ChinAI #183: Microsoft Research Asia Stops Recruiting Interns from Chinese Universities on the Entity List
Greetings from a world where…
playing the King’s Indian Defense is going very poorly
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Feature Translation: Microsoft Research Asia has stopped recruiting students from “Seven Sons of National Defense” universities and Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications
Context: I’ve covered Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) a bunch throughout the years. Based in Beijing, MSRA is the company’s 2nd-most important lab (after HQ) and has produced some key AI breakthroughs. It’s also been a critical part of China’s AI ecosystem. An internship at MSRA, in the words of this week’s article (link to original Qbit AI article), has always been seen as a “stepping stone to success” (敲门金砖). For instance, Sun Jian, who later became chief scientist of Megvii (Chinese facial recognition start-up), had previously worked at MSRA.
Last month, news leaked on the BBS forum of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications that Microsoft has stopped recruiting interns from certain universities. This sparked intense discussions across Chinese social media platforms, reaching #5 on the Zhihu hot list at one point.
Key Takeaways: Confusion reigns
At first, the news was that the impacted orgs were the seven defense universities and BUPT. Then, the pool expanded to all universities on the entity list. Qbit AI interpreted this to also include Tongji University and Xi’an Jiaotong University. I’m also confused by this. Technically, the U.S. government added these two schools to the “Unverified List” (which makes them ineligible to receive items subject to export regulations) in April 2020, but then removed them in October 2020? Maybe I’m misreading that, maybe MSRA never got the news, maybe the Chinese media coverage is confused. What’s confusing to me is the initial decision to add a school like Tongji to the list in the first place. That would be like deeming all students who go to Johns Hopkins University or Caltech as participating in U.S. military-civil fusion.
More confusion about when Microsoft actually implemented this policy change. Some people on Weibo said that it had been in place since the latter half of last year. A former MSRA employee, Guolin Ke, posted that the clause had been in existence for years, dating back to 2019 reporting about cooperation between MSRA and Harbin Institute of Technology. Note: I think it is important to scrutinize possible ties between American tech firms and the Chinese military. When those reports came out in 2019, I pushed back strongly in ChinAI #49 because they did not even include links to the papers in question and did not consider the counterargument — namely, that U.S. national security benefits from access to global innovation networks like MSRA and some degree of leakage is the tradeoff.
First off, this policy is targeted at interns, not recruiting graduates for full-time employment. If the policy is new, current interns from these schools will probably have to leave, or as some of the online discussion suggests, just not jointly co-author papers with their university affiliation.
Second, many netizens argued this will hurt MSRA itself. One Zhihu user: “Based on my impression, MSRA must get 30% of their people from these schools. If it’s true, we can only say that MSRA doesn’t want to do business in China.” Another Zhihu poster: “This development is a huge loss for MSRA, especially since so many Beijing-based schools have been banned…where do you go to get that many excellent and conveniently located internship students.”
Finally, some said no big deal. One commenter, who goes to an elite university that’s on one of the lists, basically says they’ve got other options — they’ll just go to Europe or Japan, or go work for Huawei, state-owned enterprises, or the Chinese military instead. Their comment reads:
“Interested party/stakeholder, student from a C9 university on the entity list. In fact, Microsoft was nowhere to be seen in our school’s employment outcome quality report last year. At present, the company that attracted the most graduates is Huawei, followed by military units and state-owned enterprises. These parties are not affected by the entity list. It’s not just Microsoft, but almost all American companies and universities have stopped recruiting graduates from my school, whether for study or work. Australian universities are also affected by this, but not EU countries and Japan. Going to work in U.S.-funded companies is one option, but it is not that there is no place to work without them. If there is no place for me to live here, then there will be another place for me to live.”
See below for a screenshot from my phone, which shows this comment as the 4th-ranked post with 440 likes (the three higher comments are more meme-y).
ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)
I went back to this MSRA article because I didn’t find the right fit from this past week’s scan of Chinese-language articles. Some were pretty intriguing, so I’ll include a few here. You can get the general gist of these pieces by copy and pasting into Google translate.
Previous ChinAI issues have translated Taihe Industry Observer’s series on “Transformers,” which covers strategic emerging industries in great depth. This newest article looks at the state of lithium batteries and energy storage in China.
Meituan has announced tweaks to their algorithm to give workers more time to deliver their orders, which they claim has resulted in a warmer algorithm.
From Retraction Watch: “Did the Association for Computing Machinery know that they had published the proceedings of a conference with essentially the same name as that organization, IEEE, on the same dates, in the same venue, and with lots of overlapping authors?…When ACM dug deeper, Scott Delman, the organization’s director of publications, told us, they saw something that looked familiar because of an investigation that led to a mass retraction of conference proceedings months earlier: A company in China billing itself as a conference organizer had handled all of the peer review. A Xinzhiyuan article (in Chinese) that also covered this story reported that the majority of the authors were based in China. Articles were on topics like the use of AI in employee management.
For The Wall Street Journal, Karen Hao reports on Shanghai’s Covid lockdown and the effects on delivery workers who perform essential labor. A messed-up situation: “While the Shanghai government has granted special lockdown exemption for food-delivery workers, residential compounds have their own rules barring them from returning to their apartments for fear they will bring the virus back with them.”
Thank you for reading and engaging.
These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, sponsored by Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.
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