microsoft silicon valley TCS research lab shuts down— easy come, easy go

siliconvalleyhi all. filed under “the joy and pain (& yin & yang) of research”. 😦 🙂 microsoft unceremoniously announced the abrupt/ brusque closure of the silicon valley CS research laboratory which ran for about ~1½ decade. actually there does not seem to be any official announcement anywhere. one cannot even find a list of the researchers and their papers any more, apparently the web page previously documented it was vaporized also. “the memory hole”! a bit orwellian even! easy come, easy go! (and this is also quite a jarring contrast/ juxtaposition wrt just last blogging about Google buying up an entire QM computing lab!) updated: MS page back up [a14]

this is a harsh moment but certainly not an unprecedented one. commercial/ industrial research labs have tended to become very rare in the last few decades, an endangered species. this closure triggered sizeable ripples, commentary, and reflections in the (T)CS blogosphere including by many insiders, past visitors, and admirers posting comments, tributes, & memories.[a] among them [a1] is esp notable/ standout as Omer Reingold announces the closure in a very classy way with lots of responses & reminiscing, thoughtful, even touching comments. a sort of mini blog eulogy. a test of that old aphorism-verging-on-canard which might feel like little solace to the victims: “when one door closes, another opens” also heard in some recent pop music (ah, that new near-saccharine-upbeat Katy Perry song that mixes more metaphors than even me?).

Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together. —Marilyn Monroe

some marvelled at how MS has recently made major acquisitions and just agreed to a ~$2½ BILLION dollar acquisition of the Minecraft video game. yeah business is not always rational. what takes a long time to build up can be torn down in an instant.

in my youth MS had the regal imperial buzz of Google or Facebook today. times change! knew myself that this kind of energy is unsustainable. have studied MS closely in my life & read multiple bios of Gates. to put it diplomatically, Ballmer seemed just not to have the same strategic instincts as Gates. he just couldnt make anything stick after over a decade of crushingly expensive tries. Bing, Surface tablet, windows phone. however, in his defense, the tech industry is one of the most fastpaced and darwinian in existence.

almost ~1½ decade ago, was laid off in a vaguely similar fashion from a dotcom. it was a very cool R&D job involving latent semantic analysis and latent semantic indexing technologies, a parallel beowulf (linux) cluster (when they were still quite novel), and parallel algorithms. wow! at the time thought it was my dream job. it lasted a little over a year and then the entire dept shut down instantly throwing out 7 employees incl the manager/ head, about ~½ year after 911.

to me some of this is symptomatic of the winner-take-all capitalism that has been in sway for several decades and goes under the economic guise of so-called “supply side economics” but which really is turning out to be just a cover story for extreme wealth inequality intertwined with crony capitalism and near-plutocracy. 👿 (ofc thats not a topic for polite company! shew!)

there is a fundamental catch 22 with R&D. if one can figure out how to build a product, then one should just go about building that product. but in a way there is actually no money in figuring out how to build the product, only in the finished, materialized product. and lots of R&D is not always product oriented nor can it be. capitalism generates intense pressure to commoditize every product.

so in general science and capitalism do not really mix comfortably/ smoothly. science needs to be publicly funded. but as unchecked capitalism devours most of the culture, science will suffer. the abstract “value” of science is inestimable to humanity but the *monetary* value looked at through bureacratic/ administrative/ accounting eyes is highly questionable.

R&D does seem to be similar to silicon valley principles in that one has to throw money at a lot of projects before any one in particular can yield returns, but apriori this is not clear which will be monetizable. and one has to “swallow ones losses” on all the other stuff that might have looked promising or have potential in the past but can turn out to be dead ends with 2020 hindsight.

but, there is not a big reason to be overly dejected or negative about this news. we seem to be in the midst/ living thru a golden age of computer science research and theoretical research in general. there are some estimates eg that “there are more mathematicians alive now than have lived in the entire past” and maybe the same goes for other theoretical areas such as computer science. rumors are that not everyone at the MS lab lost their job and there are many other MS CS labs continuing around the world so far unaffected; apparently among them the silicon valley lab “drew the short straw” somehow.[a12]

scientific research, knowledge, and discovery is one of the most impressive and valuable aspects of our highly civilized, technological, complex age. it can be uneven at times, but its sheer span is massive and at times nearly incomprehensible (sounds dramatic or maybe exaggerated but eg imagine how many (T)CS papers are published yearly, internationally, and their contents and range of topics; it surely numbers in the thousands or more). its also become much more international in recent times. there are countless many making maybe not all “thriving” but at least “surviving” careers of it.[b]

my particular interest of (T)CS research seems to be thriving quite well in academia and industry and has been very blessed by a high profile sponsor Simons who has had a major effect/ impact on the field.[c][e]

at times like this its sometimes helpful or inspiring to look back at how far TCS has progressed in just a few decades from its illustrious origins & one can derive major confidence that this trend will continue long into the future. lets not forget its recently uncovered elite founding fathers such as Godel, Nash, Kolmogorov.[d]

update 9/29. hey cyberspace thx for all the hits. spking of “going back to roots,” adding another bonus angle. MSResearch was founded by a famous 1991 memo [g1] by Myhrvold directed partly at founder/CEO Gates. Myhrvold is a very colorful character, another scandalous billionaire. he started a large company Intellectual Ventures accused of so-called “patent trolling”.[g]

update 10/14. theory community responds with letter sent to Microsoft referring to “damage” to its reputation, call for dialog, (etc) and signed by 28 leading researchers, & many further endorsements by leading researchers in comments.[a15]

update 10/22. Harry Shum, MS Executive Vice President, Technology & Research responds, reaffirming commitment.[a16]

a. msr/svc

b. phd/career

c. tcs topic

d. TCS origins

e. simons

f. misc

g. myhrvold/patent troll

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