TechFest: Microsoft researchers show off future of computing

Massive astronomy project, cell research and other efforts shown to Alan Alda, reporters

Microsoft worked really hard at its seventh annual TechFest event to show attendees that its researchers are working on more than the just the next Windows operating system or Internet Explorer browser.

The vendor Tuesday gave reporters and research partners a taste of its 10TB World Wide Telescope project, which stitches together images and information from major telescopes, scientists and astronomical organizations from around the world, including NASA. Executives also showed off some of the other research projects the company's 800 PhD scientists are working on -- which include building a new programming language to study cell biology, work on new AIDS vaccines, development of software to monitor and predict global epidemics, and sensors to monitor the melting of glaciers in the Alps.

The one-day TechFest event showed off a quarter of the research that will be unveiled to Microsoft's own employees, according to Kevin Schofield, general manager of Microsoft Research.

"One thing Bill [Gates] has encouraged is to take some part of the company's assets and use them to work on projects that will make a difference," said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft. "That's partly been the motivation to go beyond using computer science to just benefit us as a company. It's important that we not just make money, but that we contribute to working on these other problems."

In a keynote presentation, Mundie was questioned about the projects by actor Alan Alda, who came to fame playing Hawkeye on the long-running television series MASH and has appeared on the PBS science series Scientific American Frontiers for the past 11 years.

Alda asked Mundie whether Microsoft would continue a research project after scientists discovered that it could not provide technology that could be used by the company for commercial purposes. Mundie said every case is different but added, "If it's important, we will look for ways to let the work continue."

Obviously, a good percentage of Microsoft research focuses on improving current products or creating brand new ones for the company, noted Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. He said in a keynote address that the company's research projects include work on quantum computing, spam-fighting technology and a new user interface.

"We're about moving the state-of-the-art forward," said Rashid. "Ultimately, we're about making sure Microsoft and its products are around in 10 years." He noted that in the past, the company's research arm has produced technology that has gone into Xbox graphics, the company's videoconferencing device RoundTable, speech-recognition tools and cryptography libraries.

Alda said he was able to check out some of the research projects being touted on the show floor before going to the keynote. "Some of the things I saw today are very exciting because it will raise the level of communication and education of everyday people, but it also will raise the level of communication between scientists," he said. "That's so important; I'm just really excited."

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