In recent news, Microsoft New England has apparently hired Boaz Barak. (Though I could not find any announcement by Microsoft, or any indication on Boaz’s webpage.) This comes on top of Microsoft’s recent hires of Madhu Sudan and Omer Reingold (in Silicon Valley). One could argue that were MSR New England an academic department, it would rank among the top 3 in theoretical computer science. (Of course, one could also argue that were MSR New England an academic department many of the people would leave and the productivity of those who remain would be cut by half…)
I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous, as MSR New England is one place I would love to go… (and yes, I’ve “applied”).
I don’t want to re-hash the debates about academia vs. industry. (Anyway, it is not a fair comparison in any of these cases since Boaz, Madhu, and Omer are getting the benefits of industry without having to give up the benefits of tenure.) I’m more interested in the question of what Microsoft expects to get out of these hires? Or, more bluntly, how does Microsoft expect any of these hires to impact its bottom line? I am not asking about the value of TCS research in general, which I think is clear. I am asking, in particular, about hiring people who are about as far from practice as possible. I don’t think comparisons to “the old Bell labs” work here: the fundamental physics work done at Bell labs seems, to me, much closer to yielding practical benefits than fundamental work on complexity theory. I also don’t buy the arguments about these hires being public relations coups: how many people, outside of the attendees of STOC/FOCS, would recognize these people’s names? And for how many people will this affect their decision of whether to apply to Microsoft for a job, or buy Microsoft products?
But maybe I’m missing something. Any thoughts?