He Beat Spam. Can He Crack the HIV Code?

Microsoft’s David Heckerman might seem an unlikely candidate to be conducting research into a possible cure for HIV–he’s the guy that designed the software giant’s spam filter. So what do junk email and the virus that wreaks havoc on the human immune system have in common? Very little, or a lot–depending on how you look at the situation.

Heckerman, a Distinguished Scientist with Microsoft Research, has a large number of applications to his name, including the first machine-learning spam filter, data-mining tools in the SQL Server and Commerce Server, handwriting recognition in the Tablet PC, text-mining software in SharePoint Portal Server, troubleshooters in Windows, and the Answer Wizard in Microsoft Office. He also happens to be a physician and a part of a team that is looking deep into the HIV genome for a cure.

Heckerman commented on the similarities between fighting spam and HIV:

We have an adversarial situation going on between spam filters trying to block the spam and the spammers changing and mutating. And in the case of HIV, we have the immune system fighting the virus and HIV mutating to try to get through.

The similarity between spam-filter algorithms and Heckerman’s research lies in mutation–spammers’ tactics continue to evolve, and HIV confounds attempts at treatment through mutation–but they both must have an Achilles’ heel.

According to Heckerman:

In the case of spammers, they want to extract money from you. That’s what they can’t avoid. So our spam filters, at least in part, focus on that.

So what is HIV’s flaw? Heckerman believes that it lies within the mechanism through which the virus is able to mutate:

It mutates a lot, but it can’t mutate to where it stops functioning. If it does do that, we win.

Heckerman says he is realistic about the objective but confident that a solution can be found. Thousands of computers are crunching through a ton of data–looking for a weakness in the devastating virus.

I think it is a solvable problem, but we have a lot of work left to do. But I’m working on this every day, and I’m hopeful.