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Artificial intelligence

Alibaba-backed Hong Kong AI lab names first batch of start-ups for funding

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 6:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 6:31am

A Hong Kong artificial intelligence lab backed by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding and SenseTime, the world’s most valuable AI start-up, has named seven companies that will receive funding under its accelerator programme.

The Hong Kong AI and Data Laboratory announced in a ceremony on Thursday that it will provide US$100,000 in seed funding to each of the selected start-ups, who will also be given office space, access to AI resources from Alibaba and SenseTime, and a range of cloud computing services from Alibaba Cloud.

“These start-ups not only have innovative technologies and business ideas, but they also offer valuable solutions for different industries and scenarios,” Jeff Zhang, the chief technology officer of Alibaba, said at the ceremony.

Zhang said it was important to work on the application of AI technologies in different industries.

The lab was established in May by the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund and SenseTime, which became the city’s first unicorn – a start-up valued at more than US$1 billion – in July last year. The lab has partnered with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) to launch the six-month accelerator programme to nurture more AI start-ups in the city.

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Accelerator programme participant Dayta, a local start-up that offers computer vision and natural language processing solutions to businesses, predicted demand for AI technologies in Hong Kong to grow steadily.

“Artificial intelligence has a lot of potential in the market, which is still very much underserved,” Dayta founder and chief executive Patrick Tu said on Thursday.

Tu said he made the decision to start Dayta five months ago, while he was setting up an education start-up. Dayta has already broken even with its initial projects, he said. Those included a project that helps retailers monitor customer traffic and another in which a media organisation automatically analyses data in reports.

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The Hong Kong AI Lab was established amid the city government’s efforts to step up innovation in areas like AI, biotechnology and financial technology to keep pace with developments in major economies. The government’s budget for this year included HK$40 billion for HKSTP to support hi-tech innovation. A separate amount of HK$10 billion was earmarked to establish two technology research clusters focusing on health care technology and AI.

Hong Kong is also looking to increase the adoption of mobile payments as it continues to lag behind other economies in Asia, particularly mainland China. Consumers in the city mostly prefer using cash, credit cards, or stored-value card platforms like Octopus.

Online payment service AlipayHK on Thursday introduced EasyGo, a payment technology that allows users to pay their transport fares by scanning a QR code to complete the transaction in 0.3 seconds, even when both the user and the bus are offline or have poor network connection.

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AlipayHK, a joint venture between tycoon Li Ka-shing’s CK Hutchison Holdings and Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial Services, has teamed up with two of Hong Kong’s biggest mini bus operators, AMS Public Transportation Holdings and Koon Wing Motors, to make EasyGo technology available on their vehicles, according to a statement from the online payment service. It did not provide the specific date when EasyGo will be made available.

Karl Wong, head of product development at AlipayHK, said EasyGo technology will be adopted to other modes of public transport in Hong Kong. He said it was based on a system already being used in densely populated mainland cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Hong Kong online payments market proving a tough nut for AlipayHK to crack

While AlipayHK reported having 1.5 million users in Hong Kong as of the end of June, it found the adoption of mobile payments to be an uphill battle amid the city’s attachment to more traditional forms of transactions and concerns over data privacy.

The joint venture also competes against Western payment services like PayPal, local providers like TNG Wallet and Tencent Holdings’ WeChat Pay.

New York-listed Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.