Microsoft is planning to shift some of its leading artificial intelligence (AI) experts from China to a new lab in Canada, a strategic move that could disrupt a vital training hub for China’s tech talent.

Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA), recognized as a crucial development center for the nation’s tech professionals, has started procuring visas for its top AI scientists. The relocation from China’s capital to Vancouver could potentially impact between 20 to 40 staff members, according to sources familiar with the process.

Despite the company denying a formal “Vancouver Plan,” insiders point towards the move as a strategic response to increasing political tensions between the United States and China. It is also a precautionary measure to protect top talent from being poached by local tech firms that are in desperate need of AI researchers. These firms aim to develop home-grown versions of sophisticated AI systems like OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

“Even though Microsoft has deep links with China, there is a risk in having our best researchers here, especially ones working in machine learning,” said one of the Microsoft researchers. The relocation is considered a defensive measure against the risk of talent being enticed away by Chinese companies or employees facing harassment by authorities.

Microsoft’s announcement to move its AI experts risks inciting dissatisfaction in Beijing. The Chinese government has been making concerted efforts to attract high-tech Chinese researchers working overseas to return to the mainland by offering generous grants and prestigious academic posts.

The MSRA, founded by Taiwanese computer scientist Lee Kai-Fu, has played a pivotal role in nurturing Chinese tech talent. Prominent alumni from the institution include Wang Jian, chief technology officer at Alibaba; Xu Li, chief at SenseTime; and Yin Qi, who heads the AI group at Megvii.

Microsoft’s presence in China spans over three decades, successfully developing localized products, including its flagship Office and Windows software packages and the Bing search engine. As of a company announcement in September, Microsoft employed around 9,000 people in China, with over 80% of them working as software engineers or in research and development.

Despite Microsoft’s deep-rooted presence in the Chinese market, the relocation plan reflects the growing global tech tensions and increasing wariness surrounding technological ambitions of major powers. As the ties between Beijing and Washington continue to be strained, the decision to shift AI researchers to a neutral ground—Canada—shows an attempt to negotiate these geopolitical tensions while continuing to advance in the global AI field.

The MSRA once stood as a rare beacon of collaboration between China and the US in high-tech research. However, recent years have witnessed a tightening grip on the tech industry, with increased scrutiny and growing concerns over national security and technological supremacy. This environment has made international collaboration more challenging and has led Microsoft to reassess its global strategy, leading to the proposed move to Vancouver.

As AI continues to be a contentious field, and with the narrowing space for international cooperation, Microsoft’s decision to relocate its top AI experts could set a precedent for how global tech companies manage their research talent amid geopolitical tensions. It also underlines the ongoing reshaping of the global tech landscape, driven by the interplay of technology, politics, and commerce.