Artificial intelligence

China’s latest AI champion says technical standards needed for healthy development of facial recognition industry

China is the largest market for facial recognition technologies, with its share of global sales expected to grow from 29.3 per cent last year to 44.6 per cent in 2023

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 7:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2018, 3:53pm

When Xu Li first introduced his facial recognition technology to Chinese immigration officials, some of them seemed out of touch with advances in the technology. “We knew about it 20 years ago and, combined with fingerprint checks, the accuracy is only 53 per cent,” one of them told the chief executive of SenseTime, an artificial intelligence (AI) start-up.

That was the equivalent of a coin toss, with a 50/50 chance of getting it right, Xu pointed out to them. Today, SenseTime is an AI champion and has supplied automatic face scanning systems to more than 40 railway stations and several airports across China, with a near perfect accuracy rate.

Xu said his encounter with bureaucracy highlights a critical issue facing the AI industry today – the lack of technology standards even as the country fully embraces AI-driven identity checks.

“With standards, technology adopters can better understand the risk involved, just like credit worthiness for individuals and companies,” Xu said. “Providers of facial recognition can be assigned different trust levels, ranging from financial security at the top to entertainment uses.”

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National standards, based on accepted rules and specifications agreed to by a panel of experts, would allow companies to compete on a level playing field instead of having to meet standards set by individual customers, according to Xu.

“The quicker commonly approved standards can be set up, the healthier the industry will be,” he said on the sidelines of the World AI Conference in Shanghai last month.

SenseTime is the latest company to be hand-picked by Beijing to spearhead the country’s innovation efforts in intelligent vision. The other national AI champions are Baidu for autonomous driving, Alibaba Group Holding for smart city initiatives, Tencent Holdings for computer vision in medical diagnosis, and iFlytek for speech recognition. (Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post).

Established four years ago, SenseTime began as a research project at Hong Kong Science Park under Chinese University professor Tang Xiaoou and other academics. It has grown into a “platform company” that now claims to be the world’s most valuable AI start-up with a valuation of US$4.5 billion after its latest funding round in May.

The growth coincides with China’s full embrace of facial recognition technology and its integration into the daily lives of the Chinese population, with public security authorities using the technology to spot suspected criminals and even jaywalkers. It has also been adopted by the retail, finance, entertainment and transport sectors for use in non-public security applications.

China is the largest market for facial recognition technologies, with its share of global sales expected to grow from 29.3 per cent last year to 44.6 per cent in 2023, according to a recent report by US-based market research agency Gen Market Insight.

The global facial recognition market is forecast to be worth US$6.5 billion by 2021, according to research company Technavio.

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Xu said it does not matter whether the US or China comes up with AI standards, “as long as there is a set of standards to follow.” They could also be adapted to suit each country’s particular conditions, he added.

Xu said standards are essential for life-changing technologies such as AI, which is expected to have a “huge impact” on society and “morph into an indispensable part of our lives.”

SenseTime, which became profitable last year, said it expects to remain “in good shape” financially despite the need for large, ongoing research investments. Its computer vision technologies have so far been used in applications such as smart cities, surveillance, smartphones, autonomous driving, health care, internet entertainment, finance, and retail.

Xu dismissed the notion that Chinese AI start-ups rely mostly on government contracts. “That only accounts about 20 per cent or a little over 30 per cent if indirect dealings are included,” he said, referring to SenseTime’s revenue breakdown. “Our partnerships with smartphone vendors, carmakers and internet service providers have nothing to do with the government.”

Overseas revenue, which is also derived from non-government customers, accounts for another 20 per cent of revenue, he added.