REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 12, 2005 — During his seven years with Microsoft Research, P. Anandan has been best known for building one of the world’s foremost research teams in computer vision and video processing. But he’s also an avid student of African drumming — a fitting hobby for the man who, as managing director of Microsoft Research’s newest international research lab in Bangalore, India, is responsible for leading the drumbeat of support behind this facility as it officially opens Wednesday morning (India Standard Time).
P. Anandan, managing director, Microsoft Research Lab, Bangalore, India.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Anandan remarked by phone as he carried his African drum onto the plane for the first leg of his journey to Bangalore for today’s inauguration ceremony. “To return to my homeland and build up a new facility with the potential to make a huge impact on the research community and the people of India — it’s tremendously exciting.”
As with Microsoft Research’s five other facilities in the United States, England and China, the India lab is dedicated to pursuing long-range computer science research that can create the foundation for future technology breakthroughs, while at the same time allowing researchers to pursue work that is not bound by product development cycles. Initially, the India lab will focus on technology for emerging markets, multilingual systems, sensor networks and geographical information systems (GIS). As part of today’s inauguration, Microsoft Research India also is hosting TechVista 2005: a Symposium on Computing for Tomorrow, which will become an annual gathering dedicated to discussions of technology, development and research education.
“Our decision to found this new lab in India grew out of a strong interest in how information technology needs to evolve to more effectively meet the needs of underserved communities in developing economies,” said Dan Ling, corporate vice president for Microsoft Research. “Beyond that, our goals with every lab are to attract really outstanding minds, contribute to advancing the state of the art in technology research and pursue innovative work that leads to better Microsoft products. In each of those respects, India is absolutely a place where Microsoft Research should be working.”
The lab also will strengthen Microsoft Research’s long-standing relations with many of India’s top institutes of information technology through such initiatives as awarding fellowships to doctoral candidates in technology-related fields, providing internship opportunities for Indian graduate students at its facilities throughout the world, and fostering joint research projects between Indian university and Microsoft Research teams. In addition, the India lab has launched a new Information and Communication Technology for Underserved Communities award program through which university researchers can receive up to US$40,000 for projects that address the challenges of reaching people who previously have not had access to technology. Several grants totaling US$250,000 were announced today at the Microsoft India inauguration festivities.
Anandan and other top Microsoft Research leaders say the convergence of several key factors over the past few years has made opening of the India lab not only possible but also imperative for Microsoft.
“The information technology research community in India is really blossoming right now, and the country’s Ph.D. programs are poised for strong growth as well,” said Anandan, who has been involved with Microsoft Research’s university relations and collaborative research initiatives in India since 2001. “India is also a very active experimental test bed for new approaches to making technology more accessible to rural, underserved communities, which is a major long-term business priority for Microsoft. It just became more and more clear that Microsoft Research should play a larger role in helping India’s overall research ecosystem continue to flourish.”
His colleagues add that Anandan’s personal dedication and vision have been just as important in making the India lab a reality.
Microsoft Research’s Dan Ling visiting a rural PC kiosk in India.
“Without a strong leader, the question of whether to open a new research lab would be quite abstract,” said Ling, one of the primary architects behind the founding of both the Beijing and Bangalore facilities. “Anandan has been closely following the evolution of India’s academic research environment for several years, and so his excitement about opening a lab there made it so much easier for Microsoft Research to say, let’s move forward with this.”
Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of the India lab and a colleague of Anandan in Redmond since 1997, said he appreciates his friend’s ability to inspire confidence among those he works with.
“Anandan is truly interested in seeing his fellow researchers grow as individuals in whatever they do,” said Toyama, adding that this quality was one reason why he immediately said yes when Anandan asked him to come to India. “He’s also very ambitious about pushing the boundaries of what research can accomplish. Anandan is always willing to reach for a larger, more worthwhile goal whenever there’s one that seems attainable.”
Anandan’s desire to help open greater opportunities for post-graduate student researchers at Indian universities stems partly from his own experiences. Born in Chennai on the southeastern coast of India in 1955, Anandan grew up thinking he might become a lawyer or a mathematician. But after earning entry to one of five prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology that existed in the early 1970s, Anandan shifted his focus and received an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. Advanced study programs were scarce, so Anandan sought opportunities in the United States. After earning his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1987, he taught computer science for four years at Yale University and founded the school’s computer vision group. Over the past two decades, Anandan’s pioneering research in video motion analysis, optical flow, motion estimation, 3-D scene analysis and related areas has earned him widespread accolades from colleagues worldwide.
While he has traveled regularly to India on behalf of Microsoft Research’s University Relations program and for various other research activities since joining the Redmond lab in 1997, “I thought that the only way I’d move back there would be if I saw an opportunity to do something really exciting, something that could make a big impact and allow me to fulfill a very ambitious dream,” said Anandan. “At the same time, part of me also felt a sense of obligation to give something back to my home country.”
IT Industry ‘Coming of Age’
Those conditions began to take shape about three years ago, as Anandan spent more time visiting with Indian professors and fellow researchers. “Almost everywhere I went, I sensed tremendous ambition and optimism among the students and faculty about research in areas such as bringing the benefits of technology to underserved communities,” he recalled. “Beyond that, there were obvious signs that the country’s IT industry as a whole is coming of age.”
