Half a world away from the calm beauty of Seattle and Puget Sound, there’s a lab where software dreams come true. At Microsoft Research Asia, the drive to succeed is as intense as the traffic that roars by the front door in unbridled, chaotic fury. If Microsoft’s other facilities around the globe seem idyllic, this one, in Beijing, China, is pure street. Nearby high-rises compete with smokestacks for skyline supremacy. Run-down buildings sit next to bustling consumer electronics markets and the Beijing Satellite Manufacturing Factory, where China conducts its spaceflight research. Microsoft’s mantra: work hard to get in the door; work harder to survive; then work even harder because the real work-that of an information technology world leader-is just beginning.
If you find it hard to root for Microsoft, you’ve never met Harry Shum. The Beijing lab’s managing director is hearty, engaging, and surprisingly young-in his 30s. “This is a new kind of manufacturing in China,” he says, waiting outside his office with a smile. “Not just shoes, socks, baby strollers. Now, we manufacture MIT students, papers, and software.” Shum’s longtime colleague Hongjiang Zhang is walking by but stops to concur: “It’s another level of Made in China,’” he says. Zhang, who’s a little older than Shum and more reserved, heads the lab’s Advanced Technology Center, a division launched late last year to accelerate new technologies into Microsoft’s product pipeline.
Together, Shum and Zhang lead an organization that looks like a typical corporate lab but feels like a startup. For all its cubicles and computers, the lab brims with enthusiasm; its energy comes from, of all things, students. Come in at any hour and you’ll find scores of them-the lab supports about 200 interns at any time, most from local universities-tooling away on projects jointly supervised by Microsoft managers. Add the buzz of Mandarin conversations, the window views of Beijing’s sprawl, and the ever present hint of cigarette smoke, and you are constantly reminded: you’re not in corporate USA anymore.
Although they run the lab, Shum and Zhang are at heart still researchers. Roaming up and down vast aisles of workstations, they show off their latest demos like proud parents. Shum stops at the desk of a young woman he calls “the number-one student” in computer science at Tsinghua University, one of China’s top engineering schools. On her screen are still photos of a waterfall, rain on a lake, and blades of grass.
With a click of the mouse, the scenes come alive. Water tumbles and splashes over the falls, raindrops plunk on the surface, and grass undulates in the breeze. The computer is generating the animation on the spot: software has scoured videos for statistical clues about how water and grass move and applied the lessons to the static images.
It’s all part of the lab’s ambition to lead the world in making computers interactive, entertaining, and ultimately more useful. Other demos include compression algorithms that store rich pictures using relatively few digital bits; computer vision software that tracks and recognizes human faces; a natural-sounding speech synthesizer; and user interfaces that capture handwriting digitally (see “Microsoft’s Magic Pen,” TR May 2004). “They’re doing really first-class research,” says Victor Zue, codirector of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a member of the Beijing lab’s technical advisory board. And Raj Reddy, a renowned expert in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, calls the lab’s leadership and talent pool “outstanding.”
Indeed, with 150 full-time researchers and more than $80 million from its parent company since opening in 1998, Microsoft Research Asia has become a powerhouse of infotech R&D. Far faster than even Microsoft’s top brass expected, the Beijing research outpost is influencing the company’s global business. More than 70 technologies it developed are already used in Microsoft products, including software for Windows operating systems and graphics packages for Xbox video games. More of the lab’s latest software is slated for the next version of Windows (code-named Longhorn), due out in 2006.
The Beijing lab is a key part of Microsoft’s effort to ensure its global future through research. “It’s interesting how much of the research directed at the Asian marketplace turns out to be generally applicable,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, which besides its main facility in Redmond, WA, also runs labs in San Francisco, Mountain View, CA, and Cambridge, England. “They’ll often attack a problem differently from what would happen in Europe or the U.S., because they come from a different perspective. They often find solutions that are different, and in some cases different turns out to be better.”
So has Bill Gates figured out China? Microsoft’s chairman doesn’t go that far, and his company isn’t the only infotech giant to open a research lab in China (see “Other U.S. Corporate Infotech Labs in China,” below). But he lights up when talk turns to his Beijing bonanza. “When you start a lab, you’re supposed to say, Okay, in five years we want you to contribute,’” Gates told Technology Review. “These guys-nine months after they got started-had these video compression results.” Those kinds of results are already setting the Microsoft lab apart from its competitors, making it a case study in global innovation. “People should pay attention to China,” says Gates. “It is a phenomenon in every respect.”
OTHER U.S. CORPORATE INFOTECH LABS IN CHINA
|IBM China Research Laboratory||1995||Beijing||Speech interfaces for telephones, machine translation, mobile devices, e-commerce|
|Intel China Research Center||1998||Beijing||Speech recognition with visual cues, machine translation, machine learning, advanced software compilers|
|Bell Labs Research China||2000||Beijing||Data networking, communications, optics|
|Motorola China Research Center||2000||Shanghai||Speech and handwriting recognition, natural-language processing, Internet data processing|