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News feature: MS labs realise revenues

Microsoft peers into future, sees healthy profit

Watch out – your PC is cosying up to you. Today's trends of faster processors, abundant memory, and massive storage are the framework to support systems that work more intimately with people, from sorting your email to speaking in your own voice and providing Star Trek holodeck-quality graphics.

These are just a few glimpses of the future emerging from the MSR (Microsoft Research) labs, and they could be reality sooner than you think.

With four offices around the world, the software company's labs are a pure research facility and, typically of pure research, many of the projects start as technology without a product.

But not for long, says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of MSR. He spoke this week in Microsoft's Silicon Valley Speaker Series, at the campus that in May became the latest MSR facilities site.

"Our number one priority is to expand the state of the art in each of the areas in which we do research," says Rashid. Next, of course, is figuring out how to make use of those innovations in Microsoft products.

Early applications

Consider, for example, software under development that monitors and models your behaviour. The initial implementation would be an intelligent email sorter that assigns numeric values to all your messages based on your past handling of similar email.

So, as the most promptly read, the boss' missives may rise to the top while routine carbon copies drop near the bottom and junk mail hits the cellar. Microsoft uses such a filter internally.

Following that, the even smarter assistant will monitor your work habits and correlate them with your calendar. It may book extra time for an appointment that involves travel, based on commute data available from online traffic monitoring.

"Your notebook knows all that about you already," Rashid says. "We think we could put this information to use," helping you get more from technology.

Some fruits of the research are fairly quickly evident. Specific products borne of MSR endeavours include ClearType, the more readable text used by Pocket PCs and the Tablet PC.

But whether the labs' moniker on a product is obvious or not, says Rashid, "Today, it's hard to find anything we do as a company that hasn't been influenced by the research group."

Looking forward

Rashid predicts significant advances in the next five to 10 years in several areas, among them PC graphics, storage and speech technology. Already, he points out, game consoles like Xbox and even some PCs can produce the level of graphics in Pixar's acclaimed Toy Story.

And storage for these movies will be as plentiful as it is cheap, according to Rashid. "We're on the verge of making a terabyte of data storage available even on laptops," he says, describing a terabyte (1,000GB) as enough to hold every conversation you've had your entire life, from birth to death.

The labs are also working on speech technology that can analyse someone's voice then produce and 'play' that same voice, not as recordings, but actually producing new speech that mimics the lilts and tones of the speaker.

Then there's Mindnet, a rather more sophisticated sibling of the grammar-checking technology in Microsoft Word. Rashid describes it as "a huge natural language database automatically created from dictionaries" which links words by their relationships.

Another language-based technology, Ask MSR, is an automated question answering site, used internally for fun more than work, which researches queries across the internet.

"It's a very early stage of the technology," Rashid says. "We get about 50 percent of the answers right." For now, he says, that technology is best suited to help answer the very specific, expensive questions at the end of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, rather than the common-sense queries in the early rounds. Computers are apparently still learning common sense.


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