Meeting of the Minds: Microsoft Research Asia Conference Spurs Collaboration Among Region’s Researchers

BEIJING, Oct. 17, 2002 — Since 1990, Microsoft Research (MSR) has attracted some of the brightest minds in the software industry to its Redmond-based facilities. The work of MSR developing next-generation technology and software has helped develop many of the features Microsoft has integrated into its software products in recent years.

In recent years, MSR has also taken a more global approach to its research, opening facilities in Cambridge, UK San Francisco, Calif. the Silicon Valley, and Beijing, China. These labs allow Microsoft to invest in local areas, and add some of the regions’ leading thinkers to help work on industry advances in technology.

This week, MSR’s Beijing lab, MSR Asia, is hosting “Computing in the 21st Century.” Held Oct. 18, this annual conference is designed to highlight key research projects that MSR Asia is working on, as well as other leading academic and research institutions from around Asia and the South Pacific.

PressPass spoke to Ya-Qin Zhang , Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia, and Rick Rashid , Senior Vice President of Microsoft Research, about the conference, the Beijing research lab, and how MSR’s global focus is helping to shape Microsoft’s future products.

Q. What is the conference on “Computing in the 21st Century” all about?

Ya-Qin Zhang: We held the first international conference on “Computing in the 21st Century” in 1999, shortly after the founding of MSR Asia. The conference stemmed from our desire to create a high-level academic exchange to 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. We feel we’ve been successful in creating this opportunity so far, with nearly 15,000 computer science researchers, professors and students having attended the conference.

Q. Who are some of the highlights of this year’s conference?

Ya-Qin Zhang: The topic of this year’s conference is “Trustworthy Computing”, As you know, six months ago, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates sent a call to action to the 50,000 employees of Microsoft outlining one of the highest priorities for the company and for our industry over the next decade: building a Trustworthy Computing environment for customers that is as reliable as the electricity that powers our homes and businesses today. After this, the topic has become one of the hottest topics in the industry. Many internationally famous scholars from both China and abroad will attend this gathering, exploring and exchanging ideas on this topic.

Some of the leading researchers attending the 2002 conference, which will be held at the Century Hall of Peking University on Oct. 18 and at Guangzhou Zhongshan University on Oct. 19, will be Turing Award winners Andrew Yao, Lenore & Manuel Blum, Jim Gray as well as Microsoft Sr. VP Rick Rashid and VP Dan Ling.

Q. What other noteworthy events will be held during this conference?

Ya-Qin Zhang: During this year’s conference, MSR Asia will host a ceremony to honor the 2002 “Microsoft Scholars,” where 18 outstanding scholars from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan will be presented with commemorative plaques and certificates by leading computer scientists in recognition of their being selected as “Microsoft Fellows.”

Q. Why did you decide to start a research lab in Asia?

Rick Rashid: There are a number of reasons. For starters, there is great talent and innovation coming from Asia, and China in particular has shown great support for research. We wanted to be in a position to work directly with these talented people and bring them on board to help us achieve our goal to be the most effective research organization in the world.

Also, China represents the fastest-growing technology market in the world, and it is important for Microsoft to understand the marketplace there. By starting an indigenous lab in Beijing, an economic and cultural center for China, we can better understand the requirements of the Chinese user, and build technologies that make PC and software usage more pervasive during, not after, the rapid expansion of the Chinese market, and really be in the forefront of what’s happening there.

Today we’re really pleased that both Microsoft and China have reaped great benefits from the new technologies, new employees and new partnerships that have stemmed from MSR Asia.

Q. Why does MSR Asia hold this international conference in China?

Ya-Qin Zhang: First of all, MSR Asia was intended to be a basic research facility geared to the needs of all Asia. At the time of MSR Asia’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 Asia would be able to take advantage of its position and influence to advance scholarly exchange between Chinese and international scholars.

Then, soon after the founding of MSR Asia, 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 Asia and the academic community in China.

Last, ever since the founding of MSR Asia, 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 Asia hosted the first large international conference on “Computing in the 21st 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.

Q. What are some of the unique advantages of having a lab in Asia?

Rick Rashid: The support and partnerships we have been able to create in the region have been quite extraordinary. I believe our efforts to create a world-class research facility have been embraced and supported in remarkable ways by the government, the scientific community, and especially academic institutions. MSR Asia has been able to tap into the vast intellectual talent pool in China and other parts of Asia to create not only innovative technologies, but also highly successful and groundbreaking academic partnerships. One relationship we are particularly proud of is the Chinese government-accredited Post-doc center in computer science with Tsinghua University that helps train the best minds for Chinese academia and IT industry. MSR Asia is the first foreign company independently granted with such a status.

Q. What are some of the innovations coming from MSRA that have made their way into Microsoft products?

Rick Rashid: We’re really pleased with some of the remarkable payoffs were seeing today on the investments we’ve made in the MSR Asia lab. In just a few years, we’ve seen many research results transferred to Microsoft products, including anti-piracy features in Office XP; and speech recognition engines in Office XP. Some technologies from the lab have been adopted by international standards such as MPEG4 (error-resilient video transmission), IETF (TCP/IP header compression) and ITU/ISO (video compression technology). In the coming months and years we expect to see work from MSR Asia in areas such as speech and language technologies, Asian-language input, wireless computing, and graphics make their way in a wide variety of Microsoft products.

I would also mention that in addition to the technology transfer, we’re very proud of the contributions the MSR Asia lab has made to the research community. For example, researchers from the lab have published over 500 papers in top international journals and conferences.

Q. What are the core areas of research at MSR Asia?

Ya-Qin Zhang: MSR Asia has set an ambitious research agenda highlighting four areas that are central to Microsoft’s long-term vision and strategy. First, we’re working on a next-generation user interface, which will allow users to interact with a computer using speech, gestures, and expressions.

We’re also working on 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. This is related to the third area of focus, Digital Entertainment, which will allow users to have a more networked, interactive and realistic entertainment experience in future. And finally, wireless and networking technologies, which will empower people to access information any place, anytime, on any device.

More specifically, MSR Asia consists of the following nine research groups and a development group: Natural Language Computing, Speech, Visual Computing,Internet Graphics, Internet Media, Media Management, Media Computing, Wireless and Networking, and Multimodal User Interface.

Q. Do you have plans to open new MSR and R & D facilities in Asia Pacific?

Rick Rashid: No, not at this stage. We are in the middle of the first development plan of our MSR Asia laboratory in Beijing, for which we pledged a US$ 80 million investment over 6 years, starting in 1998. We have already 5 R & D Centers in Asia Pacific, in Hyderabad, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Taipei, which continue to recruit staff and expand. 25% of our workforce in Asia is employed in R & D demonstrating that Asian researchers are critical to MSR and Microsoft’s success.

Q. How important are International Property Rights (IPR) to the work at MSR Asia?

Ya-Qin Zhang: I think it’s a vital issue. Technological innovation cannot thrive in an environment where the intellectual property rights of software developers are not protected or if the laws addressing intellectual property are not consistently enforced. Intellectual property really provides the foundation that fosters innovation in the software industry. As most Asian countries are recognizing, future growth and development can be derived from developing a strong local IT industry.

More and more governments are recognizing the value of Intellectual Property Rights, and the importance of implementing a legal framework making stealing that intellectual property illegal. Most governments in Asia, including the PRC, have already embarked on this path and we are pleased to see the steps they have taken. To ensure you have the foundations for such an industry you need to promote and foster creativity and innovation and develop your own IP. If anyone can steal the implementation of new products and services, or the products themselves, their value plummets and the incentive to innovate and create deteriorates.

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