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June - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Scientia-its-sobriquet
Aritra Bhattacharya
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Scientia is a rather uncommon name for a building. Perhaps you would associate it a science-related establishment, with a pack of geeks working away frenziedly on their equipments. And in that, you will be right, and wrong.

For one, yes, it is a science-related establishment. Scientia, located in the suburbs of Bangalore, houses the Microsoft Research (MSR) Lab. But it is not thronged with compulsive geeks. On the contrary, a heterogeneous crowd, constituting from the dark-skinned to the blonde haired can be found reclining, often on the floor, in the resort like atmosphere.

The whiteboard bears witness to their activity. One message asks, “Have you tried the new mangoes?” A host of apparently baseless replies adorn the board. Queer. And this you thought was a research lab.

‘It’s Socratic’ says P. Anandan, Managing Director, MSR of the way it works. There are no directions, no timings and no formalized status meetings. Researchers amble around at ease, catching a bite here and a chat there, and pray, some of them even sleep while in the lab.

Interns are often at a loss when they come in and see all this around. “What is my task they often ask?” says Vidya Natampally, Director-Strategy, MSR India. ‘Go talk to people around, find out what they are working on, and come back and tell us what you want to work on’ is the standard reply they get.

Walk around the wooded interiors and you realize these people are no geeks. MSR is thronged with firstly, anthropologists and ethnographers who seek to observe and document the lives of people in India’s rural villages and secondly, computer scientists who can create appropriate technologies for them.

But that is not the brief they work on, says Anandan. “We encourage researchers to work around real world problems sure, but not get bogged down by concerns of productization,” he quips. As such, research and product development-related research are completely separated in Microsoft, with a non-product oriented approach forming the running motif at the MSR .

Primarily, researchers at MSR India work in the following areas:
1. Getting various solutions onto the mobile platform. Since India’s mobile penetration stands close to 200 million over the PC penetration of 20 million, there is a natural opportunity for research in the field of migrating various application onto the mobile phone. While Microsoft has been hugely successful in conquering the PC space through its Windows and Office applications, the folks at MSR focus on how best they could create similar applications for the mobile phone, so that Microsoft’s legacy spreads to that field as well.
2. Since India happens to be the hub for services and BPO operations, MSR collaborates with services companies like Infosys in addressing challenges in developing enterprise software.
3. Despite significant advances, multilingual systems are still a silo-ed thing, where one has to shift between languages. Researchers at MSR work towards realizing seamless translational content. One of MSR”s applications in this area, which allows users to type in Hindi through phonetic English, with the text onscreen appearing in Hindi, has already been incorporated into Windows Live Messenger

“While these form the broad research areas, the focus is decided by the people we hire,” says Anandan. It is not difficult to see how, since in Anandan’s view a good researcher is he who looks at a scenario and turns it into a research question. “Much more important than commitment and depth of knowledge is the ability to pose new problems,” he says.

Once a researcher has devised a problem and worked around on the findings, MSR encourages them to present their papers in as many conferences as possible. “Since Indian students don’t have international exposure, going to conferences abroad only hones their skills, and we facilitate that by providing travel grants,” says Natampally.

That apart, every year, Microsoft organizes a Techfest where MSR researchers from the world over assemble to present their ideas to the various in-house product groups. Once a product group shows interest in productization of an idea, the researcher works on fine-tuning the code and tweaking it according to the needs of the market, following which it is handed over to the advanced prototype development team (outside MSR). “Oftentimes, parts of a specific research get utilized by various product groups,” says Anandan.

India’s status as a test-bed for research into technologies for the emerging market has drawn a lot or researchers from the U.S., Europe and Canada to MSR India. This viewpoint is typified by what Jonathan Donner, researcher, MSR India has to say: I was a post-doc at Columbia, researching how people in the developing world use technology, particularly mobile phones, to start and grow small businesses. The topic fascinated me, but it was tough to keep tabs on a rapidly changing subject from far away. I decided to get “into the field,” as the social scientists say, and moved to MSR India. Today, the data is right outside my front door, amid the exciting jumble that is Bangalore.

Of the 50 odd fulltime researchers at the MSR lab in Bangalore, about a third is PhDs with a wealth of experience behind them. “These generally are the returnees,” points Natampally. Another third of the force is fresh PhDs, and the rest are the ‘young and energetic’ BTechs and MTechs. In addition the lab has interns across the year, the number of applications for which has grown ‘unmanageably high’ in the last two years. Between them, they have presented over 80 papers in various conferences the world over in the last year and a half.

Vouching vehemently for the long-term future of societal growth depending on the investment and activity in technological research, Anandan hastens to clarify what constitutes research in real terms.

“It is no longer for the sacrificially minded, or those living in the ivory tower, aloof from the real world,” he clarifies. “In fact, the best research is done at the interface between the ivory tower and the people.”

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