Microsoft is planning to relocate top AI researchers from China to Canada.
The relocation initiative, dubbed the “Vancouver Plan,” centers around the Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA).
Researchers have reportedly started visa applications to move AI experts to move from China to Vancouver, which sources say could affect 20 to 40 staff members.
Commenters suggest this is a response to rising political tensions between the US and China and China’s push to build competing AI models to ChatGPT, in which Microsoft has a significant stake. However, Microsoft refutes the figures; “the number reported is not accurate. There is no ‘so-called Vancouver Plan.’”
The company further explained its strategy: “We are establishing a new lab in Vancouver that will be organisationally aligned with MSRA and designed to better engage with the engineering teams in Vancouver. The lab will be staffed with people from other MSR labs around the world, to include China.”
One researcher expressed concerns about leaving top AI talent in China, saying, “There is a risk of talent being poached by Chinese companies or employees being harassed by authorities. We have discussed these risks in internal meetings.”
Another researcher, also applying for a Canadian visa, highlighted the potential for a more open tech discourse outside of the US and China, “Maybe in a third country, outside of the US and China, we can regain the vibrant tech discussion from the old days.”
Chinese AI companies have been offering attractive grants and positions to tempt researchers working overseas back to the country.
Microsoft’s presence in China
The MSRA was once viewed as a genuine attempt at tech collaboration between the US and China.
Prominent MSRA alumni include Wang Jian, CTO at Alibaba; Xu Li, CEO at SenseTime; and Yin Qi, who heads the AI group at Megvii. In September last year, Microsoft reportedly employed around 9,000 people in China. The institution has influenced many of Microsoft’s most important products, including Azure, Xbox, and Bing.
However, the US has since limited the export of high-end chips and semiconductors to China and imposed sanctions on companies like Huawei.
Paul Triolo, the senior vice president focused on China at global strategic consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group, described the US-China AI industry as somewhat of a melting pot, “AI technology has unexpectedly become a pawn in the US-China geopolitical chess match, a development that tech giants like Microsoft and others did not foresee,” he said.
Triolo explained, “Suppose their researchers are collaborating with a Chinese peer from an institute or company that suddenly becomes a sensitive topic. In that case, this poses a significant reputational risk for the company.”
In addition to Microsoft, many top-tier US tech firms have AI operations in China.
For instance, Amazon runs AI development labs in Shenzhen and Shanghai, and Google has been recruiting AI experts for its teams in China.
The reverse is also true – several China-based tech companies have US offices, including Alibaba, Baidu, ByteDance, and Tencent.
As the ‘AI race’ continues, it looks inevitable that the US and China will increasingly isolate their AI research labs.