One Year Later: Microsoft Research China Poised For Breakthroughs

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 4, 1999 — Nothing beats real Chinese cooking. That’s what internationally recognized computer researcher Kai-Fu Lee figured when he moved to China one year ago to build the company’s research center in Beijing.

As Managing Director of Microsoft Research (MSR) China, which celebrates its first anniversary on November 5, Lee has been busy devising his own recipe for the facility’s success. The key ingredient: a staff of brilliant minds.

Lee, widely known for his pioneering work in speech recognition, artificial intelligence, 3-D graphics, and Internet multimedia technologies, has taken a bold step in that direction, attracting a solid base of technical talent from China and around the world.

To date, MSR China has hired 44 researchers, including 10 recognized scientists from several U.S. labs, recent Ph.D. graduates from top Chinese universities, and other senior researchers.

Although MSR China has received more than 2,000 applications, the current facility will house only 100 people. Given that, Lee says Microsoft is highly selective.

Two notable hires include MSR China’s Assistant Managing Director Ya-Qin Zhang, the youngest Fellow in the 100-year history of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers organization. Another standout is researcher Jin Li, widely acclaimed as the best engineering student ever to have graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University.

Lee stresses hiring the best staff because MSR China has set an ambitious research agenda highlighting three areas:

  • A next-generation user interface, which will allow users to interact with a computer using speech, gestures, and expressions.

  • Next-generation multimedia technologies, which will enable people to search for and be immersed in interactive and realistic online shopping, educational, meeting, and entertainment activities.

  • Chinese information processing improvements, which will make PCs and the Internet easier to use for China’s 20 million computer users, and for the anticipated explosion of future PC users among the nation’s 1.3 billion people.

Funding Frees Creative Thinking

Microsoft has budgeted enough for MSR China that its researchers don’t have to constantly worry about funding — this is a big draw for top technical talent. The organization is also more removed from the time-to-market pressures that confront typical IT developers and researchers in China and elsewhere.

Without such stringent deadlines, researchers and scientists can focus on technology innovations that will apply to mainstream computer users in as little as five years. Some of the inventions could see the light of day in Microsoft products as early as next year, although MSR’s work is generally focused on developments that consumers will see in 5-10 years.

Despite this freedom, employees at MSR China — like their colleagues in Microsoft’s other research facilities in Redmond, San Francisco, and Cambridge, England. — do not work in “ivory towers.”
“People are free to pursue research topics they like, as long as the topic fits with the future business agenda of the company,”
Lee said.

Already, MSR China has yielded an impressive return on investment for Microsoft with several significant research results, including:

  • A statistical language model for the Chinese market that can be used in keyboard entry or speech recognition with high accuracy.

  • A new Chinese user interface that has earned top marks in usability studies.

  • A real-time visualization system called a
    “concentric mosaic,”
    that enables browsing and walkthroughs in a 3D photo-realistic image-rendered environment.

  • A multimedia compression algorithm that surpasses the performance of previous work.

In addition, MSR China expects to produce dozens of patents per year. To date, 49 invention disclosures have been filed, and the facility’s staff has published 28 international journal and conference papers, and delivered 11 keynote speeches.

Located in the Beijing Zhongguancun region — the Silicon Valley of China — MSR China has also established a number of programs to develop relationships with academia and local industry, including:

  • An internship program held this summer, which employed 40 computer science and electrical engineering Ph.D. candidates from China, the U.S., Hong Kong, and Canada.

  • A fellowship program designed to enrich Chinese Ph.D. studies by offering a monthly stipend, summer employment opportunities, and an annual trip to an international conference. The first 11 recipients of Microsoft Fellowships were announced in June.

  • A donation program that supplied 10 Chinese universities with $1.9 million in software.

  • A visiting researchers program that brings prominent professors from both local and U.S. universities.

  • An exchange progam that sends six MSR China researchers to local universities as guest professors to directly supervise Ph.D. students in China.

  • Efforts to establish joint research labs with four Chinese universities.

  • A June symposium on

    Computing in the 21 Century,”
    attended by leading computer scientists, including Turing Award winners Butler Lampson and Raj Reddy.

“Today, we measure ourselves primarily by papers and patents,”
Lee said.
“In four or five years, we will be measured by our strong contributions to the company and the wider computer science community.”

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