On July 18 and 19, in Redmond, in the American state of Washington, seven Brazilian researchers took part in a major academic forum promoted by Microsoft, the largest software manufacturer of the planet. The Microsoft Research Faculty Summit brought together scholars from various parts of the world to discuss the future of computing, to get to know the lines of research pursued by the company, to frequent talks and round tables with worldwide authorities in various fields of information technology, and to make contact with the work of colleagues from other countries. “I made at least three contacts with professors interested in receiving my postgraduate students”, says Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, a professor from the Computing Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the president of the Brazilian Computing Society. “In a parallel event, I took part in a meeting with 30 of the world’s main researchers in databases, where each one was able to tell what he has been up to. It was a rare opportunity”, says Claudia.
FAPESP’s scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, made a presentation about Brazil on an official panel at the Summit and took part in a round table on cooperation between Latin America and India. Max Costa, from Unicamp, Junior Barrera, Flávio Soares Correa da Silva and Carlos Morimoto, all from USP, and Roberto Ierusalimschy, from PUC in Rio, were also in Redmond.
Although Microsoft’s prime goal is to create and sell products – and, to do so, it invests US$ 5.2 billion in research and development each year –, the company traditionally maintains collaborations with universities even on issues that do not promise innovations in the short term. One of the company’s maxims runs that if 90% of a given line of research is incorporated into a product, it is because the company has stopped thinking about the future. The ideal is to invest also in pure research, which has a potential for keeping the company oxygenated and for helping it to remain in the vanguard of the market. That is why it sponsors events like the Faculty Summit, where it treats the academic world as a strategic ally. It was also for this reason that it created Microsoft Research, its research arm, which keeps a budget that is independent from the product development area and cooperates with scholars from various institutions. For investing in scientific research in over 55 areas of information technology, Microsoft is today a rare example of a company that carries out basic research, a space that in the past belonged to IBM and to the Bell Laboratories. It employs over 700 people in six large laboratories: three in the United States, and the other three in the United Kingdom, China and India.
At an event of the Summit that gathered together researchers from Latin America, Brazilian research in computing was highlighted. The productivity of the country’s postgraduate programs in this area, which qualified a hundred doctors and a thousand masters last year, was praised at a round table that brought together professors from other countries. Ricardo Baeza Yates, the director of the Web Research Center of the University of Chile, admitted that research in Chile is on another scale: to compete with a first class Brazilian program, it would need to join up with another important research group from his country. It was left to Max Costa, a professor from Unicamp’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, to pose a question that had already passed through the minds of many Brazilians. Why does Microsoft not open in Latin America a research center along the lines of the ones it recently created in China and in India?
Microsoft Research’s director in Redmond, a Brazilian, Henrique Malvar, to whom the question was addressed, gave a diplomatic reply. He said that the installation of a laboratory of this kind would be a natural consequence of the weight that research in Latin America is building up, but he made the proviso that there are no concrete plans in this direction. Malvar stresses that Brazil has credentials for housing this laboratory. “I do not believe that there is any additional requirement. The Brazilian academic community is very good, particularly in top schools like the University of São Paulo (USP) and the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). There are several indicators that prove this, such as technical books of an international level whose authors are Brazilians, the quality of the articles published etc.”, explains Malvar, adding: “As the information technology ecosystem, with the involvement of Microsoft, Brazilian companies and the academic community, continues to grow, and naturally to lead to a growth of Microsoft’s business in Brazil, the probability will increase of, one day, our being able to open a laboratory in Brazil. But it as well to stress that there are no concrete plans”.
