Were it not for the old-school tenet that "a man with knowledge in physics, chemistry, or mathematics can earn a living in any corner of the world," Ming Zhou would have become a writer or a linguist, not a researcher at Microsoft Research Asia. But he followed the wisdom of his elders and chose to major in computer science right before taking his college entrance exam. The area of interest he chose for his master’s degree – natural language processing – carried over to his doctoral degree at Harbin Institute of Technology, then to his post-doctoral research and associate professor at Tsinghua University, then his position as the project leader of the Chinese-Japanese machine translation project at Kodensha Ltd. Co. in Japan, and finally to his current job at Microsoft Research Asia, which he started in 1999. A last minute decision before the college entrance exam has resulted in 23 consecutive years of working with computers. As we sit down for our interview, Zhou doesn’t begin with computers, though, he begins with couplets.
"I am a poetry lover. And an amateur poet as well," says a smiling Zhou, "Computer is my line of business, but I always believe that studies in natural sciences should go hand-in-hand with China's traditional cultures and languages." An old professional in the field of natural language processing, Zhou has been chewing on this idea since he was invited on a trip to Japan in 1996 to study products for a Chinese-Japanese bilateral machine translation. While there, Zhou noticed that Japanese people attached great importance to traditional culture, and that some old Chinese traditions were better conserved there than in China. The trip inspired him to revive China’s cultural heritage through natural language processing.
Microsoft Research China (which became Microsoft Research Asia in 2001) was only six months old when Zhou returned to China in the spring of 1999 and met then-Managing Director Kai-fu Lee, "Come and join Microsoft Research Asia,” he was told, “where the value of your study is immediately recognized." In September that year, Zhou was made Lead Researcher of the Natural Language Computing Group, and was promoted to Research Manager of the group in 2001.
"Why not make us an automatic couplet composer?" asked Harry Shum at the end of 2004, who was Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia at the time. With this so-called “automatic couplet composer,” the user would provide the first line of a couplet and the computer would figure out the second line. "With your background in natural language studies, you are our best choice. There’s no reason you shouldn’t succeed," said a passionate Shum, patting Zhou on the shoulder.
Couplets are intriguingly simple in appearance but exhaustingly difficult to compose. The two lines should contain the same number of characters and match each other in terms of part of speech, tone and meaning. It’s a difficult task for humans, let alone computers. Richly experienced in dealing with machine translation, Zhou quickly came up with a solution: generating a couplet resembles the process of translation, where the user-generated line can be “translated” into a second line using a dynamic algorithm that follows traditional norms of matching.
At the Computing in the 21st Century Conference in 2005 in Hangzhou, Harry Shum surprised Zhou with his decision to present Microsoft Couplet System. At the time, the system was still not ready for public use, but Shum insisted that it deserved attention. When Zhou entered "Sudi Chun Xiao Xiu" (Delightful spring morning along Sudi Dam) as the first line of the couplet, the system generated “Ping Hu Qiu Yue Ming” (Bright autumn moon over West Lake), earning admiration from those in attendance and demonstrating again what Microsoft Research Asia’s spirit of adventure could achieve. "We have the ability to take on challenging tasks," said Zhou with renewed self-confidence.
The 2009 Spring Festival saw the launch of Microsoft Couplet System Version III, which was made accessible through Chinese couplet search, and mobile couplet message. Because of a cooperative effort between SINA Mobile and Microsoft Research Asia, the millennium-old Spring Festival tradition of couplet composing came alive again on computer screens and mobile phones. Gaofei Wang, Vice President of SINA and General Manager of SINA Mobile described it as "a significant service for all Chinese users across the world."
Ming Zhou, a known karaoke fan, is humble but confident when he takes a microphone in his hands to entertain himself and his friends. Recently he’s seen similarities between karaoke and the Microsoft Couplet System.
The popularity of karaoke is evidence of the unique vision of Japanese companies -- it is through karaoke that the "privilege" that career entertainers enjoy of singing with accompaniment is made available to anyone who dreams of being a star. In the same way, composing couplets used to be reserved exclusively for people highly educated in traditional Chinese literature, but with Microsoft Couplet System, anyone with Internet access -- desktop or mobile -- can enjoy the process of composing a couplet that describes his or her thoughts and feelings. Like the karaoke system, Microsoft Couplet System brings a “high-end” form of entertainment to ordinary people, and by doing so not only reinvigorated traditional Chinese culture, but makes it again a part of everyday life.
"Why do buzz words on the Internet immediately find their way into the vocabulary of the masses while traditional couplets cannot?” asks Zhou, trying to convince me of the future popularity of Microsoft Couplet System. “It’s because of simplicity, or the lack of it. If we can develop a gadget to deal with seemingly profound couplets so that users can generate them with any idea or thought, you will definitely see its wide application in people’s daily lives. Someday, it could be a piece of cake for any average Joe or Jane to fabricate classical poems."
In this sense, Microsoft Couplet System does resemble a karaoke machine that bridges the divide between a common citizen and an art form that once seemed out of reach. Researchers of Microsoft Research Asia predicted early on the popularity of the Internet and mobile Internet terminals in China, and that the “cultural feasts” cooked with Chinese traditions would eventually be naturally delivered to everyone’s desktops, laptops, and mobile devices.
"If everyone composed couplets for fun, and did it over meals, during chats, and while driving, would it bring China back to the Tang Dynasty?" laughs Zhou. One of Zhou's dreams has been to revive the cultural prosperity seen only during those ancient times, and he may have taken a first toward in that direction.
The couplet is an important part of the Chinese tradition – it’s in the blood of a Chinese person and is a form of expression that touches the bottom of one’s heart. Zhou’s couplet gadget is like a key to Chinese traditional culture, but Microsoft Couplet System is not resting on its laurels. Zhou hopes that Microsoft Research Asia, or even the greater academic community, will look deeper into classic styles of Chinese literature with sustained research efforts, with the goal of eventually reviving traditional culture.
But those are far off dreams. For now, Zhou and Microsoft Research Asia continue to advance along this new discovered path: a data-based and deployment-driven research strategy that uses the Web as an open platform to gain adoption of and feedback for new products and services. In this strategy, the user becomes an essential link in the research chain, injecting new wisdom into the process and allowing research that was once limited to laboratories to move to an open environment where human computing and Internet computing come together to enable unprecedented leaps in artificial intelligence.
Microsoft Couplet System is just Microsoft Research Asia’s first step toward this vision, but it’s also an accomplishment in itself, as Zhou and his team bring the joys of traditional culture back into the lives of everyday people.