSR) is one of the largest software research organisations in the world. The organisation has contributed to technology relating to areas ranging from video game console Kinect for Xbox 360 to development of an HIV vaccine and advancing education techniques in rural areas. Jeannette Wing talks to Itika Sharma Punit about trends in research in 2014, MSR India’s initiatives and women in software research. Edit excerpts:

Why does Microsoft Research have a lab in India and what role does this lab play your global scheme?

A main reason for a lab in India is the talent in this country. There are some research themes in MSR India that particularly stand out for this lab. These include the very strong theoretical computer science school here, which has very talented people. They stand out in the research space all over the globe, not just within Microsoft Research. In fact some people consider MSR India the Mecca of theoretical computer science. The other area very special to MSR India is the technology for emerging markets group here, which focuses on using technology to help society and address local rural and urban regions. People in this lab have heart-tugging kind of research, they go out in the field and work with non-government organisations and medical departments to use technology in simple, yet clever, ways to help people. This lab has in a sense created this whole field of computer science called Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD), and now researchers who want to do premier research in this area, they come here.

What do you think about R&D initiatives by developing countries, including India?

It is very important, especially for developing countries, to invest in R&D especially in the science and engineering disciplines. When I was at NSF, we always had to justify why should a country invest in R&D to the Congress (the US legislature), because it is taxpayers’ dollars. But in the end it is about an impact on a country’s economy, impact on the society. R&D can over time lead to corporations making money and hiring lots of people, providing jobs. The same thing will be true here in India, especially in a developing market. I would say it’s going to be smart to invest in basic research in science and engineering partly because it will help the economy, partly because there is impact on the society, but more because it’s about investing in talent. If you could look at China, they are quite serious and putting lots of serious money into research in science and engineering, and I see no reason why India cannot do that.

What is your view about the future of computer science research in India?

There is a positive movement in India and part of this is the real push on engineering education. I think this is going to make a tremendous difference. It will lead to having a whole generation of computer scientists in India, some of whom will go on to and produce great technology and do wonderful things for the economy and society, and some are going to go into academia and do research. The ones in academia are going to train the next generation. So, we have an entire ecosystem to train the next generation. So the future is bright for India in that way, especially in all of what India is doing in terms of academia.

What in your view is the reason for so few women in computer science research?

There is no easy answer. It’s a global problem. We definitely see it in the US, and Microsoft as a company does as much as it can to try to promote the increase of women in IT. There’s no easy answer to why the number of women in this field is so low. We’ve actually seen recently a dramatic increase in enrollments in computer science in the US, but unfortunately a decrease in enrolments by female students. One reason could be, in the US for sure, mathematics and science are usually not the subjects that teachers encourage their female students to pursue. So if you get advise even before you get to college, it means we have already lost the interest of the potential who could be flowing in the pipeline. Then in college when you are one of the handful of women in your classes, you may feel like you are an anomaly. It’s not like the IT industry hasn’t tried. We have some prominent senior women executives now, and they certainly speak well about how one can be a female technical leader.

How significant do you think will be the role of research in computer science five years from now?

This field is still growing exponentially partly because this is very different from other engineering fields. The fundamental difference is that we do everything in software, where you can do anything instantaneously. You can’t do that in any other engineering field because it’s physical entities. So in computer science we are only limited by the creativity in our head, and if more and more participate in this, you will have more and more new ideas. So the future of computer science is incredibly bright, we cannot even see the future. This technology can transform any other — healthcare, medicine, law, energy, climate change, humanities, and even the arts. So if you look into the future, five years from now you are going to see more and more influence by computing, by technology, across all other disciplines. So I think we have yet to see the real explosion of what our technology is capable of doing.

What would be the top research trends in 2014?

Though at Microsoft research we don’t tell researchers what to do and they decide what they want to work on, but there are some broad themes Microsoft is keen on. These include the proliferation of data, since Big Data is a huge opportunity for all companies, not just those in the IT space. Big Data is hitting every sector, from healthcare, energy, to even the humanities. So the issue is when you have a lot of data, you can actually look at a problem and solve it in a very different way, and that is one of the advances in computer science we're helping to spread to other sectors. The other theme is the kind of analytics that one can do on big data; to look at ways to learn from data statics in a way that when a new piece of data comes in you can say something about it.

Probably another theme for 2014 is natural user interfaces, or the ability to speak to the computer and interact with the computer without using a keyboard. The ability to communicate with a computer though gesture or touch, and interact with devices and computational elements in a more natural way.

Some believe that the sudden boom of Big data is a unjustified. What are your views?

I think it is a paradigm shift, and it is not going to go away. In fact it is only going to get bigger. I think this is why if you look at many colleges and universities, now they are recognising the need to teach the next generation students about analytical ability to understand how to represent, manipulate, store and organise Big Data.

Big Data is not going to go away, it is truly the change. Also, the data itself is going to become much bigger and wider in terms of volumes, variety and velocity. The other thing also is the Value of this data because not all data is equally good. That causes an interesting challenge from a technical point of view--how do you value some data over another data. So big Data is not going to go away, it is only going to become bigger.

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First Published: Fri, January 24 2014. 00:43 IST