Microsoft unifies research groups as it appoints a science chief

Key Points
  • Eric Horvitz, who has been with Microsoft since 1993, is now the company's chief scientific officer.
  • Peter Lee is taking on all of Microsoft Research with the change.
US technical fellow and director at Microsoft Research Eric Horvitz poses prior to a meeting with journalists at Microsoft France headquarters in Issy-les-Moulineaux, near Paris, on June 21, 2018.
Eric Piermont | AFP | Getty Images)

Microsoft is switching the leadership of its research wing after senior executive Harry Shum left the company last month.

The change signals Microsoft's interest in longer-term research efforts. In addition to unifying parts of Microsoft Research under one person, the company is more tightly integrating health care with the research group. The group was originally formed in 1991.

In November, Microsoft said Shum, executive vice president for artificial intelligence and research at the company, would be leaving. Kevin Scott, Microsoft's technology chief, has taken on Shum's responsibilities. Shum left in February.

Eric Horvitz, a technical fellow and director of Microsoft Research Labs, is being promoted into the role of chief scientific officer, a Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC in an email on Tuesday. It's the first time a Microsoft employee is receiving that title. 

"As Chief Scientist, Eric will provide cross-company leadership on advances and trends on scientific matters, and on issues and opportunities rising at the intersection of technology, people and society," the spokesperson wrote. "He and his org will be responsible for advising on Microsoft's scientific directions and capabilities, including standing up new initiatives, providing guidance on company priorities and assessing important areas for investment in science and technology."

Horvitz joined Microsoft in 1993 and spent 16 years as a principal researcher, according to his LinkedIn profile. He's co-chair of Microsoft's Artificial Intelligence and Ethics in Engineering and Research (AETHER) committee.

Peter Lee will now be in charge of Microsoft Research, the spokesperson wrote. Lee was most recently corporate vice president for Microsoft Healthcare. He has also led Microsoft's broad Healthcare NExT group. It will be under Lee going forward along with other units, the spokesperson wrote.

Lee was already running parts of Microsoft Research, as well as leading many health teams around the company, according to a person familiar with the matter. Now, he'll oversee all of the labs and better integrate health projects with research, the person said. The company's health push, which has been split across organizations, is increasingly coming under a single leader.

Facebook, Google and IBM are among the other large technology companies with major research labs alongside Microsoft. These organizations constantly battle for the brightest talent. Once researchers join, they can publish academic papers and share open-source software, while also contributing to their companies' products to varying degrees. Google, which competes with Microsoft in cloud infrastructure and other markets, has been active in health care research in the past.

Most of the biggest technology companies don't have one leader running health care. Instead, companies like Google have a team under cloud, which is separate from its health product unit. The exception is Apple, which has been consolidating its efforts under operating chief Jeff Williams.

Lee joined Microsoft as managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond in 2010. Before that he was head of Carnegie Mellon University's computer science department and an office director at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to his LinkedIn profile.

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