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Barely a day goes by without a new thrust or parry in the US-China competition to control the direction of Artificial Intelligence. But some moves resonate more than others. News on March 21 that SenseTime, the $4.5 billion Chinese AI goliath, plans to turn its attention to global markets and autonomous vehicles caused waves that could not be ignored on the US West Coast.
Esther Wong, managing director for strategic investment of the Hong Kong-based giant, told a Bloomberg Invest Asia Forum that SenseTime’s strategic approach to AI design and implementation separates them from the rest of the AI pack. Among other things, she said, SenseTime’s approach to AI and Machine Learning is not based on the assumption that the company can resell client’s data. That data, she said, belongs to and will be controlled by clients.
“Most companies still don’t have a proper AI strategy yet or they don’t know how to monetize AI,” she told the audience in Shanghai.
SenseTime raised more than $1.2 billion last year, with funding from Fidelity International, Silver Lake Partners and Hopu Capital. The company also benefits from Chinese government largesse as Beijing has listed AI as among the priority industries that will receive state support over the next decade. Reports also persist of talks between SenseTime and the huge Softbank Vision Fund, though Wong would not comment on those reports.
The AI space has taken on a geopolitical complexion ever since the ruling Chinese Communist Party anointed AI as a national strategic priority. US lawmakers, already cautious about allowing Chinese companies to purchase US technology firms, have recently extended that instinct to Chinese AI and software companies. Washington is trying to persuade Germany not to allow China-based telecom Huawei to provide the software for a national 5G network.
SenseTime plays in a variety of sectors from healthcare to infrastructure. A major focus is facial recognition and imagery — precisely the kinds of functions required for autonomous vehicles. Wong took pains to assert that the company does not work directly with the Chinese government, which has been criticized for using AI as a tool of repression in security cameras and other surveillance modes.
The company became profitable in 2017. Rumors of further fundraising continue, though Wong declined to confirm them. “The topline has been growing at triple digits for the past four years. Now that we have a bigger base, it probably won’t be as high going forward,” Wong said. “Even though we’re a startup, the founding team has been doing AI for almost three decades.”