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AI powerhouse SenseTime shifts focus to cars and medicine

Hong Kong unicorn will reach beyond surveillance, says co-founder

SenseTime will use its image-recognition tech prowess in fields like self-driving cars, including through a tie-up with Japan's Honda Motor.
SenseTime will use its image-recognition tech prowess in fields like self-driving cars, including through a tie-up with Japan's Honda Motor.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- SenseTime, the Hong Kong-based artificial intelligence startup that has gained renown for its image-recognition technology used in surveillance cameras, is hastening to apply its tech to automobiles and medicine, a co-founder told Nikkei.

"We are not a surveillance company," Wang Xiaogang, the head of research and a founding member of the world's highest-valued AI startup, said in an interview. "We want to become an AI platform that empowers different businesses," he continued, naming smartphones and smart cities as two other target fields.

The entrance to SenseTime's headquarters showcases its precise tech, using facial recognition to let visitors in while a large monitor displays their faces. That technology has already begun to see practical use in devices like surveillance cameras and smartphones, but work remains to be done in the automobile and medical fields.

In particular, the auto sector "requires a lot of R&D effort in the coming few years," said Wang, referring to research and development. "Apart from driverless cars, we can also use our facial recognition technology to monitor drivers' physical status and unlock rental cars," he said, noting that cars will come equipped with many interior cameras in the future.

Late last year, SenseTime teamed up with the R&D unit of Japan's Honda Motor to research automated driving systems. "Japan is very strong in cars and robots," Wang said, adding that SenseTime hopes to "integrate the strengths of China and Japan." The startup has established offices in the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Kyoto.

The company's expansion also includes the U.S., where it opened a research center in the state of New Jersey in August to specialize in parsing medical imaging. But its Hong Kong home "provides us a good research environment and culture," Wang said. "It's also close to mainland China, where we have a huge pool of talent."

SenseTime's technological prowess makes it a highly sought-after partner, and it has teamed up with at least 700 companies and organizations, including Chinese smartphone makers Huawei Technologies and Xiaomi, plus U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm. It turned profitable last year, and has successfully raised funds to the tune of $1.6 billion, with its valuation exceeding $4.5 billion -- well over the threshold of being a unicorn (a startup valued at $1 billion or higher). SenseTime's shareholders include such big names as e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding and Qualcomm's venture capital arm.

Hong Kong-based SenseTime, whose image recognition tech is used in surveillance, is branching out into cars and medicine, said co-founder Wang Xiaogang Hong Kong-based SenseTime, whose image recognition tech is used in surveillance, is branching out into cars and medicine, said co-founder Wang Xiaogang

Wang, who hails from the Chinese mainland, cited SenseTime's "large talent pool" as a core strength. Founded in 2014 as the brainchild of a research team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the company now has around 650 researchers and 800 engineers, with at least 150 employees holding doctorates. It also has close ties to the U.S.'s highly regarded Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Our team started researching AI as we were working in university labs, and has accumulated know-how for over two decades," Wang said. "We have good connections with top-class universities to make sure we can hire the best students."

SenseTime also has "strong infrastructure for AI research," Wang said -- particularly in its methods for deep learning, a type of process through which computers train themselves. Many AI companies train software on publicly available information, which limits its potential, according to Wang, whereas SenseTime has developed a unique training system that lets AI continuously improve through unlimited numbers of tests.

With tech like SenseTime's, "we can build a convenient, safe and comfortable society," Wang said. In the smart cities China is working to build in 40 or more areas -- including urban centers like Shenzhen, Chengdu and Guangzhou -- large numbers of surveillance cameras will help find missing persons or track down people suspected of crimes. Facial recognition can also be used as a basis for cashless payments, as well as for helping adjust the flow of transport and traffic.

Though the idea of technology that can instantaneously differentiate large volumes of people and vehicles may conjure up images of a futuristic society, many have concerns about privacy. But Wang argued that "there have been privacy issues in many areas long before the presence of AI," and suggested that "AI can actually help improve privacy," as tech like SenseTime's would remove the need for surveillance camera footage to be monitored by people.

"Society will gradually accept [AI] after seeing the benefits, such as the drop in crime rate," Wang said, though he noted that "at least another 50 years is needed to fully develop the functions" of the technology. He brushed aside fears in some corners about potential threats posed by the tech, especially to jobs, arguing that "AI will inevitably replace humans in some positions, but it will also create new positions and opportunities."

SenseTime receives broad support for its smart-city-related efforts from the Chinese government, which is working to cultivate the AI sector and developing close ties with technologically proficient companies. Many of SenseTime's high-tech Chinese peers enjoy the benefits of government demand. Shi Xiaogang, the CEO of smart-glasses maker Xloong, has said his company will focus for the next two to three years on security applications, such as through tie-ups with police in six cities including Beijing and Tianjin.

But proximity to Chinese authorities can be a hindrance abroad. Suspected links to Beijing spying have dogged smartphone maker ZTE, which Washington slapped with crippling penalties for about three months from April on allegations it illegally shipped goods to U.S.-sanctioned countries including Iran. This month, Australia banned ZTE -- and Huawei, which the U.S. likewise viewed as a security threat -- from helping develop the country's fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile data networks.

Much of the data SenseTime handles is deeply linked to security concerns. Whether its global expansion will enjoy smooth sailing is unclear.

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