Microsoft is moving its top artificial intelligence researchers from China to Canada in a move that threatens to make the Asian country an indispensable training ground for tech talent.
Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) has begun applying for visas to move top artificial intelligence experts from the Chinese capital to its Vancouver institute, four people familiar with the plans said.
These people said the move could affect 20 to 40 employees. 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 staffed by experts from around the world.
The researchers called the move the so-called “Vancouver plan.” Those familiar with the decision described the decision as a response to heightened political tensions between the US and China, as well as a defensive maneuver to prevent poaching of top talent by domestic tech groups desperate for AI researchers to develop domestic versions of OpenAI ChatGPT.
After the article was first published, Microsoft said: “the number reported is not accurate. There is no “so-called Vancouver plan”.
The company said Friday: “We are establishing a new lab in Vancouver that will be organizationally aligned with MSRA and designed to better work with the engineering teams in Vancouver. The lab will be staffed by people from other MSR labs around the world, including China.”
The two MSRA researchers said they recently received job offers from Chinese Internet companies, but declined the approach and are applying for visas to move to Canada.
“Although Microsoft has deep ties to China, there is a risk that our best researchers are here, especially in machine learning,” said one researcher. “There is a risk of talent being poached by Chinese companies or employees being harassed by the authorities. We discussed these risks in internal meetings.”
Another Microsoft researcher, who also applied for a Canadian visa, said: “Maybe in a third country, outside of the US and China, we can get back the lively technology debate of the old days.”
Any decision to relocate top AI researchers will draw ire in Beijing, which has sought to lure high-tech Chinese researchers working overseas back to the mainland with generous stipends and prestigious teaching positions.
Founded by Taiwanese computer scientist Lee Kai-Fu, MSRA is an important training center for Chinese technology talent. Its star-studded alumni list includes Alibaba CTO Wang Jian, SenseTime head Xu Li, and Yin Qi, head of Megvii AI Group.
“MSRA’s contribution to AI is phenomenal,” said a Chinese technology consultant who used to work with Microsoft. “It has been operating in the area for a long time. Many former colleagues have joined Chinese tech companies and boosted the 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 pushed out by competition or regulation.
Microsoft has developed popular localized products, including the flagship Office and Windows software suites and the Bing search engine.
According to a post on WeChat in September, Microsoft had 9,000 employees in China, more than 80 percent of whom worked as software engineers or in research and development. The same post announced that 1,000 more employees will be hired in the country.
But much of China’s engineering talent is working on global products, which could become a growing problem for the American company if relations between Beijing and Washington continue to deteriorate. According to a person close to the company, it is possible that some of the talented engineers will be moved from China in the future.
Microsoft-owned LinkedIn Group laid off employees in its China office in May after announcing it would shut down InCareer, the low-key job application site for Chinese users that replaced the professional social network in 2021.
MSRA has emerged as a rare example of cooperation between China and the United States in high-tech research. But deteriorating relations between the two powers and growing paranoia about their technological ambitions have narrowed their ability to work with Western counterparts and put them under greater scrutiny from Chinese officials, two researchers said.
The institute has come under fire from Washington after the Financial Times reported that it collaborated with a Chinese military university on artificial intelligence research that could be used for surveillance and censorship.
“AI has become a so-called sensitive area in the past two years,” said a Chinese researcher at Microsoft applying for a Canadian visa. “Previously, being a Chinese citizen at an American institution meant having access to huge resources from both countries. The space for communication is narrowing.”
Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco