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Artificial intelligence

Beijing recruits Hong Kong artificial intelligence start-up SenseTime to lead tech drive

Carrie Lam hails involvement of company in developing next-generation artificial intelligence as ‘vote of confidence’ in city’s innovation skills

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 11:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 5:59am

A Hong Kong start-up whose face- and image-recognition technology is being used for smart cities, online entertainment and finance has been hand-picked by Beijing to power China’s ambition to be a global tech leader.

SenseTime, founded by Chinese University professor Sean Tang Xiaoou and other academics, will join a bevy of technology giants including Baidu and Tencent in spurring the development of next-generation artificial intelligence.

On Thursday, China’s Minister of Science and Technology Wang Zhigang announced his ministry would entrust SenseTime to establish an “open innovation platform for next-generation AI” on intelligent vision.

A spokesman for SenseTime said Beijing’s endorsement indicated that the company’s research in intelligent vision, or computer vision, was recognised as the best in China.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor hailed the involvement of SenseTime as a “vote of confidence in Hong Kong’s strengths in innovation and technology”, as she met Wang Zhigang on Thursday.

She and Wang witnessed the signing of an agreement where both sides pledged further cooperation in innovation and technology.

It means Hong Kong researchers will get greater access to top mainland Chinese laboratories, more cross-border sharing of scientific and biomedical data, and the ability for Hong Kong scientists to take part in national policymaking and international projects.

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Lam said the agreement marked a “a new page of scientific and technological collaboration between the mainland and Hong Kong”.

“Under the nation’s support, Hong Kong will continue to give full play to its strengths in areas such as scientific research, internationalisation and judicial [independence] ... to become an important force in the nation’s strategies to innovate and to foster development through it,” she said.

Experts said the arrangement showed Beijing’s determination to harness Hong Kong’s strengths to deliver greater success in artificial intelligence and other areas, as well as to turn the “Greater Bay Area”, which encompasses Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities, into a global innovation hub rivalling Silicon Valley.

“We have the best universities in the Pearl River Delta, so it is natural for the central government to collaborate with the scientists here ... if the Greater Bay Area is to compete with other city clusters around Shanghai and Beijing,” said Henry Wong Nai-ching, Chinese University’s former dean of science.

In May, President Xi Jinping directed state agencies to help Hong Kong become an international innovation hub and directed them to give Hong Kong scientists greater access to national-level funding once only available to mainland researchers.

Last month, after Lam met Vice-Premier Han Zheng, she revealed a slew of new initiatives including the setting-up of two state-backed laboratories in the city’s Science Park and a cross-border cooperation arrangement to be signed later.

SenseTime, valued at US$4.5 billion (HK$35.3 billion) and crowned the world’s most valuable AI start-up, was founded at Hong Kong Science Park in 2014 by Chinese University academics Tang and Xu Li.

The mainland benefits from Hong Kong’s good schools and talents, while Hong Kong can benefit from the vast market on the mainland
Quan Long, University of Science and Technology

Its technology has been used on the driverless cars developed by Japanese manufacturer Honda, and unstaffed stores of electronics retailer Suning. A spokesman said it had also worked with mainland governments to provide tools for analysis and crowd control in subway stations.

In response to concerns of rampant surveillance and breaches of personal privacy, the spokesman said SenseTime was only a provider of technologies and tools and it was up to clients how they use them. For its part, it tried its best to “protect information security”, he said.

Lam and Wang also witnessed the signing of two deals to enhance cooperation in various areas, such as scientific research, nurturing of talent, and transfer of results.

They also agreed to explore the feasibility of establishing a mainland-Hong Kong joint funding scheme to support such collaborations, especially on the city’s four priorities of biotechnology, financial technology, AI and smart cities.

Since 2005, a total of 16 national laboratories have been established at six Hong Kong universities to do research crucial to China’s scientific development.

There were previously uncertainties over whether they were state key laboratories on their own, or just partners of such laboratories on the mainland. But doubts were cleared up on Thursday as Wang presented plaques to the lab’s chiefs, officially confirming them as state laboratories.

“The presentation of plaques to [laboratories will] provide more flexibility for the collaboration between [the city and the mainland]. It also means solid support and recognition,” Lam said.

University of Science and Technology computer science professor Quan Long welcomed the announcement of more cross-border collaboration.

“The mainland benefits from Hong Kong’s good schools and talents, while Hong Kong can benefit from the vast market on the mainland,” he said.