Hong Kong’s best minds must work together to shape the future of AI

  • Christopher Y.H. Chao says HKU is seizing the opportunities to collaborate with partners including Harvard and Tsinghua on research into AI and other innovations, and launch programmes that prepare graduates for the latest technology
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 7:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 10:25am

The technology rivalry between China and the US is believed to have fuelled the lingering trade war between the world’s two largest economies. This month’s attention-grabbing arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou further highlighted the rising tension on the technology front.

However, no matter how long the Huawei saga or the trade war drags on, the hitherto rapid pace of technological development will continue. As reiterated by top academics at the Hong Kong International Artificial Intelligence Summit held late last month at the University of Hong Kong, years of research and development in AI have led to the rise of a powerful tool that can be applied to a lot of things to derive “intelligence” from available data. Machine learning, or data-driven learning, has emerged as a much-hyped concept among businesses and governments driven to maximise the use of human knowledge for the well-being of society.

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Through the deployment of the latest technology, a host of social and economic issues, from transport, financial investment and services, pollution control and health care to manufacturing, could be resolved.

As we now know, myriad projects, including those run by start-ups, have proven to be financially viable while making social contributions with the help of AI. Speakers at the summit pointed to the significant progress made in areas such as speech recognition and certain banking services.

Local universities definitely have a pivotal role to play in shaping the future adoption of AI in Hong Kong and elsewhere, by furthering research on AI and nurturing graduates who are ready to embrace fast technological changes. The HKU-Cambridge AI Research Team, for example, is engaged in novel interdisciplinary research integrating AI, medical sciences, social sciences and so on to address complex social problems in Hong Kong, mainland China and the rest of the world.

The team has come up with prototype apps offering information on air pollution in any location in Hong Kong based on real-time emissions data from the Transport Department and the Environmental Protection Department. The team has also identified the areas with the highest level of fine particulate matter (of less than 2.5 micrometers), namely Sham Shui Po, Wong Tai Sin, Kwun Tong and Yuen Long, which also have the highest social deprivation indices, proving the existence of an environmental divide in this affluent city.

AI is being applied in many more areas. Besides improving efficiency and reducing operating costs, it has also been adopted in the financial sector to tailor-make products for customers, including those who are IT-illiterate. Increasingly, financial consultations could be offered by robots and customers’ authentication could be made swiftly through facial recognition.

The “3As” – namely AI plus big-data analytics and algorithms – is the winning formula for today's applications. AI or big-data analytics alone could be slow, so algorithm design is needed to make things work faster.

At HKU, we are building a blockchain platform capitalising on the vast opportunities available from the internet, with the establishment of a new laboratory for fintech under the Department of Computer Science, in which blockchain will be a major topic under investigation; we have also received several major grants for blockchain research.

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It is high time institutions invested in interdisciplinary training to keep pace with the growing data-sharing economy. The HKU’s engineering faculty, together with the faculties of business and economics, and law, will jointly launch the new undergraduate programme and postgraduate programme in fintech, which will cover blockchain, among other fields of expertise. Graduates will be equipped to work for both the financial sector and the IT sector.

Also in the pipeline is an applied AI degree programme offered by the faculties of engineering and science, focusing on AI application across a number of disciplines, including medicine, architecture, social sciences, arts and business. Students will learn the most essential techniques of AI, computing, and data analysis in the junior years.

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There is no better time for institutional collaboration, as industries and academia worldwide are prepared to inject resources into cutting-edge AI research. As an open, international city, Hong Kong is well positioned to attract interested overseas institutions. Recently, HKU’s Faculty of Engineering signed a memorandum of understanding with the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to set up a Laboratory for Instrumentation for Precision Medicine. Besides advancing the quality of medical care for the world, the initiative ties in with the government’s drive to turn Hong Kong into a global hub of innovation and technology, particularly in the areas of health-care technologies.

Tsinghua University is another top institution HKU is collaborating with. Both signed an agreement in November that will see strengthened collaboration in both education and research.

As noted by Zhang Bo, the dean of Tsinghua’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence, at the close of the AI summit, the support of the Hong Kong government and the opportunities in the Greater Bay Area represent unlimited potential in developing the latest technology. “AI is still in its early stage of development. Breakthroughs will only come through strengthened basic research,” he noted, calling on global researchers to come together to turn a new page in the creation of a truly tech-assisted world for mankind.

Certainly, security concerns and regulations and legislation that fail to keep up with changing times pose challenges to the advancement of AI, but the existence of such challenges reflects the need for further research collaboration. We need to nurture the brightest minds to make new discoveries, as well as diverse talent well-versed in digital tools.

Top research institutions could make substantial contributions by riding on this unprecedented wave. There is no reason why Hong Kong should lag behind.

Professor Christopher Y.H. Chao is dean of engineering at the University of Hong Kong