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Microsoft is moving some of China’s top AI experts to a new lab in Canada


Microsoft is moving some of its top artificial intelligence researchers from China to Canada in a move that threatens to undermine a vital training ground for the Asian country’s tech talent.

Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) has begun seeking visas to move top AI experts from the Chinese capital to its Vancouver institute, four people with knowledge of the plans said.

These people said the move could affect 20 to 40 staff members. A person close to Microsoft said fewer Chinese employees will move to Canada this year, where the US tech giant is setting up a new lab with experts from around the world.

But people who knew about the so-called “Vancouver Plan” described it as a response to heightened political tensions between the US and China, as well as a defensive maneuver to prevent top talent from being poached by domestic tech groups desperate for AI. researchers. developing domestic versions of OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

Two MSRA researchers said they had recently received job offers from Chinese internet companies, but rejected the approaches and instead applied for a visa to move to Canada.

“While Microsoft has deep ties to China, there is a risk if we have our best researchers here, especially those who work on machine learning,” said one of the researchers. “There is a risk that talent will be snatched by Chinese companies or employees will be harassed by authorities. We have discussed these risks internally.”

A second Microsoft researcher who is also applying for a Canadian visa said, “Maybe in a third country, outside of the US and China, we can recapture the vibrant technology discussion we used to have.”

Microsoft said, “We are establishing a new lab in Vancouver that will be organizationally aligned with MSRA and designed to better collaborate with Vancouver engineering teams. The lab will be staffed with people from other MSR labs around the world, including China.”

Any decision to relocate top AI researchers risks sparking anger in Beijing, which has sought to lure Chinese high-tech researchers working abroad back to the mainland through generous grants and prestigious teaching posts.

MSRA, founded by Taiwanese computer scientist Lee Kai-Fu, is an important training center for Chinese technical talent. The star-studded alumni list includes Wang Jian, chief technology officer of Alibaba, SenseTime chief Xu Li and Yin Qi, head of AI group Megvii.

“MSRA’s contribution to AI is phenomenal,” says a tech consultant in China who has previously worked with Microsoft. “It has been working in the field for a long time. Many ex-colleagues have joined Chinese technology companies and boosted the overall AI ecosystem in China.”

Microsoft has been in China for over three decades. It has maintained a strong presence in the country, even as other Western tech groups, including Google, eBay, Facebook and Uber, have been driven out by competition or regulation.

Microsoft has developed popular localized products, including its flagship Office and Windows software suites and the Bing search engine.

According to a WeChat post in September, Microsoft had 9,000 employees in China, more than 80 percent of whom are software engineers or work in research and development. The same post announced plans to hire an additional 1,000 employees in the country.

But much of China’s tech talent is working on global products, which could become increasingly problematic for the U.S. company as ties between Beijing and Washington continue to fray. A person close to the company said it was possible that some of these talented engineers might also be transferred from China in the future.

LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned group, laid off staff in its China office in May after announcing it would close InCareer, the easy job application site for Chinese users that replaced the professional social networking site in 2021.

MSRA stood out as a rare example of China-US collaboration in high-tech research. But two researchers said deteriorating relations between the two powers and increased paranoia about their respective tech ambitions had limited their ability to collaborate with colleagues in the west and brought them under increased scrutiny from officials in China.

The institute drew criticism from Washington after the Financial Times reported that it was working with a Chinese military university on AI research that could be used for surveillance and censorship.

“AI has become a so-called sensitive field in the last two years,” said one of the Chinese Microsoft researchers applying for a Canadian visa. “Before, being a Chinese national working in an American institution meant having access to great resources from both countries. The communication space is getting smaller.”

Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco

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