Japan Collaboration Mutually Beneficial
October 1, 2009 10:00 AM PT

When the Microsoft Institute for Japanese Academic Research Collaboration was founded in July 2005, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates left little doubt about his high hopes for the new effort.

“Japan is one of the most advanced countries in scientific research and engineering in the world,” Gates said at the time. “It has a talent pool that provides tremendous potential.

Bill Gates
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announces Microsoft Research Asia's collaborative effort with Japanese academia, which debuted in July 2005.

“This platform will allow researchers in one of the world’s leading economies to put their long tradition of technological development and product innovation into collaboration with Microsoft.”

A little more than four years later, Microsoft Research Asia will demonstrate the ongoing importance it places on collaborating with Japanese academia when it hosts the 11th annual Computing in the 21st Century conference in early November.

For the first time since the conference was inaugurated in 1999, it will be held entirely in a nation outside China, where Microsoft Research Asia is based. The theme of this year’s all-Japan event is 3 Screens + 1 Cloud: Rethinking Computing, and it will occur Nov. 4, at Tokyo’s Keio University, and Nov. 6, at Kyoto University.

Lolan Song, senior director of University Relations at the lab, is looking forward to the experience.

“Japan has a unique history of engineering and excellence of engineering science,” Song says. “They have world-class researchers and exceptional talent. That’s why Microsoft Research remains committed to working with Japanese academia in fostering the next generation of scientists and engineers to advance technology that can benefit the Japanese society—and beyond.”

Microsoft Research’s effort to engage with Japanese academia is two-pronged: to collaborate with academia to advance the state of the art in research and to contribute to the development of Japanese society.

These objectives are supported by four areas of outreach that focus on universities, professors, and students:

  • Research collaborations.
  • Academic exchange.
  • Talent fostering.
  • Curriculum development.

“We want to produce high-quality research through collaboration with faculty and researchers in Japan,” Song says. “There are many areas in which Japan is very advanced, including mobile devices and robotics.”

This collaborative work is directed by the Academic Advisory Committee (AAC), a supervisory board that provides insights and directions to Microsoft Research Asia on how to collaborate and invest in Japan. The six-person board includes some of the most prominent and influential professors and research leaders from key Japanese universities:

  • Sadaoki Furui, director, from the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
  • Katsushi Ikeuchi, University of Tokyo.
  • Katsuro Inoue, Osaka University.
  • Katsumi Tanaka, Kyoto University.
  • Hideyuki Tokuda, Keio University.
  • Akinori Yonezawa, University of Tokyo.

The AAC regularly reviews research proposals to select the best ones for financial support. Areas are funded by Microsoft Research Asia based on two criteria: collaborative research projects, which encompass research on which Microsoft Research focuses—such as computer vision, graphics, natural-language processing, and speech—and which enable Japanese academia to collaborate with Microsoft Research; and projects that focus on unique strengths in Japan, such as robotics, and on areas that can affect Japanese society positively, such as energy, the environment, and biomedical engineering.

The latter criterion, Song says, includes “whatever novel ideas we think would be interesting or that could generate social impact.”

“Every year,” she adds, “we collect proposals, and those proposals are evaluated by Microsoft Research researchers and by Japanese advisers.”

Among the key Microsoft researchers engaging with the Japanese academic community are Yasuyuki Matsushita, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo and now is a lead researcher in the Visual Computing Group; Wei-Ying Ma, assistant managing director at Microsoft Research Asia; Hang Li, senior researcher and research manager of the Informational Retrieval and Mining Group; and Frank Soong, principal researcher and research manager of the Speech group.

In the last four years, Microsoft Research has received 106 project proposals and 44 were sponsored, representing contributions from 14 Japanese universities across six metropolitan areas and resulting in $1 million in project funding. These projects—called CORE projects, derived from “collaborative research”—are targeted at young faculty and researchers in the early stages of their careers, when support is needed most. Many CORE funding recipients have expressed sincere appreciation for the support. This year’s CORE project has just launched.

eHeritage Workshop
Japanese academics join Microsoft Research Asia personnel for the 2009 eHeritage Workshop.

