Network: Never mind where we want to go today, where will you take us tomorrow?

It could be argued that Microsoft's success is the result of brilliant marketing rather than innovative technology. But to maintain its dominant position in the industry, the company is investing $2bn a year in research. When Bill Gates looks to the future, he looks to Nathan Myhrvold. Paul Smith talks to him.

It is commonly thought that the man who holds the vision for the future of computing is William H Gates III. The Microsoft chairman controls the destiny of an industry that underpins so much of what is important now and will be into the next century. Not just our PCs, but our banking, our entertainment, our education - all of our information.

But if you really want to know what computers are going to be like - what they will and won't be able to do, how we are going to use them - then the person you need to talk to is Nathan Myhrvold. The chief technology officer and vice-president in charge of research knows more about what the future holds for computing than anyone else at Microsoft. The reason is simple: he's the one building that future.

On a first meeting, you certainly would not credit him with the status of uber-geek. If anything, he reminds one of an Ewok character from Revenge of the Jedi, a jolly, avuncular teddy bear. And he displays a conversational range of interests that stretches far beyond the single-minded obsession of the true anorak.

He boasts more than a casual knowledge of palaeontology, and an interest in philosophy, cosmology and photography. He collects fossils and books. He sky-dives, bungee-jumps and climbs mountains. He is also an accomplished chef, cooking - when he can - at Rover's, one of Seattle's best restaurants. He earned an advanced culinary degree from La Varenne in Burgundy, and competed twice at the world barbecue championship in Texas, winning first and second place awards. When he came to London to announce Microsoft's $50m investment in a research facility in Cambridge, he hosted a lunch at Chez Nico, insisting on arriving half-an-hour early to spend it with the chef.

Myhrvold finished high school at 14, and has a Master's in maths from UCLA and another from Princeton, where he also got his PhD. He was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge by Stephen Hawking, researching cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space time and quantum theories of gravitation. A colleague is quoted as saying, "He is one of the few people who can work on a peer level with Bill [Gates]."

His role at Microsoft, which he joined in 1986 as director of special projects, has always reflected this gigantic, roving intellect. He is essentially hired to think: about the future of Microsoft, and the future of technology.

At first, he spent a lot of time considering the forces affecting Microsoft and how they should be handled. Usually, people think of its competitors as being other computer companies - Netscape, Intel, possibly the US Department of Justice. In reality, it is more likely to be the likes of Time Warner or Disney.

Of course, being bright does not always make you right. Myhrvold was the product manager of Windows 2.0, a product so dire that not even his formidable talents could save it. And he is widely credited as the man who steered Microsoft away from the Internet when the rest of industry saw it as a watershed. That decision nearly caused the company to founder, and it was only a turnaround of admirable nimbleness that helped Microsoft to regain its dominant position.

All has been forgiven. In October 1996, Myhrvold's role was crystallised when he was given responsibility for the $2bn annual investment in research and development at Microsoft. He and his colleagues have set up an academic- style research lab, complete with an open, and highly counter-cultural, approach to research. Any work that they are doing is available on the Net or presented at conferences. Everything is subject to peer review. And they are garnering kudos, both from other academics and also, more significantly, in the people whom Microsoft is hiring, some of the foremost computer scientists in the field.

We spoke at length about the research going on at Microsoft, both the specifics and the nature of technology research itself. The first question I wanted an answer to was this: what will computers look like in two, five and 10 years from now?

"Well, two years from now is pretty easy, because it's an evolution of what we have now, and a bunch of things get better: the cost gets lower, the machine gets faster.

"Once you get out to five and 10 years, you start to get more things out of research; more things are unexpected. Although we have a notion of what it will be like, it's not very exact. Let me give you an example. If you look at the whole history of Windows, version 1.0 shipped in 1985, version 3.0, the first successful version, shipped in 1990. So that is an example of something that was a product for five years before it even caught on.

"Although we like to think of technology as fast-moving, and in some senses it is, often it takes a lot longer than you'd expect for things to be mainstream.

