REDMOND, Wash., June 21, 2001 — When Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Butler Lampson takes the stage later this week to accept the Von Neumann Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) — the world’s largest technical professional organization — he’ll join one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Established in 1990 to honor “outstanding achievements in computer-related science and technology,” the annual award is reserved for a researcher whose work and discoveries have played a fundamental role in the development of the computer and the creation of the computer revolution. Lampson is just the 11th scientist to receive the honor.
Past winners of the Von Neumann Medal have been cited for “creating the foundations of real-time, interactive, personal computing” and “pioneering contributions to computer graphics and microelectronic design.” Lampson’s award is for “technical leadership in the creation of timesharing, distributed computing, networking, security and program languages.”
“Butler’s enormous talent for practical implementation and deep understanding of computer science has helped modern computing evolve into what it has become today,” says IEEE President Joel Snyder. “He has contributed to a remarkable range of systems, including local area networks, client-server systems, laser printers, word processing software and programming languages.”
When it comes to prestigious honors, Lampson is the tip of the iceberg at Microsoft, where scientists and researchers have garnered scores of medals, fellowships, honorary doctorates and special citations. Many of these awards have been given to the computer scientists — more than 600 men and women — who work at Microsoft Research. The awards are a strong indication of both the respect that the scientists at Microsoft Research have earned from their peers and of the high quality research and innovation consistently produced at the company.
Lampson is not the only Microsoft researcher to earn a prestigious honor this spring. In May, Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Jim Gray was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Created by an act of Congress in 1863, the NAS was established to further research in science and engineering, and to advise the U.S. government on ways to use science and technology to further general welfare. Considered to be a kind of lifetime achievement award, election to the NAS is one of the highest honors accorded to scientists and engineers. Among the academies made up of 1,900 members, 170 are Noble Prize winners.
Recently, Roger Needham, managing director of Microsoft Research’s Cambridge lab, has also received recognition. Earlier this week he was named a “Commander of the Order of the British Empire,” or CBE. Chosen by the Queen based on recommendations from the Prime Minister, CBE ranks just under knighthood, an honor that was bestowed on fellow Microsoft researcher Anthony (Tony) Hoare in March 2000 for his service to computer science. Last November, Hoare was also the recipient of the Year 2000 Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, which is awarded annually by the Inamori Foundation in Japan. The Kyoto Prize is one of the world’s highest honors for a computer scientist.
Over the years, three Microsoft researchers (Butler Lampson, Jim Gray, and Tony Hoare) have earned Turing Awards from the Association for Computing Machinery, an honor likened to the Nobel Prize for computer scientists. Michael Freedman, a senior researcher at Microsoft, earned a Fields Medal from the International Congress of Mathematicians, which is the Nobel equivalent in the field of math, and also earned a National Medal of Science. Gordon Bell, another senior researcher at Microsoft, is a past winner of the National Medal of Technology. Jim Kajiya, Microsoft Research Assistant Director, and Alvy Ray Smith, Microsoft researcher, received Oscars for Graphics/Technical Achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The staff at Microsoft Research comprises current and former MacArthur Fellows, Sloan Fellows and Guggenheim Fellows, and honorary doctorates have been bestowed by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of Stuttgart and the University of Bologna.
“I think the main reason we’ve been getting so many honors is because we’ve been fortunate enough to hire such high-quality people,” says Kajiya, whose personal awards trophy case holds a 1991 SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Achievement Award to go with his Oscar. “This becomes a great positive feedback process — when you have such stellar people, it just makes it a lot easier to attract great researchers, whether they’re young, up-and-coming scientists, or more established researchers like Butler Lampson and Jim Gray, who have a long history as pioneers in the field of computer research.”
A Global Think Tank
Founded in 1991, Microsoft Research has been instrumental in helping to shape the company’s vision for the future of digital technology, which centers on computers that, in the words of Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, “see, listen, speak and learn so people can interact with them as naturally as they interact with people.” A global think tank with facilities in Redmond and San Francisco in the United States, as well as Cambridge, England, and Beijing, China, the goal of Microsoft Research is to invent or identify the technologies that will shape computing five or 10 years in the future. Today, scientists at Microsoft Research are working in more than 40 areas, including speech recognition, user interface research, programming tools, operating systems, networking, graphics and natural language processing.
Barely 10 years old, Microsoft Research was launched at a time when many companies in the United States were drastically reducing the amount they spent on research and development. It quickly earned recognition as one of the world’s top corporate research labs, and as one of the top places to conduct leading-edge research software and computer research. The influence of the innovative work done by Microsoft Research scientists is reflected in nearly every Microsoft product on the market today, from the Windows 2000 and Windows XP operating systems to the Office XP suite of personal productivity applications to the SQL Server 2000 database application to security software and CD-ROM game titles.
Occasionally, researchers involved with a project even transfer to the product development groups where their ideas will take shape. One example is Lampson, who is currently part of the product group working to develop the Tablet PC.
“Our goal with the Tablet PC is to combine the power of the PC with the simplicity of paper,” he explains. “The challenge is figure out how to build machines in ways that make them as natural to use as paper and pencil. I’m currently working on high-level architectural issues and handwriting recognition.”
Microsoft Research has played an especially critical role in the Microsoft .NET initiative. Microsoft .NET is a platform for the next-generation Internet in which constellations of computers, intelligent devices and Web-based services will collaborate more closely than ever — drawing information from each other, combining it and delivering it in a customized form that best serves an individual user’s needs. Many of the .NET goals have grown out of ongoing projects at Microsoft Research in such areas as networking, programming languages, programming tools, high-speed networking and data management. As their technology breakthroughs begin to make their way into actual products, Microsoft researchers are continually working with Microsoft product development teams to further enrich the .NET platform and framework.
Where the Action Is
Given the enviable record of success that Microsoft Research has already achieved, one may wonder how it stacks up against some of the great corporate research labs of all time, including legendary places such as Xerox PARC, Bell Labs and IBM Research.
One way to measure the quality of the work is to look at the significant presence of Microsoft scientists at leading research conferences and their contributions to prominent technical journals, which subject every submission to strict peer review.
“Many of the honors our researchers are receiving today are lifetime achievement awards that recognize past accomplishment, so those awards aren’t always the best indication of our success,” Kajiya says. “If you look at the number and quality of papers that have been accepted in the field of computers and software, we wouldn’t hesitate to be compared with any research center.”
“We’re not even in our teen years, so it’s a little early to try for comparisons with places like Xerox PARC,” Gray adds. “But if you look at all the progress we’re making in areas like speech, language understanding and operating systems, I think when people look back 20 years from now at what we’ve accomplished, there’s a good chance Microsoft Research will be legendary.”
Butler Lampson may be the best person to ask when it comes to comparing Microsoft Research and other research labs. He spent a dozen years at Xerox PARC during the 1970s and 1980s when the lab was at its peak, and nearly a decade at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Systems Research Center. He has done pioneering research on everything from computer architecture and local area networks to transaction processing and computer security, and holds more than two dozen patents.
“I like to be where the action is,” he says. “There’s just no question that right now, Microsoft Research is the world’s leading research organization in computing and it is the place where there are the most opportunities in the field.”