Microsoft is opening a research lab in New York City, and the back story is a further sign of the brisk market for computing brains these days.
Last month, Yahoo announced it was shedding 2,000 employees, about 14 percent of its work force, with cuts across the board, including its research staff. The new Microsoft lab, announced on Thursday, is essentially a transplanted team from Yahoo.
The initial 15 scientists include well-known researchers in hot niches of computing research like Duncan Watts (online social behavior), David Pennock (prediction markets) and John Langford (machine learning).
The group’s research focuses in large part on the application of advanced computing tools to the social sciences. It is a fast-growing field fueled by the vast new data sources of the Web, social-network communications and from sensor-equipped devices like smartphones. The potential is enormous, as Google and Facebook prove. But Microsoft has trailed so far.
So why join Microsoft instead of, say, Google, which has a large and growing presence in New York? “Microsoft is a fantastic place for research because it balances the academic and the product-impact sides,” said Dr. Pennock, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the New York lab.
Jennifer Chayes, a mathematical physicist who leads Microsoft’s research center in Cambridge, Mass., will also manage the New York lab. “Our primary mission is to advance the state of the art in our fields,” Dr. Chayes said. “And there is a lot of interaction with the academic community, which is a hallmark of Microsoft research.”
The combination of unfettered research with a potential for a real-world impact, Dr. Pennock said, is what appealed to him and his Yahoo colleagues. Microsoft has a growing portfolio of data sources that provide fertile ground for research including the Bing search engine, the Skype Internet phone service, and the Xbox Live online game network.
Microsoft, Dr. Pennock said, affords a researcher the “ability to have what you do impact hundreds of millions of people.”
People have offered that explanation for joining Microsoft for decades. But in the old days, the mechanism of market reach and influence on users was the personal computer. In fairly lengthy conversation, Dr. Pennock and Dr. Chayes never mentioned the PC. Today, the PC is mainly a window into the online world, not the vehicle driving technological change.
For Dr. Chayes, the New York lab is a homecoming of sorts. She was born in Manhattan. The 15 recruits, she said, are just the start of the build-up of Microsoft’s research arm in New York. And the lab is looking to forge partnerships — visiting and consulting researcher relationships — with Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, Rutgers University and the planned Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute.
Dr. Chayes is also a big fan of Mayor Bloomberg’s Applied Sciences NYC Initiative. The first-class universities, policy initiatives and Silicon Alley, she said, are producing “a groundswell of technology in New York. And we want to be in the places around the world where there is great science and technology.”