Returning from one such trip in December 2003, Anandan shared his impressions with Ling, who encouraged him to develop a recommendation for establishing the new lab. Anandan’s presentation about the potential opportunities in India also received a positive response from members of the Microsoft Research Technical Advisory Board, which is composed of academic researchers from many of the world’s leading universities and “think tanks.” Last spring, he and Ling began planning a follow-up visit to more seriously assess the potential for a new lab.
During their week-long trip through the cities of Mumbai, Poona, Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi in March 2004, “I was struck by the exceptionally high caliber of the students and faculty we encountered, as well as by the entrepreneurial excitement about technology that exists not only in the major cities but also in many rural areas,” said Ling.
“I asked myself: Would it be credible for Microsoft Research not to have a lab in India five years from now, with all that’s going on there?” he said. “The answer was, definitely not – so we might as well start moving forward now.”
Fertile Ground for Studies in Rural Computing, Multilingual Systems
Microsoft Research India initially will employ about two dozen fulltime research scientists, interns and support staff. Its core research areas each have strong affinities with India as well as a groundswell of interest and support among current staff members, said Anandan.
India, with its population of more than 1 billion people, two-thirds of them in rural areas, “is an ideal environment in which to explore new models for making technology accessible, affordable and relevant to people in very remote areas,” he said. A large number of universities and other organizations already are pursuing similar research in the country, “so we’ll have great opportunities to collaborate with the larger community and strengthen those relationships.”
Critical elements of this research include ways to tailor computing device interfaces to the limitations of illiterate users, offer alternative payment models for people with very low incomes, and extend technology to areas with limited electricity and telephone service. “Also, we need to better understand what kinds of activities and applications are most valuable to people in these types of emerging markets, so Microsoft and other companies can offer technology that helps underserved communities develop socio-economically,” said Anandan.
Toyama, who leads the Emerging Markets Group within Microsoft Research India, said one of the most striking examples of this can be seen in the hundreds of computer kiosks that have sprung up in many villages. Established by the government, various non-profit organizations, universities or start-up companies, these kiosks typically are run by a single person or family. Other people in the village pay a small fee to either use the PC themselves or have the operator perform tasks for them – such as sending e-mail, visiting Web sites or composing a letter.
“Even among people who rely on agriculture for their income, they have a vague notion that being associated with computers can make a positive difference in their lives,” said Toyama. “Many parents are particularly interested in getting their children to learn how to use a computer, because they recognize that these machines are connected to a world that in some way will lead to greater knowledge and income.”
Research devoted to creating multilingual computing systems — for instance, a platform that can handle content and commands that are rendered in several different languages at the same time — is also a natural focus in India, which has more than 20 official languages as well as many local dialects, said Ling.
Likewise, he said extending Microsoft Research’s work with GIS and land mapping technology to India holds great promise for helping farmers in that country and elsewhere to more effectively manage their planting, fertilizing and harvesting activities through the use of extremely precise pictures of the land. During today’s inauguration of the India facility, Microsoft Research and the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology and Ocean Development announced plans to collaborate on a GIS project that would bring a variety of satellite imagery, remote sensing and other geographical data together into a geographically indexed database.
The Sensors Group in India will conduct research in how lightweight hardware devices and small sensors with processing and communications capabilities can be distributed over a large physical area to provide data about specific types of activity or sensory input. Potential applications of sensor networks include systems for environmental monitoring, physical security, disaster management and traffic analysis.
“These are all very significant issues for India as well as many other regions of the world that Microsoft aims to address in cooperation with government and academic partners,” said Ling.
Raj Reddy, a distinguished professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the Technical Advisory Board, said he expects great work to come out of Microsoft Research India and that the timing for this lab is ideal.
“With 4 billion people in the world who do not have access to information technology and aren’t benefiting from the potential that it offers, Microsoft Research’s commitment to understanding those issues and spearheading solutions from its new facility in India will add tremendous momentum to this effort as well as many other important research areas,” said Reddy. “I also see Microsoft Research India playing a vital role in opening more opportunities for India’s huge pool of talented students to remain in the country as they earn their Ph.D.’s and get involved in great research projects that are both intellectually and financially satisfying.”
Lab Aims to Help Keep IT Growth Cycle Spinning
Reflecting on his role in guiding the vision and agenda for Microsoft Research India, Anandan said his top priority is to recruit the right mix of researchers and other staff members who are passionate and self-motivated about what they do. He singled out Toyama, his assistant director, as a prime example.
“Kentaro has always been somewhat of an enterprising guy who likes to play with the boundaries of what research and technology can achieve,” said Anandan. “If you want to do something new, you want people around you who aren’t afraid to write their own script, and he’s certainly good at that.”
Over time, said Anandan, “I’d like for our India facility to lead Microsoft in some exciting new directions as the result of the innovative work we do. I also want to show that Microsoft Research can have a substantial impact on the larger research community through supporting India’s education system in ways that make other companies and organizations excited to contribute to that effort as well.”
Much like his own life’s journey from India to the United States and back again, Anandan said the path ahead for Microsoft Research is cyclical in nature.
“I hope we can create opportunities, open people’s eyes to the great work taking place in India and help inspire more passion in the research community,” he explained. “That in turn will increase the pool of talent in India, which leads to more opportunities, and the cycle continues.”