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Microsoft moves AI specialists from China to Canada

A battle for AI talent is heating up in the tech industry
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Microsoft is moving its top artificial intelligence researchers from China to Canada, implying the closure of the Celestial’s most important training center for talented engineers.

Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) has started issuing visas for top AI professionals to be transferred to its research institute in Vancouver, the Financial Times reported, citing sources familiar with the matter.

The publication claims that the software giant plans to move between 20 and 40 MSRA employees to a new lab staffed by experts from around the world.

The so-called “Vancouver plan” is a response to heightened political tensions between the US and China, as well as a maneuver aimed at preventing the best specialists from being transferred to domestic technology companies.

Two MSRA employees confirm that they recently received job offers from Chinese Internet companies, but declined and are now applying for visas and subsequent relocation to Canada.

“While Microsoft has deep ties to China, it is risky to keep our best researchers here, especially the employees involved in machine learning. There is a risk that Chinese companies will steal talent or that the authorities will harass employees. We have discussed these risks in internal meetings,” says one MSRA official.

“We are establishing a new laboratory in Vancouver that will be organizationally merged with MSRA and designed to provide better interaction with Vancouver engineering teams. The lab will be staffed by people from other MSR labs around the world, including China,” Microsoft said in a statement.

The decision to transfer top AI researchers from China to Canada could draw the ire of local governments, which want to attract talent from abroad to work for Chinese companies through generous grants and prestigious positions.

As for Microsoft, the company has operated in China for more than 30 years and has managed to maintain a strong presence in the country even as other Western tech giants such as Google, eBay, Facebook and Uber have been forced out of the Chinese market.

Microsoft has developed localized versions of its popular products for the Chinese market, including the Windows operating system and the Office suite, as well as the Internet search engine Bing.

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