Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Microsoft Research 20th Anniversary

Yesterday there was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Microsoft Research. MSR New England is actually only 3 years old - but those events were happening on the same day at every MSR site. Here are some highlights.

The enforcer. There was a dense schedule of 8 minute talks, enforced by Christian Borgs. Madhu Sudan's presentation ended with: "I am sticking to the time limit because Christian is a little bit taller than me."

The setting. The talks were professionally filmed and the speakers were bathed in projector lights. At one point I saw Christian, as he was looking around for questions, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the light. That kind of setup, I think, makes it difficult to engage the audience. Every series of talks was preceded by a short movie that was basically a commercial for MSR, and there was music as each speaker came forward, as though they were presentators of a TV show. Weird! A couple of researchers slipped right into the role as if it was natural for them: "Hi, everybody!", cheerfully shouted Kate Crawford into the microphone as she arrived.

My favorite piece of science. Ernest Fraenkel's slides, gracefully mixing information about genetic diseases and how they might work, reverse engineering protein function, and algorithms for prize-collecting Steiner forest.

The most memorable moment. Adam Kalai showing us how Kinect is so sensitive that he can direct it with his tongue.

Random quotes. Yael Kalai: "The computer's belly".
Butler Lampson: "Life is hard".
Christian Borgs [after the first break]: "Thanks for coming back ... most of you!"
Adam Kalai: "Let's talk about something that other people care about: kittens."
Alessandro Acquisti's closing words: "If the internet makes it difficult to forget, our brain makes it difficult to forgive."
Chris Conley: "The law hasn't changed because laws don't spontaneously change."

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