Skynet al­ready knows who you are

Bei­jing-based tech start-up has a big edge on fa­cial recog­ni­tion

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Chen Qingqing Page Edi­tor: tulei@glob­al­

When staff mem­bers of Megvii Tech­nol­ogy Inc punch in, they only have to pass through an au­to­mated gate and their name will ap­pear on the screen above it.

“We can also use this self-de­vel­oped fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy to wel­come vis­i­tors. If the cam­era be­hind this gate doesn’t rec­og­nize some­one’s fa­cial in­for­ma­tion then no name will ap­pear on the screen and the sys­tem will au­to­mat­i­cally no­tify us that a vis­i­tor has come to our of­fice,” Wei Wenyuan, an em­ployee of the Bei­jing-based tech start-up that spe­cial­izes in fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy, told the Global Times on Au­gust 3.

The start-up, also known as Face++, was founded in 2011 by three grad­u­ates of Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity . Six years on, it has be­come one of the world’s smartest com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to MIT Tech­nol­ogy Re­view.

In to­tal, seven tech com­pa­nies in the Chi­nese main­land were listed on the MIT rank­ing in 2017 in­clud­ing – Chi­nese tech gi­ants Baidu Inc, Alibaba Group Hold­ing and Ten­cent Hold­ing.

At the Face++ head­quar­ters in Zhong­guan­cun, a hub for en­trepreneurs in western Bei­jing’s Haid­ian dis­trict, a slo­gan that reads “Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI), for a bet­ter fu­ture,” hangs on the wall.

“Most of our em­ploy­ees are geeks, some kids are such ge­niuses that they can even skip uni­ver­sity,” Wei noted.

From de­tect­ing five fa­cial key points years ago to 106 key points to­day, Face++ pro­vides fa­cial recog­ni­tion solu- tions for dif­fer­ent soft­ware devel­op­ers, such as the Chi­nese beauty and photo edit­ing app Meitu, which maps users’ fa­cial fea­tures. By Novem­ber 2016, it had ap­plied for a to­tal of 302 pa­tents, five of which are in the US.

Both China and the US con­sider AI as part of their na­tional strate­gies, and both coun­tries have come up with gov­ern­ment-backed guide­lines to push for­ward the de­vel­op­ment of the in­dus­try. How­ever, China still lags far be­hind the US in terms of ba­sic re­search in al­go­rithms and the­o­ries, Ten­cent said in a re­port on Au­gust 2.

As of June 2017, there were a to­tal of 2,542 AI com­pa­nies world­wide, with Amer­i­can firms ac­count­ing for 42 per­cent and Chi­nese firms mak­ing up 23 per­cent, the re­port showed.

To­tal ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vest­ment in the AI sec­tor world­wide has amounted to 191.4 bil­lion yuan ($28.55 bil­lion) since 1999, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, with in­vest­ment in China ac­count­ing for 33.18 per­cent of that fig­ure, or 63.5 bil­lion yuan.

In China, AI is no longer just a re­mote con­cept. For ex­am­ple, im­age anal­y­sis has been widely ap­plied in se­cu­rity cam­eras, and user-pro­fil­ing tech­nol­ogy has been adopted by In­ter­net com­pa­nies to cus­tom­ize on­line ad­ver­tise­ments, ac­cord­ing to a re­port on AI re­leased by fi­nan­cial ser­vices provider China In­ter­na­tional Cap­i­tal Corp in June.


One busi­ness en­joy­ing the ben­e­fits of this tech­nol­ogy is a con­ve­nience store es­tab­lished at the end of July in a shop­ping mall in western Bei­jing.

“With the help of Face++, we in­stalled a fa­cial recog­ni­tion sys­tem for this cashier-less store here, so cus­tomers can scan the QR code at the en­trance and their in­for­ma­tion will be di­rectly up­loaded into our sys­tem,” said Tang Yan, a man­ager at the store.

Af­ter en­ter­ing the store, cus­tomers pick up various items such as snacks and drinks, then put them on a check­out ta­ble where a sen­sor iden­ti­fies them. “To pre­vent shoplift­ing, a cam­era at the exit can rec­og­nize the fa­cial in­for­ma­tion of the cus­tomers and de­tect if they have paid for the items they have selected,” he said.

