CSAIL & Nokia: Dial ā€œCā€ for Collaboration

main image
Bookmark and Share

Photo: Jason Dorfman

Over the past four decades, CSAIL has partnered with numerous companies. Yet none of them have been quite like the Nokia and CSAIL collaboration known as Mobile Ecosystem 2012. In fact, CSAIL has worked with Nokia a number of times in the past, yet the current effort is still distinct. According to Arvind, Johnson Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and co-director of the partnership with Jamey Hicks of the Nokia Research Center Cambridge (NRCC), the collaboration enables the parties to accomplish things that neither would be able to do if working alone.

“One important thing that distinguishes this collaboration is the physical proximity of CSAIL and Nokia, which enables us to meet often and for our students to work side by side with Nokia’s research staff,” says Arvind. “This enables us to foster a relationship where ideas have commercial relevance, and expose our students to real challenges in the commercial world.” The Mobile Ecosystem 2012 comprises a number of individual research projects aimed at enabling Nokia phone users to have more intuitive and integrated interactions with their phones – as well as between their phones and the other computing devices they use. The partnership is staffed with 40 researchers, 20 from CSAIL and 20 from Nokia. Likewise, each research project is led by two principal investigators, one from each party. Conceiving the future of phone functionality Another key aspect to the collaboration is the fact that research projects proceed in two stages. The first is open and “pre-competitive,” meaning that there are no confidentiality agreements; anyone can know what’s going on. This is critical because it allows for maximum input and freedom of thought. Only when projects are determined to be relevant for product development are they brought inside Nokia’s intellectual firewall for further refinements. Many of the challenges revolve around the fact that a cell phone is a highly constrained environment, so that any new function or application added must be specially engineered to operate with minimal power and processing requirements. This leads to some very innovative approaches and cutting-edge solutions. “Today’s cell phones are capable of doing so many things, and in the future they’ll do more and more,” says Arvind. “One of our goals is to make them work more easily and efficiently. After all, a cell phone is a very personal product. Unlike a computer, we don’t carry it everywhere we go, we don’t share it. Therefore, our phones should be able to understand our behavior and anticipate our needs, which requires very advanced user interfaces.” One project involves speech recognition. Using a phone to browse the Internet or look up stored information is difficult because the buttons and display are so small. If a user could simply converse with the phone to access information and services, it would reduce frustration. But the project doesn’t stop there. Suppose you not only want to look up movie theaters but also want to choose a movie. Typically, one would look through various sources to read a number of reviews. As it turns out, CSAIL had been working on a machine learning tool that can identify, assemble, and summarize reviews and other information from different sources expressed in natural language.

Working together for the benefit of all “This goes back to the idea that the collaboration with Nokia makes things possible that neither of us could accomplish by ourselves,” says Arvind. “We’re able to show them technical possibilities, and they can identify and help us test ways they can be applied. For example, Nokia has a database where customer service issues are stored. Combining our technologies with natural language processing, a Nokia representative could ask his phone to summarize all issues relating to battery life, and get a complete and accurate response very quickly.”

If current projects prove commercializable, Nokia phone users may someday be able to purchase items with a credit card simply by pressing a button on the phone; find specific files on their home and work computers through their phone – even if they can’t recall on which device the information they seek resides; and remotely deactivate a lost unit to ensure that secure information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. The collaboration is now in the third year of a three-year agreement, and both Arvind and Hicks are confident the parties will renew their commitment.