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Artificial intelligence

Qualcomm bets on Chinese AI start-up SenseTime in bid to make mobile devices smarter

Investment seen as part of a global trend towards AI-enabled chips for mobile devices, with one in three smartphones in 2020 to have on-board AI capability

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 11:00pm

SenseTime Group, a Hong Kong-based artificial intelligence company specialising in facial recognition, has secured an investment from US mobile chip giant Qualcomm Technologies in what could be the world’s biggest ever fundraising by an AI start-up.

SenseTime said on Wednesday that Qualcomm has made an undisclosed strategic investment in the three-year-old company as venture capitalists continue to bet big on AI in China amid the country’s national drive to make itself a global leader in the technology by 2030.

The investment is expected to help Qualcomm maintain its leading position in the mobile chip industry with an estimated 1 billion smartphones expected to be shipped with on-device AI capabilities by 2020, a global trend initiated by the Apple with the adoption of facial recognition technology in its recently launched iPhone X.

SenseTime said the investment is part of its ongoing Series C funding round, reported to be US$500 million, which would accelerate development with Qualcomm of an “AI plus chip” as the “brains’ of the next generation smart devices.

The company, which has made its name in facial recognition, also provides technology-based applications for autonomous driving and video analysis. The firm counts mainland Chinese heavyweights such as China Mobile, HNA Group and Huawei Technologies as its major clients.

Meet SenseTime, Hong Kong’s first hi-tech unicorn that no one’s heard of

SenseTime, which in July completed its US$410 million Series B round of funding from a group of nearly 20 investors, is already a unicorn with a valuation of around US$1.5 billion.

At the time that investment was the single largest financing round in AI history until China’s facial recognition start-up Megvii, also known as Face++, completed a US $460 million round at the end of October.

According to data from market research firm Counterpoint Technology, one in three smartphones to be shipped in 2020 will natively embed machine learning and AI at the chip set level, a significant boost from a penetration rate of 3 per cent in 2017.

Hong Kong’s SenseTime teams up with Qualcomm to extend AI into more devices

The initial driver for the rapid adoption of AI in smartphones is the use of facial recognition technology by Apple in its recently launched iPhone X.

But with advanced AI capabilities, smartphones will be able to perform a variety of tasks such as real-time translation and helping users take better photos by intelligently identifying objects and adjusting camera settings accordingly, said Peter Richardson, research director at Counterpoint Technology.

“This is just the start. Machine learning will make smartphones understand user behaviour in an unprecedented manner. Analysing user behaviour patterns, devices will be able to make decisions and perform tasks that will reduce physical interaction time between the user and the device,” he said.