How Hong Kong can boost startups and AI applications

December 21, 2023 08:36
Photo: LifeSparrow Solutions

After missing for a week and experiencing typhoon No. 9 and black rainstorm in early October, the 17-year-old student from Diocesan Boys' School, was finally found alive and was safe, everyone couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. The successful search of the Fire Services Department (FSD) for missing persons using innovative technology was another demonstration of human-machine collaboration that can greatly improve efficiency. The incident also inspired us to think about the application of I&T in Hong Kong and how to promote the development of startups and the way forward.

One of the keys to the success of this search and rescue operation was the use of geographic information and artificial intelligence (AI) by the FSD to slash the time needed by two-thirds to decode 10,000 photos taken by drones. This can narrow the scope of search which increases the chances of finding the missing target.

To find lost persons not carrying mobile phones within 10 square kilometers of dense woods, the method is to analyse the latest geographic information, which requires comparing record digital maps showing basic mountain topography and the updated maps constructed by the latest drone images. Then, the AI algorithm is used to spot clothing and silhouettes especially in places such as under the shade of trees, which are easy for the naked eye to miss. AI can significantly save image recognition work by up to 75%, from 8 hours to 2 hours for visual analysis.

To help startups thrive, support from the public and private sectors is much needed

The AI analysis system behind the scene is a software developed by LifeSparrow Solutions, a startup founded by Polytechnic University’s Max Lee Jwo-lem and Josua Chan Wing-hei. The two, both 25-year-olds, started their own businesses in 2020 after the pandemic crisis caused a massive slump in their work with the aviation industry. During the period they found an increase of cases in injuries or missing of those who go hiking, and the two decided to use what they learned to help others, which was adopted by the FSD and made news headlines because of the incident.

The number of startups in Hong Kong reached a record high in the last few years, with 3,985 startups and 14,932 employees, an increase of 52% and 56% respectively when compared with 2018, according to the official figures.

Apart from a number of publicly funded startup funds, the Government, as the largest customer, should be credited for introducing a new pro-innovation procurement policy in April 2019 in which the technical weighting in tender assessment would be raised. The 2018 Policy Address proposed that “Tenders with innovative suggestions will stand a better chance of winning government contracts… to facilitate the participation of I&T startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in government procurement".

According to last year's Legislative Council document, with effect from April 2019, government procurement departments have increased the weighting of technical scores in the scoring system from 30 to 40%, to 50 to 70%, and a number of criteria have been used to evaluate innovative proposals, including those related to applied technology, environmental protection and social care. More importantly, the weighting of price was reduced to 30 to 50%. Since then, more than 70% of procurement has been won by the bidder with the highest technical rating, rather than by the lowest bidder.

As at the end of May 2022, 121 I&T projects proposed by 32 departments/offices had been funded with a total allocation of about $560 million, which is 0.06% of the total government expenditure of $810.4 billion (2022-23). It looks like a drop in the bucket, but at least it is a start.

I hope that the Government can expand the adoption of innovative proposals by local startups, and at the same time encourage and facilitate the public and private sectors to follow suit so that local startups can have more opportunities to thrive.

Creating synergy to promote the export of smart city experience

Apart from the FSD, different government departments are also increasingly using innovative products and services, such as the Civil Engineering and Development Department's use of drones and AI to enhance the inspection efficiency of public infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Buildings Department adopts AI, machine learning and 3D scanning technologies to automatically identify damaged signboards and enhance maintenance enforcement efficiency. However, these appear to be fragmented projects that lack synergy.

If there is an overarching policy on startups to implement innovation and technology to solve practical problems, it will definitely help Hong Kong in laying a solid foundation as an international I&T hub and a leading smart city.

In fact, the project Energizing Kowloon East launched a few years ago was based on the concept of demonstrating the benefits of smart city solutions to society. Kowloon East is used as a pilot for Hong Kong's research and development of smart city, showcasing how innovative solutions, especially in terms of mobility, can enhance the quality of life and contribute to Hong Kong's development.

The pilot study was completed as early as the end of 2019, but it encountered the Covid-19 epidemic before sparking any discussion in society, which is frustrating. I suggest that the Government should not sit back and watch, but should proactively review the results and consider feasible measures to be recommended in the wider implementation in the new development areas such as the North Metropolis. This will not only provide more opportunities for startups, but also facilitate the export of smart city solutions and experience in the future.

Hong Kong can promote more AI applications

In September, a British consultancy published the AI Economic Impact Index, which assesses AI's potential to shape economies and financial markets. The top three in the index are the United States, Singapore and the United Kingdom, while Hong Kong also ranks 10th with Taiwan being 14th and China 18th. The study results show that Hong Kong is less prominent in “innovation”, but excellent in “diffusion and adaptation”. I think the recent FSD rescue using AI is a good example.

Do we have any inspiration for this? Although Hong Kong has had a strong international recognition in basic scientific research in the past, can we further strengthen and encourage more organisations, startups in particular, to participate in technology implementation, transformation and application in the future?

Finally, I am personally delighted that LifeSparrow has successfully assisted the FSD in the search and rescue incident, as the startup was just selected as a member of Esri Startup Program of my company last year, and was offered free access to geographic information system (GIS) software and training, so I am really honoured to witness the recent achievement of the two young entrepreneurs.

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