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MIT, Microsoft Join in I-Campus Alliance

By Rima Arnaout

MIT shocked the community with the announcement of an industrial partnership with Microsoft Corporation Wednesday. The initiative, called I-Campus, involves a $25 million contribution from Microsoft over the next five years. In return, MIT offers access to its faculty and research facilities.

Research will focus on the development of educational technology, said Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of the School of Engineering and a member of the MIT-Microsoft steering committee.

“To say that there’s $25 million specifically for education is an enormous opportunity for MIT,” said Professor Harold Abelson ’73, co-director of project I-Campus.

“Our main objective at least at the outset is to improve learning on campus... to take programs that we’re currently doing and improve them for our current student body,” Magnanti said.

Project I-Campus will be more visible to students than other MIT relationships with industry. “This is really focused on the development of educational technology,” said Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72.

By contrast, other partnerships between MIT and industry “aren’t designed to engage students as learners but rather in their capacity as researchers,” Bacow said.

The partnership with Microsoft will be overseen by a steering committee of MIT and Microsoft members, including Abelson, Magnanti, and Microsoft Research Vice President Richard Rashid.

“[Professor Abelson and I are] going to manage the interactions between this program and other groups and programs... to make sure this is a program that contributes to the Institute,” Magnanti said.

“We anticipate that many students will be working on the projects... graduate students working, and we hope to engage a fair number of undergrads as UROPs,” Magnanti said.

Scope of partnership unclear

The goals of MIT-Microsoft research have not been well-defined past three initial projects.

Abelson said Microsoft wanted to keep the deal confidential until the official announcement “because they want to do this kind of thing with four to five other universities. MIT is the keystone.”

Because MIT found it difficult to fund projects with Microsoft money without talking about project I-Campus, initiatives other than the first three have yet to be decided.

Abelson said that the projects will definitely address education.

“The clear way to fail in this project is not to involve students... a failure from MIT’s perspective and from Microsoft’s perspective because the real value they see is in the students,” Abelson said.

Because Microsoft is providing the money, “Microsoft will decide which projects we should start... I think once a project is underway, it will be controlled by the principal investigator of that project,” said John V. Guttag, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

MIT satisfied with terms

On the whole, the MIT administration seems confident that the agreement with Microsoft protects the interests of the Institute.

“Microsoft has this bad rap in general but the particular people we’re working with are really good,” Abelson said.

According to the terms of the agreement, Microsoft does not need to approve research publications that come out of the project, and MIT is not subject to prepublication review from Microsoft.

Microsoft “really wants to have an impact on education and they understand that happens through public dissemination” of research, Abelson said. “I was pleasantly surprised about how much the people at Microsoft understood that.”

MIT signed a “standard intellectual property agreement” with Microsoft, Bacow said.

“Microsoft gets a non-exclusive royalty-free license to the intellectual property developed here. MIT owns the intellectual property,” Bacow said.

“If they want exclusive rights, they have to negotiate an agreement with MIT” for any combination of equity, royalties, or cash, Bacow said.

“I’m pretty comfortable that this approach is consistent with MIT’s normal way of dealing with intellectual property of sponsored research,” Guttag said.

“I think it’s very healthy as long as we do it right. These relationships can provide opportunities for our students and faculty, and help our faculty and students learn more about the outside world, which can enrich the teaching on campus and the research on campus. If we frame them so that they provide those sorts of resources to our community, they can be wonderful,” Magnanti said.

Microsoft gets dubious reception

Microsoft has made more of an effort to engage the student community in their MIT alliance than have other industries. MIT held a public announcement in 10-250 on Wednesday as well as a party called Futurefest.

About 300 students attended Futurefest, where Abelson spoke about the MIT-Microsoft alliance over dinner. Microsoft raffled away copies of Office 2000 software.

During the talks, students heckled the speakers and shouted “Microsoft sucks!” Near the end of the party, some students took copies of Office 2000 from the raffle and stomped on them.

As for student conduct at Futurefest, Bacow said he “thought that was done in good fun.”

“I think most of our students are excited... there’s certainly a diversity of opinion on campus on almost any issue and that certainly is true of MIT’s working with Microsoft,” Bacow said.

Some students at Futurefest wanted to show Microsoft “they’re not wanted,” according to former East Campus resident Peter Gamache.

“UNIX gained popularity by becoming popular at educational institutions. Microsoft is trying to take UNIX down the same way. There’s no question: MS is running scared,” Gamache said.

Distance learning project started

Initial projects include expanding the MIT Shakespeare Electronic Archive and developing long-distance learning technology through collaboration with the National University of Singapore. Project I-Campus will also explore using distance technology in model design with the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“At this point [Project I-Campus] has been a faculty-led initiative,” Magnanti said.

The cost of the secrecy in announcing the alliance “is that everybody feels that you’ve dumped something on them,” Abelson said. Now, however, he “doesn’t want there to be any mystery.

The MIT-Microsoft steering committee will hold workshops in October to decide what projects to do, Abelson said. The committee will invite research proposals from the community by mid-December. Funding for will begin in January.

The Shakespeare project is “rich in multimedia content, gives us an opportunity to experiment with a multimedia-rich learning environment,” Magnanti said.

Of the Shakespeare project, “we wanted one project that is somewhat more mature, and represented the humanities so it would bring a different style of learning and different learning objectives” to MIT, Magnanti said.

“Then we wanted one project just beginning,” said Magnanti, referring to MIT’s work with Singapore, which started this month. “In the Singapore project, there we have students on campus and students in Singapore” so it’s an opportunity to try distance education, Magnanti said. The Aero-Astro project is the least developed of the three initiatives.

Magnanti said that, for now, there are no plans to supplant MIT’s computing system with Microsoft software. “That’s something that we’re going to investigate as part of the project... looking at the administrative infrastructure and what kind of infrastructure” we want, he said.

Magnanti said that “MIT is making no firm commitment to any computer platforms or any software platforms in this agreement” and that he believes in “a heterogeneous computing environment.”

MIT has history of alliances

“We’ve been working on [a Microsoft-MIT alliance] for about a year,” Magnanti said. “It started from a conversation on October 12 when President Vest and Bill Gates shared a car ride to the airport,” Magnanti said. Serious talks got underway in January.

According to the MIT News Office, 70 percent of the research conducted on the MIT campus is federally funded. MIT gets about 20 percent of research funding from private industry -- more than any other university in the country.

Over the past five years MIT has developed relationships with companies such as Amgen, Merck, Ford Motor Company, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), Merrill Lynch, and Dupont. Microsoft’s is the third largest gift from industry, behind Amgen’s $30 million and Dupont’s $35 million.

Microsoft Research (MSR) was created in 1991 as the computer science research organization of Microsoft Corporation. MSR is collaborating with several colleges -- such as CalTech, UC-Berkeley, and Texas A&M -- on specific projects, but Project I-Campus is Microsoft’s largest collaboration with a research university.