Microsoft's Mundie: IT needed to solve global woes

At Harvard, Microsoft Chief Research Officer Craig Mundie argues that computer science is on the brink of breakthroughs that can crack daunting energy and environmental problems.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Scientists need the same sort of computer breakthrough that the spreadsheet brought to business users decades ago, says Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer.

Mundie gave a speech at Harvard University here on Tuesday to discuss coming "disruptions" in computing and to argue that computer science is fundamental to solving daunting global problems, including energy, environment, health care, and education.

Without taking advantage of advances in computing, adjacent fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology will not move as fast as they could, he said. At the same time, he lamented how computer science is seen as "so yesterday."

"It's stunning how much people want to fund the fads and they don't put any emphasis on how core computing is," Mundie said during questions. "I hope we can come together and realize that we have to invest in the future of computing if we want a future in all these other areas."

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer urges students to think about coming disruptions in computing. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The Harvard talk was one of four Mundie is giving this week in an effort to stir excitement in the study of computing, with both computer science students and people in other fields, such as medicine or material science. Less than 100 students and faculty came to the Harvard talk on Tuesday where he demonstrated some of how Microsoft's research can be applied to energy and the environment.

Computing is becoming increasingly embedded in everyday devices, in everything from phones to cars. But even though people are increasingly familiar with digital technologies, there are still disruptive changes on the near horizon, Mundie said.

"We think we understand it but in fact it's at a time that the flux in computing overall is as great as it's ever been," he said.

The amount of computation that's available will continue to increase with multicore processors, which will enable new applications. That includes what Microsoft calls "natural language processing," where people can interact with computers in more intuitive ways than the familiar mouse and graphical user interface. An example is Microsoft's Project Natal, motion-sensing technology where people can use arms and legs to play games.

Two other big technology changes, he said, are three-dimensional displays and cloud computing, where people can tap banks of servers over the Internet for data-intensive jobs.

High-end demos
Mundie showed Microsoft Computational Science Studio, a tool designed by Microsoft Research in the U.K. to allow scientists to run complex and data-intensive computer simulations.

Science Studio could be used to project the impact of rain forest deforestation in South America on other regions of the world. The tool is designed to help experts from different disciplines create a model around different sources of data and visualize simulations.

In this example, the application tapped data centers off-site to run simulations of how changes to the rate of deforestation would affect average temperatures in the U.S.

Generating these models is very practical not just to scientists but to policy makers as well, Mundie said. "Is it better to pay the Brazilians not to cut down trees or to develop genetically engineered crops that can grow in temperatures that are five degrees hotter?" he said. "Those are the kind of choices that our society is going to have to deal with."

In another demo, Mundie showed how a researcher can optimize output from a wind farm. Using an 8-processor computer with a three-dimensional display and pen-based input, Mundie was able to view how different wind turbine blade shapes affect wind flow.

Several energy technology companies are already using IT aggressively. The idea of the smart grid is essentially overlaying digital communications and controls onto the electricity grid. Start-up eSolar uses embedded processors on thousands of mirrors to track the sun and generate the most heat possible with its solar concentrator.

Cloud computing opens up more possibilities for far-reaching energy research, Mundie said. One example is TerraPower, a Seattle-area nuclear power company that has attracted Bill Gates and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold as investors.

TerraPower is designing a "traveling-wave nuclear reactor" that could use the spent fuel from traditional nuclear reactors and make electricity from it for decades. To speed its research, the company is using high-end computation, which only now is accessible to start-up companies because of cloud computing, Mundie said.

"These are the types of technologies where scientists, engineers, and computer scientists have to come forward, explore them and, if we can make them work, then of course they represent a real discontinuity in the quest for high-scale, zero carbon energy sources," he said.