Monday, July 18, 2011

Microsoft Research Summit 2011 - day 1

Microsoft Research invited me to the Summit as part of the iSchool deans group. This blog posting (and several that follow) has my notes and comments.

Tony Hey opened the Summit with a talk about changes in scholarly communication, including ways of evaluating output. One of the reasons he left academia had to do with the ranking process at British universities. He emphasized that Microsoft is open (as Steve Jobs recently admitted). Microsoft is now working with the OuterCurve Foundation “to enable the exchange of code and understanding among software companies and open source communities”.

One of the major goals of the conference – a goal that speakers emphasize repeatedly – is to network. This leads to a type of intellectual market in which researchers try to sell their ideas to others who are also trying to sell ideas. Theoretically everyone is a potential idea buyer too, but realistically mostly people want to sell to Microsoft to get research money. This makes Microsoft staff very popular.

As is typical of conferences of computer-oriented people, the wireless network is periodically unable to keep up with the demand. Part of the problem comes from people viewing data-intensive websites related to the presentations (I tried too). Nonetheless it seems like a problem that a corporation like Microsoft should be able to overcome. Happily the problem went away once the plenary session ended. Too many people using too few access points.

Breakout Session: Federal Worlds meet Future Worlds
Howard Schrove from DARPA talked about two models of survivability: the “Fortress” model (which is rigid and doesn't work against an enemy who is already inside) and the “Organism” model (which is adaptable). There is a balance in biology between fixed systems that address known threats, and adaptable systems that address new dangers. The underlying causes of problems in computers come from a few known sources, especially the difference between data and (executable) code. The speaker said that hardware immunity is relatively cheap to develop. Self-adaptive defensive architecture is an adaptive method for software that checks behaviors that compromise it and implements on-the-fly fixes. Instructions sets can be encrypted and randomized. Networking is a vulnerability amplifier, but if the cloud has an operating system that functions essentially as a public health system for the cloud, it may be possible to move the solutions out faster than the attack progresses. A quorum computation can check whether certain systems have been compromised. The result could involve reduced performance and randomization to confuse the attacker. Biosocial concepts are the underpinning of resilient clouds.

Breakout Session: Reinventing Education
Kurt Squire presented some of the educational gaming development that he is working on to get people to have richer experiences with topics like the environment (in a particular consequences for a county in Wisconsin) and medicine (in particular identifying breast cancer). Seth Cooper presented a game called FoldIt, where the goal is to fold biochemicals. Problem-solving is fun and that is part of what makes the games interesting. Tracy Fullerton, a professional game designer, spoke about why traditional assessment takes the fun out of game design. She explained the “yes, and...” game (where you must preface each statement with “yes, and...” rather than “but” or “no”), which helps build collaboration.

Closing plenary
The closing plenary included a variety of speakers. One talked about how Microsoft has been trying to enhance the security of its code. Another spoke about a new app that allows people to write programs on their mobile phones. A developer spoke about echo cancellation for enhancing speech recognition (primarily for gaming). Conclusion: computing research has incredible diversity, and rarely is exclusively "basic" or "applied". 

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