This morning I spoke with Kentaro Toyama, the assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, about the mission of Microsoft’s Bangalore-based research center. Our podcast touches on all six of MSR India’s research areas. These are mostly concerned with the same kinds of advanced computer science problems that the other labs around the world focus on. Although it wasn’t a requirement that each of these efforts be particularly appropriate to India, it turns out that one way or another they are.
India’s wealth of mathematical talent, for example, is a tremendous asset for a research program in cryptography, security, and algorithms. Likewise its linguistic diversity — there are 22 officially recognized languages, and several hundred dialects — makes it a natural home for research on multilingual systems. And a country that’s adding 7 million mobile phone subscribers every month is a great place to investigate mobility, networks, and systems.
There’s also work in areas outside the realm of classic computer science. Kentaro Toyama leads an area called technology for emerging markets which tackles problems like how to create text-free user interfaces for people who cannot read. Obviously you need to rely heavily on graphics and on audio feedback, but there are fascinating subtleties involved. Simple icons don’t work well, because they’re not expressive enough. But fully realistic images don’t work well either, because they’re overly literal. It turns out that a cartoon-like approach is what works best, and within that discipline there are further subtleties — for example, you want to animate the pictorial verbs, but not the nouns.
I was also fascinated to hear about related work in digital geographics, and in particular, about an effort to render map data in the style of hand-drawn historical maps. Why do this? Well for one thing, those old maps are beautiful. But as Kentaro Toyama points out, there’s a non-aesthetic reason too. Maps produced by human cartographers communicate more effectively than machine-generated maps normally can. That’s because cartographers use their intelligence and judgement to select and emphasize certain features at the expense of others. It’d be great to be able to model some of that intelligence and judgment and reproduce it software.
I’ve been to India twice. When I was 5, my family lived in New Delhi for a year. Then in 1993, for BYTE, I visited to learn about India’s software industry. Maybe finding out more about MSR India will turn out to be a reason to go again.