Q&A: Microsoft Research China Showcases Unique Relationship with Leading Academic and Industry Futurists

BEIJING, Oct. 17, 2001 — Microsoft Research China, founded in 1998, was the second basic-research facility set up by Microsoft outside the United States. The staff works with Microsoft teams to improve current and future products, and also enjoys a relationship with the Chinese computer-science community unprecedented for a corporate lab.

Key areas of Microsoft research include next generation multimedia, information processing, user interface, and wireless and network technologies. Many projects are furthering the development of computer use as widespread, convenient and easy in China and other Asian nations as it is in other parts of the world. Dr. Ya-Qin Zhang leads approximately 100 researchers in a relationship with the wider computer science community, including the prestigious National Science Foundation of China.

MSR China has established programs to support basic computer research and foster alliances with researchers in local universities and industry. PressPass spoke with Zhang on the eve of “Computing in the 21 st Century,” a large international gathering where top computer scientists from China and abroad share their knowledge and experience with other academics. This is the third time MSR China has hosted the event.

PressPass: What is the conference on “Computing in the 21
Century” all about?

Zhang: In 1999, within a year of its founding, MSR China held the first international conference on “Computing in the 21 st Century,” stemming from our desire to serve China from within Microsoft. It was our hope that a high-level academic exchange of this sort would facilitate communications between Chinese and international scholars. We wished to provide a place for computer scientists in China to learn about the latest academic thinking, and the newest scientific and technical advances and trends in computer science.

In addition, we wanted to provide an opportunity for Chinese researchers conducting basic computer science research, and Chinese teachers and students from research institutes, to exchange ideas with eminent international experts in the field. The conference could be an occasion for them to explore the course of computing in the future and to break new ground for future progress.

PressPass: What is the history of the conference?

Zhang: The first international conference on “Computing in the 21 st Century” was held in 1999, and this year’s conference is the third. The conference always addresses the important question of how computing will advance in the future, but every year there has been a different topic to start discussions. The topic of the 2000 conference was “As We Enter the Internet Age, What Path Should Computing Follow?”

The topic of this year’s conference is “Intelligent Computing,” which will be divided into five main areas: machine learning, next-generation multimedia, next-generation user interface, intelligent networks and intelligent computing systems. The questions addressed will be trends in these subfields and the ways in which they may profoundly influence the way we live. Many internationally famous scholars from both China and abroad will attend this gathering, exploring and exchanging ideas.

PressPass: Why does MSR China hold this international conference in China?

Zhang: First of all, MSR China was intended to be a basic research facility geared to the needs of all Asia. At the time of MSR China’s founding, the president of Zhejiang University and member of the Chinese Academy of Science, Professor Pan Yunhe offered this dedication: “A bridge of scientific research to join China and America, a spirit of technical cooperation extended towards the heavenly kingdom.” This demonstrates the hope on the part of Chinese academics that MSR China would be able to take advantage of its unique position and influence to advance scholarly exchange between Chinese and international scholars.

Then, soon after the founding of MSR China, we vowed to work in the spirit of “serving China from within Microsoft,” and “building a bridge of scholarly exchange between China and the world.” These two principles have guided us and set the tone for cooperation and exchange between MSR China and the academic community in China.

Last, ever since the founding of MSR China, a large number of Chinese scientists who have returned from abroad to pursue careers in China have been asking themselves: How can we help to advance basic computer science research in China? How can we create opportunities for a generation of bright and highly motivated Chinese students to learn about the latest academic thinking and the most forward-looking trends in computer science research? How can we open the doors of knowledge for them and tap this new reservoir of innovation? With this sense of mission, MSR China hosted the first large international conference on “Computing in the 21 st Century” in 1999.

Subsequently, we made the decision to make the conference a yearly event, taking the additional step of bringing related Chinese organizations on board as co-sponsors, and making this perhaps the most influential conference on computing in the country.

PressPass: How did the National Natural Science Foundation of China become involved?

Zhang: MSR China and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) signed an agreement June 1999 that asserted the shared goals of the two institutions. The joint hosting of this conference is one of the important steps MSR China and the NSFC has taken to further a mutual goal of working together to advance basic research in natural science in China. This institutional collaboration is based primarily on two principles:

First, shared goals. The primary mission of the NSFC is the support of basic research and applied basic research throughout China. MSR China is the basic computer science research center that Microsoft has established in Asia. Both organizations stress basic research.

Second, shared hopes. The NSFC is one of the major institutions that provide funding for basic research in China. It is primarily engaged in funding top-notch basic research programs and some applied research programs. Ever since its founding, MSR China has been guided by a sincere desire to serve China and build an academic bridge between Chinese and international scientists, and to promote the advancement of basic computer research in China. MSR China hopes that by working closely with the NSFC, it can raise the level of basic research in China by providing Chinese colleagues with even more opportunities for scholarly exchange and creating an even larger forum for Chinese and international experts to engage in scholarly communication.

PressPass: Who will be attending the conference?

Zhang: Primarily computer-science researchers will attend, as well as professors and students from China’s leading research institutes. Ever since the first conference in 1999, nearly 10,000 computer science researchers, professors and students have attended the conference.

PressPass: Who are some of the eminent computer scientists invited to the conference?

Zhang: Every year the international conference on “Computing in the 21 st Century” invites top experts in computer-science research as well as eminent computer scientists from China and abroad to come and talk to China’s computer-science researchers, as well as to professors and students from China’s leading institutions. Since 1999, three Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Turing Award recipients (widely considered the computing world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize), have attended, as well as several dozen famous scholars from China and abroad. Among these are Turing Award winners, Butler Lampson, Raj Reddy, and Jim Gray, laser-printer inventor Gary Starkweather and many other prominent scientists from the field of computer science, including American university professors Andy van Dam, Ed Lazowska, Richard Newton, Rick Rashid, who is senior vice president in charge of Microsoft Research’s worldwide operations, and Dan Ling, vice president of Microsoft Research. Attending the 2001 conference, which will be held at Beijing’s International Convention Center on Oct. 17 and at Shanghai Jiaotong University on Oct. 19, will be Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect, Bill Gates, as well as Turing Award winners Tony Hoare and John Hopcroft. All will present invited talks at the conference.

PressPass: What is the subject of Bill Gates’ talk?

Zhang: Bill Gates will explore how computer technology has changed the way we live and work, as well as how computer technology will continue to shape our future. Concurrently with the conference, Mr. Gates will also address over 1,600 professors and students from computer-science departments at institutions of higher learning all over Shanghai and elsewhere in Eastern China, including Jiaotong University, Fudan University, Eastern China University of Science and Engineering, and Tongji University. He will present some of the outstanding accomplishments made by MSR China in the three years since its founding.

PressPass: What other noteworthy events will be held during this conference?

Zhang: During this year’s conference, MSR China will host a ceremony to honor the 2001 “Microsoft Scholars,” where 14 outstanding scholars from China and Hong Kong will be presented with commemorative plaques and certificates by leading computer scientists in recognition of their being selected as “Microsoft Fellows.”

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