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Artificial intelligence

Hong Kong’s tech ambitions given major boost with AI lab funding

Launch of AI lab comes as Hong Kong government looks to step up innovation in areas like AI, biotech and fintech to prevent the city from falling behind

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 2:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 11:41pm

Hong Kong received a major boost to its technology ambitions on Monday with the launch of an AI lab jointly funded by SenseTime, which specialises in large scale facial recognition systems, and the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund.

The lab, with an investment of “tens of millions of [HK] dollars”, will be fitted out with supercomputers and technology developed by Alibaba’s DAMO Academy research institute. It will collaborate with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) to roll out a six-month accelerator programme starting September to nurture AI start-ups in the city.

“SenseTime had the opportunity, the environment and the talent – there was no reason for us not to succeed,” said Tang Xiaoou, the Chinese University of Hong Kong professor who founded SenseTime, which earlier this year became a unicorn with a valuation of more than US$1 billion. “Hong Kong now also has the opportunity, the environment and the talent – similarly there is no reason for Hong Kong not to succeed in technology and innovation.”

The establishment of the AI Lab comes as Hong Kong’s government looks to step up innovation in technology areas like AI, biotechnology and financial technology to prevent the city from falling behind. The government’s budget for this year included HK$40 billion for HKSTP to support innovation and technology building. A separate amount of HK$10 billion was earmarked to establish two technology research clusters focusing on health care technology and AI.

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Earlier this month, in a potential game changer for Hong Kong’s tech industry, the Chinese government announced that local scientists will have greater access to national-level funding once only available to mainland Chinese researchers.

In a new fast track immigration initiative announced by the Hong Kong government this month, companies at two major technology parks will be able to hire IT experts from outside the city and have them working within four weeks.

At Monday’s launch of the AI lab Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said these developments have given impetus to the city’s innovation industry.

“Entrepreneurs with creativity, ideas and vision need capital support and [people with the] experience to guide them to be successful,” she said. “Over the past three years, the Innovation and Technology Fund has offered more than HK$340 million in subsidies to 83 AI and robotic projects.”

Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, chairwoman of Hong Kong’s Science Park, believes that the AI Lab, together with the fast track immigration initiative, will be able to draw AI talent from the mainland and abroad to Hong Kong.

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The lab will collaborate with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) in the accelerator programme, which will offer funding, relevant technologies, and working space to selected AI start-ups.

“In Hong Kong, there are a group of outstanding researchers in universities working on AI and we hope that the AI Lab will serve as an open platform that can give them more scenarios to apply their research,” said Cindy Chow, executive director of the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund and an advisory board member of the AI Lab.

“Hong Kong has always relied on professional services, financial services and real estate [for economic growth], but Alibaba and SenseTime believe that AI will create new industries and new jobs … to help Hong Kong’s economy sustain its competitiveness.”

Chow said the lab will also work with corporations to connect researchers with the private sector so they can work together to find AI solutions for commercial use.

The launch of the AI lab and accelerator programme also comes amid intensifying competition between mainland China and the United States for dominance of AI technologies, which are vital to enable an array of emerging applications from talking robots to self-driving cars. China is pouring billions of dollars into its AI efforts. Last week the city of Tianjin said it will establish a 100 billion yuan (US$15.7 billion) fund to speed up development of new generation AI technologies, and in January China’s capital Beijing announced a plan to build a 13.8 billion yuan AI development park that would house up to 400 enterprises with an estimated annual output of 50 billion yuan.

The Hong Kong AI Lab’s accelerator programme will begin in September this year, with two intakes annually selecting about six to 10 start-ups each time. 

Selected start-ups will receive US$100,000 in funding from the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, a not-for-profit initiative by Alibaba Group, in return for 6 per cent in equity. Any return on investment will be channelled back into the fund to support initiatives that will help bolster AI in the Greater China region.

SenseTime, which has dual-headquarters in Hong Kong and Beijing and specialises in systems that analyse faces and images on an enormous scale, became a unicorn last year and in April received funding from Alibaba and other investors, increasing its valuation to US$3 billion.

Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.