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The following is the second of three blogs on the contributions of the Microsoft Research Asia Joint Lab Program (JLP), which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. The JLP brings together the resources of Microsoft Research and major Chinese universities, facilitating collaboration on state-of-the-art research, academic exchange, and talent incubation. This blog focuses on the Microsoft-Hong Kong University of Science and Technology joint lab.
Collaboration between the computer science department of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Microsoft Research Asia extends back more than decade, predating, in fact, the establishment of their joint lab. Professor Lionel Ni still remembers coming to Beijing to meet with colleagues at Microsoft Research when he joined HKUST in 2002. “Even then,” he recalls, “Microsoft Research Asia was making lot of contributions to our work, not only research-wise but also by nurturing new talent.”
It was only natural then, that HKUST would be interested in a new joint lab program when it was proposed by Microsoft Research Asia and the Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE) in 2004. “When we heard about this idea, we were tremendously excited. We thought HKUST must become one of the first members of this joint lab program,” says Professor Ni.
He and his colleagues submitted a proposal that differed from those of other applicants, in that it offered collaboration across a broad front of IT domains. “Other joint labs—like the ones with Harbin or Tsinghua—focus their research in a special area. But our joint lab is different; we don’t operate in one particular area. We actually have different domains working together, such as graphic visualization and data mining,” notes Professor Ni. “People say, ‘Wow, IT is so broad; you’re covering so many things.’ That’s what we want to do—and what we proposed from the onset. And clearly Microsoft Research and MoE liked the idea: we were one of the first five labs accepted into the program, and the only one in Hong Kong.”
“This joint lab really helps us a lot,” continues Professor Ni. “It enables our faculty members to collaborate even more closely with Microsoft Asia researchers, and it provides great opportunities for our PhD students.” Those student opportunities derive largely from the joint PhD supervision program, which provides young PhD students with long-term internships at Microsoft Research Asia, where they conduct projects together with Microsoft researchers. “I believe we were the first lab to propose joint PhD supervision,” says Professor Ni, clearly pleased with the program’s achievements.
At the time of the joint PhD program’s establishment, many talented young computer scientists with master’s degrees were working for Microsoft Research Asia. Despite their admirable contributions, the career growth of these young researchers was likely to be limited without a PhD. Under the joint PhD supervision programs, students selected by Microsoft Research Asia join HKUST’s doctoral program. During their first year, they live in Hong Kong, meeting their course requirements at HKUST. The next year, they return to Microsoft Research Asia to pursue their research further. HKUST and Microsoft Research Asia jointly oversee the program, assigning each student a supervising professor from HKUST and a supervising researcher from Microsoft Research Asia.
Talented HKUST students also enter the program upon recommendation by the university; selected second-year PhD students travel to Microsoft Research in Beijing to work on projects. Both the university and Microsoft Research are pleased with the synergistic results of the program, viewing it as a success that equally benefits both of the organizations and the students.
Professor Ni at the joint PhD supervision agreement signing ceremony in 2005
Over the past several years, Microsoft Research Asia has hosted 15 HKUST interns through this program—and hired seven graduates as full-time employees. Now they are working in a variety of research areas, from computer vision and graphics to visualization and data mining to search and multimedia. Yichen, who graduated from HKUST in 2006, is now a lead researcher at Microsoft Research Asia where he heads the computer vision group. “I was one of the HKUST graduates who joined Microsoft Research Asia in the early years. Thanks to the Joint Lab platform, in my second year as a PhD student, I participated an important Microsoft Research Asia project and published my first SIGGraph paper, which inspired and enlightened my research career. I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity, when many other students at a similar age are not sure about how to do good research and where to obtain industrial experiences,” Yichen says.
Another successful participant in the program, Weiwei Cui, now a researcher in the visualization group, recalls, “When my professor learned that Microsoft Research Asia recruited a top researcher in visualization in 2010, he sent me to the lab right away for an internship. There was not much research in this area in Hong Kong or China at that time. Since then, we started our deep collaboration that has continued for nearly five years. My professor kept sending his best students to Microsoft Research Asia.”
The joint lab has witnessed many such successes in the past years and we are confident that it will continue to foster outstanding talent development and research advancement in the coming years.
—Tim Pan, Director of University Relations, Microsoft Research Asia
The following is the first of three blogs on the contributions of the Microsoft Research Asia Joint Lab Program (JLP), which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. The JLP brings together the resources of Microsoft Research and major Chinese universities, facilitating collaboration on state-of-the-art research, academic exchange, and talent incubation. This blog focuses on the Microsoft-Harbin Institute of Technology joint lab (Microsoft-HIT; officially the China Ministry of Education–Microsoft Key Laboratory of Natural Language Processing and Speech, Harbin Institute of Technology).
Think of countries that have more than one official language. Which ones come to mind? Canada, with two official tongues? Switzerland with four? How about China, which has no less than eight official languages and more than 50 unofficial but widely spoken indigenous tongues. Each of these languages is cherished as a cultural treasure in China, but the multiplicity of minority languages seriously impedes economic, technological, scientific, and educational exchanges between minority groups and the Mandarin-speaking Han, who make up a majority of China’s population.
Resolving this linguistic tangle is exactly the sort of challenge that prompted the creation of the Microsoft Research Asia Joint Lab Program (JLP), and it is the research focus of Microsoft-HIT. Since 2004, Microsoft-HIT researchers have published over 500 academic journal papers and, during just the last five years, presented more than 30 essays at such high-level events as the ACM-SIGIR Conference and the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI).
