Internet & Tech

Face value

Alibaba banks on Chinese AI developer SenseTime


A Chinese police officer sports LLVision’s facial recognition sunglasses

“He was completely shocked when we took him away. He couldn’t fathom that the police could so quickly capture him in a crowd of 60,000,” said Li Jin, a police officer in Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi province.

Li was recalling a raid that his squad made on April 7, nabbing a white-collar fugitive at a concert held by veteran Cantopop singer Jacky Cheung. The criminal was first identified by smart cameras at the entrance to the stadium, then caught at the spectator stand amid a sea of faces when the first song was being played.

Chinese security officers are increasingly using biometric technology to assist law enforcement. During the Lunar New Year in February, seven criminals and 26 travellers with forged documents were spotted at a railway station in Zhengzhou by officers wearing facial-recognition sunglasses. The smart spectacles – made by Beijing-based LLVision – were linked to a database that could match faces from a database of 10,000 in 100 milliseconds.

The technology for identifying people – commonly seen in futuristic sci-fi movies such as Minority Report – is fast becoming a reality in China. Take, for instance, ‘Sky Net’, a mass surveillance system which the Global Times asserts could “scan China’s population in a second”. The Middle Kingdom has already installed 170 million inspection cameras across its territory, with 400 million more to be added over the next three years. Many of these will be capable of video content analysis as well – powered by a new frontier of artificial intelligence known as “deep learning,” which allows training computers to parse data and detect patterns that lead to predictions or classification analysis (similar to what Tom Cruise’s PreCrime unit did in Minority Report).

According to London-based research firm IHS Markit, China will constitute 38% of the global market for such security hardware, which will total $41.7 billion by 2021 – making it larger than the North American and Western European markets combined.

It goes without saying that the key technology underpinning this industry’s increasing sophistication – artificial intelligence (AI) – is becoming a new cradle for unicorn companies. Three year-old SenseTime Group, for instance, just saw its valuation triple to $4.5 billion in less than a year, thanks to a $600 million investment this month led by tech giant Alibaba, Singapore investment company Temasek, and Nanjing-based electronics retailer Suning. California-based Qualcomm has also been a strategic investor since last November after an agreement to co-develop on-device AI solutions for the 5G era.

(SenseTime’s rival Beijing-based Megvii, short for Mega Vision and also known as Face++, also raised $460 million last October, while Shanghai-based Yitu Technology got $55 million last May.)

SenseTime says it has around 400 customers and strategic partners. In an interview with Quartz, its CEO Xu Li revealed that 30% of its clients are “government-related” (Reuters said SenseTime counts 40 local governments among its client base), while others are from the telecommunication sector, including Huawei, Meitu, Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo.

Having its roots in a project led by Tang Xiaoou, an engineering professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2014, Hong Kong media have been quick to classify SenseTime as one of the territory’s rare “homegrown unicorns”.

SenseTime experienced its first boom in 2016 when peer-to-peer lending swept across China. The need to reduce identity fraud steered many companies to SenseTime and its peers for solutions that could match a person’s “live” face against the image on official identity documents – a process that had traditionally required human effort.

But 35 year-old Xu emphasised to Quartz that SenseTime is more than just a facial recognition company. With a training database of over two billion images (versus, say, Google’s nine million entries for machine learning) and a supercomputer with 8,000 graphic processing units, it has a deep pool of resources for fine-tuning algorithms for more widespread use.

Apart from working with Japanese automaker Honda to develop self-driving vehicles, SenseTime is also supporting the Shanghai government’s “smart city” initiative – a project that aims to incorporate Big Data and AI into urban design.

Alibaba Cloud agreed to export similar technology, dubbed “City Brain” to Kuala Lumpur in January.

After a visit by Singaporean leader Lee Hsien Loong to its Beijing office last September, SenseTime might soon count the Singapore government as a client.

“Besides e-payments and transport, facial recognition technology is also likely to become a core part of two other aspects of Singapore’s Smart Nation vision: a national digital identity (NDI) system that will supersede today’s SingPass authentication system, and an integrated national sensor network,” SenseTime said in a statement.

Alibaba’s investment, meanwhile, signals not only its increasing emphasis on AI technology but also – following its GoGoVan deal – a politically-motivated gesture to back Hong Kong-based start-ups. Beijing hopes such encouragement will mitigate social tensions in the city among younger Hongkongers.

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