"I would say speech recognition is at least five years away as a mainstream thing. There are speech recognition products today that will work under certain circumstances. I know people who have carpal tunnel syndrome and can't type who use them. But, as a mainstream thing, probably five years away - plus or minus three!

"Some degree of vision is probably only a few years [away]. But it depends what you want. If you mean computer vision, where we will stop driving our own cars and that they'll drive for us, that is, I'd say, 10 or 15 years out, just for the wealth of social factors. Using it for things like sensing who's in the room, figuring out what's going on, if your attention is directed to the machine or not directed to the machine, those things are all getting very possible ... I think within two to three years, you'll start seeing things like that. Within five to eight years, it will be quite common."

These areas - speech recognition and vision control - are two of the main areas of research at Microsoft. They are obvious areas and, indeed, there are many solutions available today. In fact, a senior researcher working on vision control admits that Microsoft is not leading the field: "You could have seen a much better demo than ours at MIT three years ago."

One of the problems with any technology research is choosing which fields to enter in the first place: it is hard to imagine how a new technology will be used. After all, we have only the experience of existing technologies to base it on. How do you look forward when all you can do with accuracy is look back?

"First of all, it's very hard; there are no great answers. But the way you try to make progress is the following: the thing that determines how we use technology is not the technology itself, but us. It is aspects of human nature, and the geometry of our bodies.

"PCs are built the way they are because of the length of our arms, fundamentally. If you are going to do detailed work, write something, our eyes focus best at arm's length. Our eyes focusing best on our toes makes no sense. So if you have a device that is going to be used for reading or writing in very detailed fashion, it needs to be that far away from your face; if you use it for long periods of time, you are going to sit down. And, if you work it out, you've pretty much described the personal computer from a human factors standpoint.

"Culturally, we have patterns in how we adopt technology and what we tend to use technology for. And so really this study of how we use technology in the future is to understand the things that count, which is humans and human nature. It's not exact, but you can get a surprising way by reasoning on the basis of what people are likely to do."

A combination of thinking about human factors, and a formidable intellectual curiosity, has led Myhrvold down some strange paths. "I did a calculation once to try to determine what the bandwidth of taste receptors was. When you taste something, how much data is coming out of there? Is it more or less than video? ... It's about the same as audio.

"People have done studies where they dilute sugar samples to see how many gradations you can get, which will tell you how many bits you have. Now it turns out you have about eight bits of resolution. If I dilute something by one 256th, a trained taster can just taste it, but one 500th and you can't tell. Then you've got a bunch of combinations of flavours; it's not just one or even three mixtures.

"It's a little more complex than colour. With colour, you have three samples. So it's roughly eight bits per sample. The key thing is that taste is slow: it takes time for taste to develop in your mouth. A CD takes a 16-bit sample 44,000 times per second. If, in fact, you take half a dozen eight-bit samples 10 or 20 times a second, let's say 100 times a second, you'd probably have enough. And so it is about the same as CD audio."

It is this sort of left-field thinking that drives much of Microsoft research.

"We try to do a few things here that are not obvious. For example, we've just started an ambitious project in theoretical computer science. Now, most industrial research labs don't do a lot of theory. Even a lot of universities don't do a lot of theory.

"We hired a bunch of the world's best mathematicians to use some of the sophisticated techniques from mathematics to rethink the fundamentals of computer science. This is highly non-obvious, in that no computer science head of department would have done that. In the long run, this could lead to a different understanding of computer science from a theoretical perspective, which would be very interesting. The other interesting thing is that it might, just might, lead to new models of computation.

"There are people already experimenting with radically different models. Quantum computing is an example, and so is DNA computing. Our brain clearly is another one. So we know of at least one other model of computation, which is in our heads. And we know that we can do things very easily that today's computers cannot, and vice versa, so one of the most interesting things would be if we could invent new models of computation. So [theoretical research] has a low probability of reaching its goal but, boy, it sure would be valuable if it did."

Microsoft research, it turns out, is not about the future of computers so much as the future of human beings. And the linchpin is Microsoft's Renaissance Man, seeking to know what we are all about. "Understanding technology itself isn't a key thing. The fact is, we are insatiable in our desires. So it does help to understand other things."

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own