Microsoft, China, and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

Outside Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, 2019. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Earlier this month Microsoft President Brad Smith published a blog post about the responsible use of artificial intelligence. Smith argued that “we must ensure that AI advances international competitiveness and national security.” He warned about China’s rising importance in the field and said it is imperative that the U.S. advance AI leadership “among other nations committed to democratic values.”

Microsoft’s extensive role in helping develop China’s AI industry went unmentioned in the post. Yet, as relations between China and the U.S. continue to deteriorate, Microsoft’s history of collaboration with Beijing has come under increasing scrutiny—especially given the national-security implications. 

American firms have been collaborating with their Chinese counterparts for decades, even as China developed a reputation for pressuring foreign operated companies to share data and intellectual property (or outright stealing information from companies). Microsoft was no stranger to the trend.

Microsoft opened its first office in China more than 30 years ago. It expanded and opened Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) in Beijing and Shanghai in 1998 and is now the company’s largest research and development center outside the U.S. Today the institute’s more than 300 scientists and engineers conduct “research in areas central to Microsoft’s long-term strategy and future computing vision: natural user interface, artificial intelligence, cloud and edge computing, big data and knowledge mining, computer science fundamentals, intelligent multimedia and computational science.”

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