nside a cashier-less store in Beijing (Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT)
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 solutions 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 C-round 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.