The 30-square-me­ter shop has recorded a sales vol­ume of around 2,000 yuan ($298) per day since it was un­veiled, and is also the first cashier-less store where Face++ has im­ple­mented its fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy in Bei­jing.

How­ever, with US tech gi­ants such as Ama­zon al­ready hav­ing launched cashier-free con­ve­nience stores in De­cem­ber 2016, Chi­nese com­pa­nies have been play­ing catch-up with their for­eign coun­ter­parts in re­cent years.

Some of the ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies that were ap­plied in labs in Western coun­tries have been brought back by young en­trepreneurs such as Yin Qi, one of the three founders of Face++, who ac­cu­mu­lated his im­age pro­cess­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in Mi­crosoft Re­search Asia (MSRA) years ago, Xie Yi­nan, vice pres­i­dent of Face++, told the Global Times. “The in­tern­ship at MSRA helped him turn from fo­cus­ing on ba­sic the­ory study to ex­plor­ing ap­pli­ca­tion sce­nar­ios,” he said. In or­der to eval­u­ate whether the fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies are solid, they have to be ap­plied in real life, Xie noted. Skynet, fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware de­vel­oped by Face++ and used as an ad­vanced se­cu­rity tool, can iden­tify tar­geted fig­ures in­stantly. It has helped po­lice in 25 Chi­nese prov­inces seize over 500 es­caped crim­i­nals, he said. The com­pany’s other cus­tomers in­clude Ali­pay, the fi­nan­cial unit of Alibaba Group Hold­ing. With the au­then­ti­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy of Face++, users on Ali­pay can re­set pass­words by us­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion.

Get­ting the edge

Face++ to­day of­fers com­puter vi­sion tech­nol­ogy in ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming in­ter­faces (APIs) and soft­ware de­vel­op­ment kits (SDKs), and over 5,000 cus­tomers and devel­op­ers use its plat­form to build dif­fer­ent apps. Its five core tech­nolo­gies in fa­cial recog­ni­tion – face de­tec­tion, face land­marks, face at­tributes, face com­par­ing and face search­ing – were used in 213,000 apps in 2016. So far, there are 300,000 reg­is­tered users on the plat­form of Face++, and 40 per­cent are from over­seas.

In ad­di­tion to this, body recog­ni­tion is be­com­ing more com­monly used to de­tect crim­i­nals in crowded or com­pli­cated en­vi­ron­ments.

“Chi­nese tech com­pa­nies have some ad­van­tages in the ap­pli­ca­tion of AI, and they have to process a large amount of data, which en­ables them to build dif­fer­ent mod­els for test­ing,” Zhang Zhuo, an in­dus­try an­a­lyst at IDC, told the Global Times on Mon­day.

Chi­nese lo­cal gov­ern­ments are also urg­ing fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of cloud ser­vices used in smart city and smart gov­er­nance, which will give com­pa­nies ac­cess to a very large data­base.

“One rea­son Google is in a lead­ing po­si­tion in im­age pro­cess­ing is that the US tech gi­ant first col­lected mil­lions pic­tures for their ar­chives,” he said, not­ing that the win­ner of the fu­ture is the one who owns data.

Face++, which has fi­nal­ized a Cround of fi­nanc­ing of $100 mil­lion so far, aims to ap­ply its vis­ual pro­cess­ing tech­nolo­gies in more do­mains while fur­ther ex­plor­ing deep-learn­ing tech­nol­ogy.

“Es­tab­lish­ing our video cen­sors and vis­ual tech­nolo­gies in some au­to­mated ma­chines, which could en­able them to make easy judg­ments to bet­ter serve peo­ple, is part of the In­ter­net of Things ini­tia­tive,” Xie said.

Pho­tos: Chen Qingqing/GT Photo: Cour­tesy of Face++

Top:In­side a cashier-less store in Bei­jing Far right: The first cashier-less sotre in Bei­jing. Alibaba Chair­man Jack Ma Yun demon­strates Fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

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