‘Soft robots’ and ‘mobile secretaries’ coming soon, says Hong Kong university working with China’s WeChat on artificial intelligence projects

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 4:47pm

A university in Hong Kong has teamed up with Tencent’s popular mobile messaging app WeChat to expand its research in artificial intelligence and big data.

Researchers from four departments at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) will be granted access to a trove of public data generated by the Chinese app’s 650 million active users and tens of thousands of official accounts.

Access to WeChat’s data is an important step for the university as an increasing amount of data is held by companies like Facebook or Google for in-house research, thus limiting the access granted to scholars, according to Professor Yang Qiang, head of the HKUST-WeChat Joint Laboratory on Artificial Intelligence (WHAT LAB).

“By joining with WeChat we can be ahead again because we have young students here who are very good in theory, can build models, but unless they are tested and trained on real data they are not much use,” Yang said.

Artificial intelligence is a growing area of focus for technology companies with Google, Facebook and Microsoft each having their own AI-dedicated labs to develop personal assistants or translate conversations made over Skype.

At least 10 WeChat fellowships for PhD students will be created under the WHAT LAB project allowing students to test their models using real-life data provided by the messaging app.

Planned research areas include sentiment analysis of postings to analyse the moods of users as access to WeChat data greatly expands the scope for the university’s social scientists.

The lab, the first collaboration between a university and the app, also plans to harness WeChat’s data to improve the way language is processed.

“With so much data coming in, can we build a system that can understand people’s language, people’s request intention, better than before?” Yang said, adding that this work would enable services on the app to become more friendly and engaging .

WeChat’s own AI-focused group has already developed tools to track the spread of rumours or scams across the network and software to convert voice messages to text.

“Talents from both sides will work together in the hope of realising the vision of a smart and intelligent human life,” Harvey Zhou, general manager of WeChat’s technical architecture department, said on the announcement of the lab last month.

Yang, who has studied AI for over 30 years, said “soft robots” that can, for example, analyse a WeChat user’s reading preferences to deliver morning news summaries, are close to becoming a reality.

“To push it further, it is possible for everybody to have a secretary,” Yang sad.

“Imagine with WeChat and Artificial Intelligence, everybody has several secretaries, one for your work, one for your daily chores, one for your entertainment - and it will continually learn to be better and better.”