Japanese academics gain a number of advantages from their participation. They can attend workshops, where they can share knowledge and learn from Microsoft technologists—and each other. They can obtain academic resources and teaching aids for course development. And they can get an opportunity to pursue joint research in conjunction with Microsoft Research personnel.

In addition to the CORE projects for young researchers, established Japanese professors have collaborated with Microsoft Research over the past few years. Ikeuchi has been leading an eHeritage project at the 12th-century Bayon Temple, one of the structures in the Cambodian complex of Angkor Wat, using Windows-based cluster technology to process an enormous amount of image data to create a digital model of the temple. Junichi Tsujii of the University of Tokyo helped Microsoft Research Asia hold a regional natural-language-processing workshop at his institution. Thirty Japanese faculty members or students were among nearly 100 participants in that event.

Almost 50 Japanese professors have participated in Faculty Summit events in Redmond and Beijing since 2005, and 10 participated in an Internet-services workshop held in Beijing. Furthermore, Microsoft Research Asia has organized a series of symposia focused on such areas as natural-language processing, computer vision, speech recognition, search, and Internet services.

Another pillar of the outreach to Japanese academia relates to curriculum innovation. While much remains to be done in this area, the Microsoft Research Asia Curriculum Development Program aims to share Microsoft technologies and resources to help professors develop new, enhanced curricula to inform their students. The lab has funded special programs to reward professors who develop new courses and innovative instructional techniques.

Supporting Young Talent

Perhaps most important, Microsoft Research is dedicated to fostering the development of young research talent in Japan. The Microsoft Research Asia Fellowship Program is designed to support promising, talented Ph.D. students by providing funding assistance for research. About 20 Japanese students have been awarded fellowships under this program.

Promising young Japanese researchers also have been asked to participate in Microsoft Research Asia’s intern program. Thirty graduate students have received an opportunity to work as interns under the mentorship of researchers at the lab.

“Over the last few years,” Song reports, “we have had very impressive interns from Japan coming to our lab in Beijing. We specifically have been trying to support women Ph.D. candidates and have been delighted with the response so far.”

Song cites a couple of examples. Yuki Arase, an Osaka University student who had a 10-month internship under the supervision of Xing Xie, lead researcher at the lab, had a paper, A Game Based Approach to Assign Geographical Relevance to Web Images, accepted for the 18th International World Wide Web Conference, held April 20-24 in Madrid, Spain. Another, Mizuki Oka, formerly of the University of Tsukuba and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tokyo, got an opportunity to represent Japan at the last of Gates’ annual intern barbecues before he stepped away from day-to-day operations at Microsoft.

Last fall, Microsoft Research Asia launched its Japan New Faculty Award. Professor Akinori Yonezawa of the University of Tokyo led this effort, which resulted in a pair of winners from 15 strong candidates. In April, Atsushi Igarashi of Kyoto University and Toshihiro Kamiya of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology were named the inaugural recipients.

“The funding helps young faculty conduct their research work,” Song says, “and is given to the faculty members without any restrictions.”

But don’t get the idea that all of the value of such programs accrues solely to the academic community in Japan. Microsoft Research Asia derives plenty of benefit, as well.

“This kind of collaboration always has to be mutually beneficial,” Song says. “On one hand, Microsoft researchers work to help Japanese researchers. On the other hand, there are many areas in which Japanese researchers are going to help us lift our research work to a new level. I think we can learn a lot from Japan, and we hope that young Japanese talent can join us to do more high-quality research.”

It’s an ambitious effort, one that will take center stage in early November in Tokyo and Kyoto.

“This is a great opportunity to demonstrate what we have done in the last few years,” Song says. “I hope that, through this event, Microsoft Research will become much more visible and people will recognize the many opportunities to work with Microsoft much more so than before. This gives us the chance to share collaborative opportunities and to let young students know how they can work with Microsoft to develop their career.”