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The Grill: Microsoft's Rick Rashid on the Hot Seat

Microsoft's top research exec talks about working on the next big thing, exterminating bugs and living with the Alto Trek legacy.

By Gary Anthes
August 13, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - What major change is coming in IT in the next few years? Something that will have a profound impact, and it's already happening, is the cost of storage. We've really made a transition from having to worry a lot about getting rid of things, to the point where anything we care about we can keep. We've reached the point of human-scale storage. A terabyte of disk space could literally hold every conversation you have ever had. It could hold a photograph taken every minute of your life.

What does that mean for business? It really changes the nature of how we think about solving problems, and it's showing up in computer science in a lot of different ways. For example, a lot of the technologies we have historically thought of as "machine learning" are very data-driven. In the old days, we often couldn't do things like machine [language] translation or certain kinds of vision algorithms or certain kinds of analysis, because we didn't have enough data. Now, suddenly you are seeing a shift toward these machine-learning or statistical techniques. In 1997, you probably could have stored the whole Internet in a terabyte, but now that's just one person's hard drive.

Rick Rashid
Name: Richard F. (Rick) Rashid
Title: Senior vice president, research (and formerly a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University)
Company: Microsoft Corp.
Favorite non-Microsoft technology: “I’m a pretty big fan of almost everything that looks like technology. I love gadgets.”
Technology pet peeve: “Cell phones. I just wish they would work right. I think voice would be a really good killer application.”
Hobby: “Unfortunately, I think my work is my hobby. I just enjoy computing; I enjoy programming.”
Role models: “At Carnegie Mellon, it was Allen Newell [the late pioneer in artificial intelligence]. And at Microsoft, Jim Gray [the late
researcher in database and transaction processing systems]. Gray was the kind of person you’d want your kids to grow up to be like.”
Epitaph of choice: “I developed Alto Trek [in 1972], one of the very first networked computer games. The things you do when you are young
you take with you the rest of your life. So, on my tombstone: ‘Rick Rashid: He developed Alto Trek.’ ”

What's the next big thing to come out of Microsoft Research? The next big thing is often defined by society. It's what people do, and scientists and engineers are often quite surprised by that. But one of the things you are seeing is the pushing down of intelligence into many kinds of devices. There's a lot of work going on in sensors and sensor networks. It's having a big impact in areas like environmental sensing, in reading energy consumption, for example. We are working on how we can measure, using distributed environmental sensors, what's happening in large data centers so we can reduce cooling costs.In user-interface technology -- you saw the Microsoft Surface announcement. I view that as just scratching the surface of what we can do.

Over the next few years, the cost of an LCD display on a square-inch basis will cross over that of a whiteboard. That completely changes the notion of what's active and what's not, or what's an inter­action surface and what's not.

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