The fruits of this labor can be seen in a Microsoft-HIT project called Minority Language Machine Translation. The project’s goal is to bridge the linguistic and cultural gulfs that separate different ethnic and national groups, both in China and around the world, and, potentially help preserve endangered minority languages. The project prototype is based on Microsoft Research’s Microsoft Translator Hub, a platform for machine translation between different languages. Utilizing the Microsoft Azure cloud-computing service, the prototype allows users to upload language and translation data and thus build a repository of lexical and grammatical information that can facilitate bilingual translation. While the work to date has focused on machine translation between Mandarin, English, and Uyghur, the underlying principles can be applied to translating between any two languages.
But this project isn’t the only focus of Microsoft-HIT. The joint lab also aims to serve as a talent incubator, mentoring the young researchers who will be the leaders of tomorrow. Microsoft-HIT not only employs a large number of the university’s faculty and graduate students, it also holds an annual summer seminar on natural language processing. Since 2004, the summer seminar has provided more than 2,000 students an opportunity to develop their skills and laid the foundation for advanced research in language processing and speech technology.
Professor Sheng Li, seen here at the 2014 Microsoft Research Asia Faculty Summit, was instrumental in establishing the Microsoft-HIT joint lab.
Although the Microsoft-HIT joint lab dates from 2004, it antecedents stretch back to last century, when, during the 1990s, Microsoft Research Asia worked with Harbin Institute of Technology professor Sheng Li to set up a laboratory on machine translation. In 2000, it became one of the first labs in the Microsoft Research Joint Lab Program and in 2004, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) accorded official recognition to this joint effort, designating it as a MOE-Microsoft Key Laboratory.
Professor Li, who is still deeply involved in the joint lab, credits it with having provided valuable experience to many young faculty members and promising students. He notes that many of these talented researchers have gone onto careers in related industries, but that a significant number choose to stay in the joint lab as either HIT professors or Microsoft researchers.
With the past 10 years of this program as a guide, we look forward to the next decade and beyond, confident that the Microsoft Research-HIT joint lab will foster even greater talent cultivation and research collaboration.
—Tim Pan, Director of University Relations, Microsoft Research Asia,
Big data—that buzzword seems to dominate information technology discussions these days. But big data is so much more than a clever catchphrase: it’s a reality that holds enormous potential. We now have the largest and most diversified volume of data in human history. And it’s growing exponentially: approximately 90% of today’s data has been generated within the past two years. The exploding science of big data is changing the IT industry and exerting a powerful impact on everyday life.
But what should big data science be, and where is it headed? These are the fundamental questions that have prompted Tsinghua University and Microsoft Research Asia to work together to establish a pioneering graduate course on Big Data Foundations and Applications. Turing Award winner and Tsinghua professor Andrew Chi-Chih Yao spent more than eight months developing the course, which launched in September 2014.
Turing Award winner and Tsinghua professor Andrew Chi-Chih Yao
Solidifying knowledge through academia-industry cooperation
On October 9, Hsiao-Wuen Hon, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, delivered the course’s first lecture. Dr. Hon stressed that the importance of big data lies not only in its value in academic research but also in its application to real-world problems, which, he said, is why the academia-industry cooperation represented by the course is so critical.
“One of our purposes in launching this course with Tsinghua is to introduce Microsoft’s ideas to students, to let them get to know us better,” he explained. “Meanwhile, our top professional researchers can deepen their understanding of big data while teaching the students. So the course is not just about enhancing the students’ understanding of big data; it’s also about solidifying the researchers’ knowledge of big data.”
Hsiao-Wuen Hon, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, delivered the course's first lecture.
Echoing the importance of the industry-academia connection, Professor Yao remarked, “Big data is an epoch-making subject. It has influenced all the other disciplines, including computer science and information technology. We should not only focus on the scientific research. Education development is also a new trend. ”
Leading the forefront of big data science
Wei Chen, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research Asia, has been a visiting professor at Tsinghua University since 2007. He has helped design and launch several entry-level courses at Tsinghua, and he is a strong proponent of the new big data course.
“We certainly don’t expect this course to become a platform for its product promotion. Instead, it is being established to provide students with cutting-edge knowledge, to get them engaged in research and technology development, and to foster their ability to do research and experimentation,” he said.
Wei Chen, senior researcher at Microsoft Research Asia, talks with student.
Professor Chen pointed out that while the course will provide an academic understanding of big data, it will also introduce students to real-life cases of Microsoft big data research and applications. In addition, students will have the opportunity to conduct experiments using Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud-computing platform. He believes these practical, hands-on components distinguish this class from other big data courses.
Feeding the talent pipeline
Microsoft Research has a long tradition of collaborating with universities and has undertaken several initiatives to nurture the next generation of talented researchers. Since 2002, for instance, Microsoft Research Asia has hosted over 4,000 interns and carried out projects with more than 40 universities and institutes. The new big data course comes directly out of that tradition, and both Microsoft Research and Tsinghua University have high expectations for this collaboration. Professor Yao probably put it best, saying, “I believe this world-class course will give students a comprehensive understanding of big data and its knowledge structure, helping them reach their goals in future jobs and research.”
—Kangping Liu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia