Microsoft’s China AI team being shipped off to the US and Australia

On 15 May, several netizens on the workplace software Maimai and social media platform Xiaohongshu (RED) shared updates stating that within Microsoft, primarily China’s Azure cloud platform AI team, hundreds of employees had received a company email enquiring about whether they were willing to relocate to other regions for work, including the United States, Australia, Ireland and other countries. The company would be responsible for arranging the necessary visas, and employees would need to respond before 7 June.

Subsequently, Microsoft responded that this was an optional internal transfer opportunity for some employees and would not affect the company’s operations in the country.

Currently, Microsoft’s AI team is in an awkward position in China. The Chinese government’s policy requires Large Scale Artificial Intelligence to be filed before they can be put online, but tensions between the US and China are restricting China’s development of AI technology. Microsoft’s vice chair and president Brad Smith has stated that China accounts for only 1.5% of Microsoft’s sales, which equates to total sales of $212 billion in the last fiscal year. Therefore, with this 1.5% share, coupled with the new Bing AI search not being available in China, Microsoft’s “isolation” from China’s AI market is becoming increasingly apparent.

At Microsoft Research Asia, the company does not allow Chinese researchers to use the GPT-4 beta and core technologies in advance. Simultaneously, the company has also imposed restrictions on the institute’s research work in quantum computing, facial recognition and synthetic media. As early as June 2023, Microsoft began seeking visas to move top AI experts from the Chinese capital to its Vancouver-based institute, a move that could affect between 20 and 40 employees, according to media reports.

In contrast, recent executive chairman and CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella announced that Microsoft would invest $1.7 billion and $2.2 billion over the next four years in Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively, to build cloud computing and AI computing infrastructure (data centres), and to provide AI skills training to 840K and 200K people, respectively.

According to Microsoft’s official disclosure in September 2022, Microsoft has 9,000 employees in China, more than 80% of whom are software engineers or work in research and development. The same article also announced plans to hire another 1,000 employees by 2023.

Microsoft’s move was met with mixed reactions from the affected employees. Some colleagues saw it as a form of “layoff in disguise”, and although they could choose not to relocate, they were also concerned about their future with the company. One after another, some employees posted on Maimai that they were looking for a partner to work and live abroad with, but only amongst Azure group colleagues.

On Xiaohongshu, some netizens commented that Microsoft’s approach is an example for foreign companies, not forgetting to take the local staff with them before withdrawing from China, providing employees with the opportunity to “Run” (润). It is understood that “Run” refers to “leave China to work and live”, and the use of ‘Run’ is to avoid China’s strict censorship.


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