Govt and business sectors should embrace new technologies

September 25, 2017 11:20
While AI has developed by leaps and bounds in mainland China, Hong Kong authorities are seen as too passive in promoting R&D in such new technologies. Photo:

I have been invited to the ITU Telecom World 2017 industry event that is taking place in Busan in South Korea this week. The conference will explore the relationship between smart city, artificial intelligence (AI) and related issues. At one of the forums, the participants will include Singapore's minister for communications and information, and the chairman of the Seoul Digital Foundation, among others. As for me, I will be acting like a representative from Hong Kong to share our experience on new technology development.

In recent years, AI has developed by leaps and bounds in mainland China. Apart from the huge investment of technology giants like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, a relatively small-sized Beijing-based face recognition company Face++ has been in the news as its product has been selected as one of the 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2017 by MIT Technology Review. The company is now valued around US$1 billion.

Meanwhile, iFlytek with specialty in smart language has a software to translate up to 27 languages, including dialect and slang. It has a market share of 70 percent in this field in China. In March this year, when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was delivering the government work report, the translation software converted his voice to words in real time. It was astonishing!

In July, the State Council released the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan which outlines a goal for China to become a global AI innovation center by 2030. Amid this initiative, primary and secondary schools are urged to offer classes on Al and coding. Meanwhile, private enterprises are being encouraged to provide artificial intelligence training for employees. As Al covers a wide range of areas, authorities are also calling on tertiary institutions to include Al training in all courses, if applicable.

What about Hong Kong? 

Well, we must say the picture has not been too good.

Professor Yang Qiang, a well-known expert in artificial intelligence at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), lamented once that "Hong Kong officials are too passive on R&D effort, leading to brain drain."

The comments echo the concerns held by many observers that Hong Kong has become a laggard on technology-related issues. 

Against this background, I must say that there is at least one piece of good news.

I am delighted that the Hong Kong Observatory has tackled the challenges of processing terabytes of data with AI technology like machine learning and deep learning.

The self-developed Intelligent Meteorological Monitoring Assistant filters the daily weather data, equivalent to 150 million pages, with built-in 200 rules, and generates useful summaries, forecasts and warnings.

Riding on the AI technology, the Observatory provides more accurate weather information to the public, helping it win the Gold Prize of Team Award (Internal Service) in the Civil Service Outstanding Service Award Scheme 2017.

Hong Kong has a pool of international top-notch AI practitioners, and we have also trained a lot of scientific research elites. If more public and private organizations take the effort to adopt new technologies, as the Hong Kong Observatory did, they can generate enormous soft power for Hong Kong.

Such efforts will also inject new impetus to society, providing room for development of creativity among people.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong