Ex-Microsoft exec Harry Shum leads ‘digital economy’ research center in Shenzhen

Tech News

Overlooking a lush wetland in Hong Kong, the International Digital Economy Academy (IDEA) quietly opened last year.

The research institute sits on the northern bank of the Shenzhen River, which separates Hong Kong from mainland China. But technically, it’s located inside a special area straddling the two cities: the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Cooperation Zone. The name is self-explanatory. It’s a joint effort by the governments of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, with support from Beijing, to collaborate on scientific and technological research.

IDEA is one of the organizations that have set up inside the 3.89 km² special zone — which is about the size of 540 football pitches — and is a brainchild of Harry Shum. The renowned computer scientist was an executive vice president at Microsoft from 2013 to 2019 and also co-founded Microsoft’s largest research branch outside the U.S., Microsoft Research Asia.

Like his former colleague at Microsoft, Kai-Fu Lee, Shum was active in both the research and business sides of AI. Now at IDEA, his team aims to “develop disruptive innovative technologies based on social needs and give back to society in a way that allows more people to benefit from the development of the digital economy.” Several research directors at IDEA are also Microsoft veterans, including Yutao Xie and Jiaping Wang.

The sweeping regulatory clampdown on China’s internet firms has led to headlines saying Beijing has turned against tech. But the government’s intent is more nuanced. It’s zeroing in on Big Tech deemed harmful to the society and economy, companies that have encouraged financial market risks, gaming addiction, exploitation of gig workers, and other ills.

In the meantime, China remains fixated on its goal to promote fundamental research and reduce reliance on Western technologies. In Shenzhen, home to tech giants like Huawei, DJI and Tencent, the government is recruiting world-class scientists. Harry Shum and his team are among the latest to have joined the raft.

IDEA definitely has a buzzy name (and a great acronym). The term “digital economy” comes up often in President Xi Jinping’s speeches on how technology can be a driving force for the economy. The “digital economy has become a key force in restructuring the global economy and transforming the global competitive landscape in recent years,” the President said in October. “The internet, big data, cloud computing and other technologies are being increasingly integrated into all sectors of economic and social development.”

IDEA is examining how AI can transform industries like finance, manufacturing and medical care. This week, it announced it’s partnering with leading Chinese quant trader Ubiquant on a joint lab to work on “risk monitoring and avoidance for financial transaction markets,” as well as “basic infrastructure for high-performance computing systems.”

IDEA is just one of the many research labs that have sprung up across Shenzhen in recent years. The Shenzhen Institute of Data Economy, located on the Shenzhen campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong with support from the government, is another group working to advance China’s digital economy.

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