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Microsoft exec: Survival is all about research

Rick Rashid, the founding member of Microsoft Research, talks about how the 18-year-old group has contributed to everything from Microsoft's streaming media to the Xbox 360.

Rick Rashid, the founding member of Microsoft Research, gives a talk at the company's Silicon Valley campus.
Stefanie Olsen/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--If you ask Rick Rashid why Microsoft is still around, he'll respond that it's because of research.

Rashid has no small stake in that answer. The founding member of Microsoft Research in 1991 and now its senior vice president, he said the unit has been responsible for everything from early code for Microsoft's entertainment products to its Xbox 360 game system.

"The reason you do basic research is for survival. You (provide) the agility to change when change is critical," Rashid told an audience at Microsoft Research's Silicon Valley lab here. "That's true for society and humanity more broadly, like if something really bad happens--war, famine, Google--you can respond."

On Thursday, Microsoft hosted its fourth research road show at its Silicon Valley campus since the local arm opened in 2001. The event, which was open to press, academia, high school students, and members of the industry, was designed to show off the company's research efforts and new technologies emerging from the labs. (The company has labs in Redmond, Wash.; Mountain View; and this summer, in Cambridge, Mass.)

To be sure, Microsoft has previewed much of the technology here at the half-day event before, including its WorldWide Telescope, a virtual telescope for peering into the heavens. But at least one project, including multitouch sensing technology LaserTouch, was newly demonstrated.

Rashid said that his group, which now has 800 Ph.D. researchers, is working on a wide range of projects, including ways to use computer science to solve world health problems like malaria and HIV.

Roy Levin, the director of Microsoft Research here, said his group focuses specifically on distributed computing. The lab, which has about 50 researchers, is working on improving the delivery of Web search results and the sponsored links that appear next to search results. Specifically, the lab is developing auction algorithms that will place the best-performing ads highest in the sponsored results, according to Levin.

Rashid said that overall, the mission of the research labs has been the same since their inception: to expand the state of the art in computer science.

"By that I don't mean do something for Microsoft. I mean move the state of the art in computer science." But, he added: "Ultimately, the goal of Microsoft Research is to make sure Microsoft is still here in 10 years."