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Top AI unicorn SenseTime charges beyond China

Artificial intelligence is 'devil and angel,' co-founder warns

SenseTime specializes in AI software for facial recognition, tracking, object detection, image and video processing and data analysis. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang)

SHANGHAI -- China's SenseTime, the world's most valuable artificial intelligence startup, is eyeing global expansion in Singapore, Japan, and the U.S. The rising tech star just closed a new $620 million round of fundraising as it aims to lead the AI industry by 2030.

Founded in 2014 and incorporated in Hong Kong, SenseTime has quickly grown to more than 1,700 employees, with most of its operations still centered in China. The AI startup has launched a recruiting process in the U.S., where it intends to establish a new office.

"We are hiring the most expensive headhunters to recruit top AI engineers worldwide," a company manager told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We have at least 150 Ph.D.s with us." The company is also mulling expansion of its existing offices in Singapore and Japan.

SenseTime specializes in developing artificial intelligence software for facial recognition, grouping and tracking, image processing, object detection, gesture sensing and data analysis.

The $620 million round of fundraising pushed its valuation to more than $4.5 billion. Alibaba Group Holding, Qualcomm, Chinese retailer, Fidelity International, Hopu Capital, Silver Lake, and various international funds under Temasek Holdings have piled in as investors.

SenseTime co-founder Wang Xiaogang said there will be more and more AI applications on smartphones and other new gadgets. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang) SenseTime co-founder Wang Xiaogang said there will be more and more AI applications on smartphones and other new gadgets. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang)

The quick rise of SenseTime came as China's State Council unveiled plans late last year to lead global growth in AI through 2030, seeking to build an industry worth 1 trillion yuan ($150 billion). The country is already home to many AI front-runners, including state-backed chip startup Cambricon Technologies and iFlytek, China's biggest voice recognition company. Beijing's AI ambition, however, has been viewed by some critics in the U.S. as a threat that could eventually undermine their longtime tech supremacy.

There is also a growing concern over China effectively forming an AI-powered police state. Indeed, SenseTime provides Chinese police departments with technology to identify criminals and suspects as part of Beijing's massive surveillance program.

An executive at the company acknowledges these concerns. "AI is really a two-edged sword. ... We see AI as the combination of devil and angel, the battle between good and evil," said Wang Xiaogang, co-founder and head of research at SenseTime, in a speech on Wednesday at Mobile World Congress Shanghai.

"AI could make people's life more convenient and safe, while it also could bring concerns related to privacy and safety," said Wang. "It could be used to build a better and safer future, while it could also be used to hack and attack systems."

Wang's comments echo calls by many tech magnates, such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, to be more careful about AI applications. They all warn that an AI revolution could pose problems and become a potential threat to human society, while also bringing significant development and opportunities in computing.

SenseTime has more than 700 customers and partners -- including Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, Huawei Technologies and China Mobile -- and turned its first profit in 2017. Japanese automaker Honda Motor has teamed up with the AI developer to work on autonomous driving technology.

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