December 1997


Inside Microsoft Research

by Robley Curtice

Microsoft has one of the largest research departments of any private company, and we were recently fortunate in hearing about some of their future goals. Dr. Dan Ling, Director of Research for the goliath, set forth the companyís focus with clarity and conviction at a recent Internet Explorer 4.0 conference.

Computers that can interact with humans on human terms is one of the research teams immediate goals, Dr. Ling began. Presently the interaction is almost entirely through the keyboard, but in the future it will be different: the computer will understand spoken commands. A 60,000 word vocabulary (with go, going, gone all different words) is possible now although the problems of intonation and accent are still serious. Microsoft has just invested 45 million dollars for a minority share in Lemout & Hauspie Speech Products of Belgium to augment its development of soft speech programming interfaces (SAPI), in order to solve some of these issues. The other side of the coin is the computer communicating with you. In that, Microsoft Natural Language Research (MNLR) is rapidly moving from the other-worldly voice of the present to a perfectly natural voice generated by large voice databases.

Another human sense to be added to the computer is that of sight. Cheaper sensors and the increase of thruput available in the new CPUís will enable the computer to see a person approaching the machine and what the person is doing. A demonstration was given of the computer ability to turn its screen saver off and prepare to work in response to signals. A sensory environment is envisioned that could work for children prior to their acquisition of language. By raising the hand a cymbal could clash, thus two children could mimic a band. Of course included in this vision is extending the range of interactive digital media using 3D graphics, which is also being studied.

Another field: How do you make PC's more intelligent? Study is continuing in making computers easier to use and in addition to adapting to the user rather the converse. Written questions can be simplified in their directions by using a database that quickly finds the questioner's intent even if his use of words is awkward. And how about computers that will dynamically repair malfunctions with perhaps only aid from the Internet?

The Internet (remember Bill Gates woke with a cold sweat three short years ago when he had digested the content of the famous MayDay memo of 1995 that the he was missing the Internet) occupies much research time also. But Dr. Ling would not be pinned down to specific moneys or staff devoted to these projects. From the people-to-people connections through chat lines to the finding of information, Microsoft is intensely studying all these implications. In line with this also is the research departmentís compilation of a data base, which will go online in December, that is a huge collection of satellite photos and U.S. Geological pictures from a low level plane. Using a portable computer system in your car, you would tap into it as you drove around Manhattan, for instance, and zoom down to find yourself parking space on 42nd Street.

Dr. Ling's most profound statement amplifies the oft repeated Moore's Law of Exponential Change: All computing that has ever taken place in the world will be eclipsed in the next five years. However when he was asked how soon would we have a computer like the one in the film 2001, one that could observe happenings (even read lips), engage in strategic thinking, and initiate actions, he replied that it will some time in the future but his half-smile seemed to imply that Microsoft will definitely be the one making the software!

Robley Curtice (, a San Franciscan, is an early-retired teacher who haunts West Coast technical conferences searching for the 21st Century Killer App.

Copyright © 1997 by Robley Curtice. All Rights Reserved.

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