Start-up shows role Hong Kong can play in mainland hi-tech push

Face and image-recognition technology firm SenseTime aims to reap potential rewards under Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan and the ‘one country, two systems’ principle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 10:47pm

Hong Kong has overcome the lack of natural resources to prosper over the years by adapting to change and seizing opportunities. The latest challenge arises as the city is caught in the middle of a trade war between the mainland and its next biggest trading partner, the United States, over Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan to become a global technological leader. It is on the mainland where the next big opportunity for Hong Kong lies, through tapping into the drive to break reliance on American core technology. In that respect, the city has not positioned itself well in terms of the percentage of gross domestic product invested in research and development. As a result it lags rivals, particularly Shenzhen.

It is digging into its overflowing coffers to catch up incrementally. A snapshot of the potential rewards is welcome. It has emerged in Beijing’s choice of a Hong Kong start-up to contribute to China’s global tech ambitions. SenseTime, founded by Chinese University professor Sean Tang Xiaoou and other academics, has developed face and image-recognition technology being used for smart cities. It will join tech giants including Baidu and Tencent in spurring development of next-generation artificial intelligence.

SenseTime CEO calls for industry standards in facial recognition technology

It is the first time a Hong Kong start-up or any company has been recognised in this way by the national hi-tech plan. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor rightly described it as groundbreaking. She claimed it as a vote of confidence in the city’s strengths in innovation and technology, as she and Wang Zhigang, the country’s science and technology minister, witnessed the signing of an agreement pledging cooperation. This follows President Xi Jinping’s direction to state agencies to give Hong Kong scientists greater access to funding. This will help the city become an innovation centre in the “Greater Bay Area” scheme to link it and Macau with nine mainland cities in an integrated hi-tech business and economic hub.

The attraction of Hong Kong as a centre for such a key role lies in top-class universities and academic talent from all over the world. Wang said SenseTime, formed four years ago and valued at US$4.5 billion, would be entrusted with establishing an “open innovation platform for next-generation AI” on intelligent vision.

Though Shenzhen is seen as a rival to Hong Kong, Beijing clearly sees the city as a research centre for applied innovation and development across the border. Competition therefore needs to be channelled into a kind of creative tension and coordination. That calls for a reciprocal effort to maintain good communication. Thanks to “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong can offer the internet freedom and free flow of information that is key to scientific and technological research.