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Microsoft to open first East Coast research lab in Cambridge

Kendall Square center expected to debut in summer, study intersection of computers and social science

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / February 4, 2008

Microsoft Corp., building up its long-term research capability at a time when other corporate research powerhouses have scaled back, is set to disclose today that it will open a laboratory at its new offices in Cambridge this summer.

The Microsoft Research New England lab, to be led by veteran Microsoft researcher Jennifer Chayes, will focus on the intersection of computer science and social science, and seek to tap into the expertise of academic researchers in the Boston area and worldwide. It will be the company's sixth research center and its first on the East Coast.

"If you look at the future, people are going to be interacting online," said Chayes, 51, whose own research interests range from mathematical models of social networks to algorithmic game theories of Internet business. "We really want to be a facilitator for this new field on the boundary of computer science and social science."

Chayes, who will be the lab's managing director, said she plans to arrive in Boston this spring with her husband, Christian Borgs, who co-manages the theory group at Microsoft Research's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., and will be deputy managing director of the new lab, at One Memorial Drive near Kendall Square. Chayes said they expect to bring 10 to 15 researchers and associates with them from Redmond and eventually plan to increase the size of the Cambridge staff to at least 50 people.

Word of the new lab, which has begun to spread among Microsoft's collaborators in the Boston area, is sparking hope of a corporate research revival in an era when the influence of leading corporate research operations like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC has diminished and other basic research labs, like IBM Corp.'s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, have refocused some of their efforts on shorter-term research that helps customers solve problems.

"Corporate research is extremely important for the future of the country," said Venkatesh "Venky" Narayanamurti, dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "There are very few companies in the US that are doing this forward kind of early research today. We're very excited about what Microsoft is doing."

Rick Rashid, senior vice president of research at Microsoft, said the company has been talking about opening a Boston-area basic research lab since he arrived in Redmond from the Carnegie Mellon University faculty in 1993. The idea gained momentum when Microsoft hired longtime Massachusetts technologist Ray Ozzie in 2005. Ozzie, who has since succeeded founder Bill Gates as the company's chief software architect, has been quietly advocating internally for Microsoft to expand its foothold in the Boston area.

With a string of recent acquisition deals, including Ozzie's software company Groove Networks in Beverly and, last month, Fast Search & Transfer, a Norwegian company with operations in Needham, Microsoft soon will have nearly 800 employees in Massachusetts.

"As we've grown what is now a quite substantial development operation there, it makes sense to have a research operation as well," Rashid said.

Microsoft recently hired a Boston-area software industry veteran, Reed Sturtevant, to lead a new Boston Concept Development Center, a product development center that also will operate out of the office at One Memorial Drive.

Chayes said her research lab, which will bring in visiting professors from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other schools to collaborate for periods as short as a couple of weeks to as long as a year, will be housed directly below Sturtevant's operation and will be connected by a staircase.

She plans daily tea and cookie gatherings to foster communication between people on both teams and between computer scientists and social scientists in her own lab.

The latter group is likely to include some unconventional hires for a technology research center, including sociologists, economists, and psychologists eager to apply research from their disciplines to the evolving technology field.

"We don't want the hard scientists on one side of the lab and the social scientists on the other," Chayes said. "We really want strong interdisciplinary interaction."

Microsoft Research employs about 1,400 people in five locations around the world: its main lab in Redmond; a lab in Silicon Valley, which focuses on operating systems and computer architecture; a lab in Cambridge, England, which specializes in programming languages; a lab in Beijing, which focuses on signal processing; and, a lab in Bangalore, India, which specializes in cryptography.

Researchers from different labs collaborate on a range of research projects.

While she wants the Kendall Square lab to work on areas like understanding what people do in the online world and the monetization of Internet activities, Chayes said it wouldn't be limited in any way.

"We want to hire the smartest people," she said. "If amazing people come to us who don't fit into those areas, we'll hire them anyway."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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