Henrique Malvar is one of the artificers of the tightening of ties between Microsoft and the Brazilian academic world. In May, he was in Brazil taking part in the Microsoft Research’s first Academic Research Congress in Latin America, which brought together dozens of researchers in the city of Embu, in the São Paulo Metropolitan Region. The collaborations are getting more and more frequent. Junior Barrera, a professor from USP’s Mathematics and Statistics Institute, was invited to go to the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit after a group from Microsoft visited him at USP and became interested in his work in the area of digital image processing. He was also encouraged to present a project when the next notice comes out for partnerships with Microsoft. “My work and the work of Microsoft’s researchers have points in common”, Barrera says. In 2003, Professor Max Costa, from Unicamp, spent a period of three months at the Research Center in Redmond as a visiting researcher, and he was impressed. “It would be possible to listen to three talks a day, with exponents of mathematics or engineering. It was even difficult to manage your diary”, he remembers.
Two years ago, Microsoft entered into agreements with USP’s Polytechnic School and Unicamp, which resulted in the creation, in both institutions, of laboratories with equipment donated by the company. “They came to get to know our work, and they offered us this opportunity”, says Rodolfo Azevedo, a professor from Unicamp’s Computing Institute and the coordinator of the laboratory, endowed another 13 machines, 1 server and 15 tablet PCs (personal computers in the form of a notepad). “The laboratory acts as a platform for research in the computing area. And it is also used by undergraduates who come here to have contact with new technologies”, Azevedo explains.
There are other ventures, such as the XML Technology Centers in cities like São Paulo, Curitiba, Petrópolis, Recife, Fortaleza and Porto Alegre. These nucleuses are seeking to qualify professionals in technology for the reality brought about by the XML (eXtensible Markup Language) open standard, which allows communication between different computers and portable devices. “There is room for us to expand the relationship with the academic community in Brazil. Microsoft should open more technology centers, which include scholarships for students”, says Henrique Malvar.
In 2005, Microsoft Research’s first intern program in Latin America for postgraduate students started. Of the four candidates selected, two are from Brazil. The Brazilian participation in the Imagine Cup, a world championship in solution for software promoted by Microsoft and contended for by 17 thousand undergraduates from 90 countries, is another example of cooperation. Besides having taken part with a larger number of teams, they were victorious in the Solution for Microsoft Office category, with a group from the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE).
A recent protocol of intentions signed between Unicamp and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a certain inspiration from Microsoft Research. The protocol seeks to strengthen collaborations between the two institutions for the use of technologies in education. The agreement was signed by Phillip Long, the coordinator of the MIT’s i-Labs – a project that inspired the idea of the WebLabs (laboratories interlinked by the web) of the KyaTera project, which connects dozens of research institutions of the state of São Paulo by means of optical fibers. The platforms and software that supply the MIT were created by the researchers from Microsoft Research. KyaTera is part of FAPESP’s Tidia (Information Technology in the Development of the Advanced Internet) program. “There is still no partnership, but the tools developed by Microsoft for the MIT may be able to help us in the Tidia researches”, says Hugo Fragnito, a professor at Unicamp and the coordinator of the KyaTera project.
Spearhead in Latin America
Google, the worldwide leader in search technology, has bought Akwan Information Technologies, a company from Minas Gerais created by a group of professors from the Computing Science Department of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). With the acquisition, Akwan is being transformed into Google’s Research and Development Center in Latin America, a spearhead for the American company in the continent. Akwan was created in 2000, used to provide services for Internet companies and portals, and was responsible for the todobr.com.br search site. “The negotiations make it possible for the American company to incorporate all the engineers and search technologies developed by Akwan”, says Nívio Ziviani, one of the founders of the company from Minas. The other two creators are Alberto Laender and Berthier Ribeiro Neto. Ribeiro Neto will respond for the executive management of the Brazilian Research Center. Headquartered in Silicon Valley, in California, Google has expanded the number of research centers spread over the world. Besides Belo Horizonte, centers were established in Tokyo (Japan), Zurich (Switzerland), Bangalore (India), New York and Mountain View (United State). With the creation of the Brazilian branch, the expectation is that new jobs are created, with Brazilian technicians being contracted. “Google’s international centers have a target for contracting that includes 200 persons. I believe that the Brazilian research center will not be very different”, Ziviani said.