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Chinese face recognition firms get millions of dollars

With the use of AI, the technology can recognise and track those wanted by the authorities by seeking a match from a database of photographs

Sijia Jiang | Reuters  |  Hong Kong 

Face Recognition
A ‘smart departure’ self-service machine scans a woman’s face to authenticate her identity using face recognition technology, during a demonstration by the Immigration Department at Hong Kong Airport in Hong Kong, China. (Photo: Reuters)

Buoyed by China’s plans to build a ubiquitous CCTV surveillance network, Chinese and some foreign investors are pouring money into start-up firms that specialise in facial recognition software.

At stake for firms such as SenseTime Group, Face++ and DeepGlint, is a multi-billion dollar global public and private market for facial recognition that can quickly identify individuals by measuring major elements of their faces, such as the distance between the eyes and the curve of the cheekbones.

With the use of artificial intelligence (AI) the can recognise and track those wanted by the authorities by seeking a match from a database of photographs. In the commercial world it can be used for security at homes, workplaces and ATM machines, and as a part of payments systems at stores and restaurants.

According to estimates from IHS Markit, video surveillance — including the equipment and video management software - was a $6.4-billion market in China in 2016, with 176 million surveillance cameras already installed by the authorities or private companies.

That market, the largest in the world, is set for a compound annual growth rate of 12.4 per cent through 2021, according to IHS. By comparison, the US market was estimated to be worth only $2.9 billion and growing at just 0.7 per cent a year.

In China, though, the supercharged growth has added to concerns about controls on dissidents or activists by the government of President Xi Jinping, especially when combined with the potential for the Chinese authorities to track phones being increasingly used for electronic payments and their stepped up monitoring of Internet traffic.

That hasn’t appeared to deter investors, who include leading US venture capital firms such as the China arm of Sequoia Capital, which is one of the best-known Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

Hong Kong-based SenseTime Group, which produces deep-learning based software for facial recognition, autonomous driving and video analysing, said earlier this month it had “attracted lots of interest” in its latest financing round without elaborating. People familiar with its plans said the firm intends to raise about $500 million.

At the same time, SenseTime, which lists various police departments across China as major clients, has joined forces with its backer China’s CDH Investments to raise about $450 million to invest in other firms working on artificial intelligence technologies, said two sources.

And China’s biggest facial recognition firm Megvii, more commonly known as Face ++, earlier this month announced it has raised $460 million in its latest capital raising, including pulling in money from China’s national venture capital fund.

With the funding, Face++ plans to expand its business from software to hardware by developing more products with built-in AI, such as smart surveillance cameras that can capture faces better and faster, said Xie Yinan, Face++’s marketing and public relations director.

First Published: Mon, November 13 2017. 23:21 IST
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