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Monday, June 25, 2018, 15:52
Facing the future
By Robert Blain in Melbourne
Monday, June 25, 2018, 15:52 By Robert Blain in Melbourne

Chinese AI pioneer sees facial recognition technology having a game-changing positive impact globally


Zhu Long keeps his cards close to his chest. The co-founder and CEO of Yitu Technology, a Shanghai-headquartered artificial intelligence (AI) company, prefers to let his track record do the talking. 

And a most impressive track record it is.

Since the company’s inception, Yitu has developed algorithms with applications as far-ranging as catching criminals, facilitating cardless ATMs and helping revolutionize healthcare in China. It is claimed that its groundbreaking facial recognition technology can recognize a person’s face among 2 billion people in a matter of seconds.

Born in East China’s Fujian province, Zhu cut his teeth in AI in the United States where, during 10 years of study, he worked with some of the foremost scientists in the field. While pursuing a PhD in statistical modeling at the University of California, Los Angeles, Zhu was under the tutelage of Alan Yuille, himself a disciple of Stephen Hawking — the British theoretical physicist who died in March and was widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Zhu followed this up with several years as a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AI laboratory before rounding out his education with Yann LeCun — one of the world’s leading deep-learning and machine-learning scientists — at New York University. 

Zhu returned to China in 2012 to form Yitu with cofounder Lin Chenxi.

Yitu was quick to attract the interest of investors. In its first four years, it received funding from Yunfeng Capital, Sequoia Capital and others. In 2017, it received 380 million yuan (US$59 million) in a funding round led by Hillhouse Capital Group. 

Like Yitu’s investors, Zhu is cognizant of the enormous positive impact that AI can have as a global game-changer, with his company very much at the forefront.

“AI helps human beings to explore human intelligence and reflects the boundary of human intelligence as a measurement,” said Zhu. “Compared with the old days, AI (is) rapidly developing. Before 2012, facial recognition development was quiet. Three years later, in 2015, its ability officially surpasses human beings. 

“From then, progress has rocketed, (clearly shown in its) disruptive application in an increasing number of industries, such as public security, healthcare, finance and business. It revolutionizes all the industries in different ways.”

Yitu’s facial recognition algorithm has been in use by the Shanghai Metro since January 2017. In the first three months of operation, it helped apprehend more than 500 criminals in the vicinity.

And its applications do not stop there.

“Our facial recognition technology has been put to use in major public events like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit, the Boao Forum for Asia, the National Games of China and other events,” said Zhu. 

“(There are) some challenges when it comes to different races — or among women or babies — but right now our technology supports all races’ facial recognition.”

Yitu’s system was also used to help make more than 20 arrests of wanted lawbreakers at last year’s Qingdao International Beer Festival, in East China’s Shandong province. Its algorithms have been acknowledged with globally recognized awards.

“In June 2017, Yitu won first place in the Face Recognition Vendor Test organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology,” said Zhu, referring to the US government agency.

Based on 10 billion samples, it was an industry best result.

The company again made a splash in November 2017 when it topped the Face Identification Accuracy Contest in the Face Recognition Prize Challenge, hosted by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity — an initiative of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Zhu’s company has also made customer banking more convenient. In 2015, China Merchants Bank installed Yitu’s facial recognition technology in more than 1,500 ATM machines — allowing card-free transactions.

But it is in the area of healthcare that Yitu could make its greatest impact.

“With AI technologies, healthcare organizations can deliver more effective care through predictive and cognitive solutions, such as assisted and predictive diagnosis,” explained Zhu.

“Unlike humans, the algorithms and the technology can be (enhanced) with a large amount of data without feeling any tiredness or needing a break,” he said.

“Take for example a top-ranked hospital in a second-tier city,” he explained. “A senior doctor has a daily workload of 200 patients’ CT (computed tomography) scans to diagnose, while each patient has 200 CT images for the scan. That is 40,000 images to read for a doctor a day, which can be overwhelming. A senior doctor would spend 10 to 15 minutes to go through a patient’s 200 CT images to determine if there are lesions, or if it’s benign or malignant.”

Yitu’s diagnostic AI solution can perform the same task in just five seconds. 

The company is partnering with over 40 of the country’s top, triple-A hospitals to apply its technology to the clinical workflow — making it the first AI company in China to do so. This is expected to have a knock-on benefit for hospitals across the country.

“Right now, we’re at the phase where we train our technology in top-ranked hospitals in big cities with big amounts of data. When the technology starts to be used in the rural areas, there will be no need for people to travel a long distance for a better diagnosis. They can get the same (or) even more accurate results from local hospitals.”

And Zhu has plans for the company beyond China. “Currently our business is mainly in China. We are extending our reach internationally too as we’ve already launched our first international office in Singapore and an R&D (research and development) center is on the way.”

He said Yitu also has an office in California’s Silicon Valley and plans to make London a base from which to expand its business in Europe.

A lot of buzz in recent years has revolved around the so-called internet of things, where smart homes are equipped with connected devices to cater to human needs. But Zhu takes this a step further, to what he calls the “internet of intelligence”. 

“It is becoming easy for us to have the internet of intelligence. We provided an ‘AI city’ model at the First Digital China Summit,” he said, referring to the event in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, in April.

“Based on facial recognition technology, we offered AI-based services for the conference guests, including reception systems at the airport, train stations that recognize the guests’ identity, displaying greetings and hotel info on the screen, conference gates recognizing each face in two seconds, and a hotel self-checking system for accommodation and key cards. 

“The guests could do all the things above just by showing their faces.”

With such powerful algorithms, Zhu is also mindful of the responsibility his company has as the custodian of the digital face-prints of so many people. 

“Technology is just a tool that can be used for right or for wrong. And it’s not only about governments. Big multinationals like Google or Facebook, which are at the forefront of AI, should also answer these questions, because we are seeing that technology is allowing the rich to get richer, and big companies are becoming much more powerful,” said Zhu.

“Whoever collects or uses a large amount of data needs to be very careful about it.” He added that it is important to help allay fears about privacy, through public education. 

Provided the right checks and balances are in place, Zhu sees AI having great potential to benefit mankind — even if it takes mankind a while to accept this new reality.


Zhu Long

Co-founder and CEO, Yitu Technology


2008: PhD in Statistics from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), specializing in statistical modeling of computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI)

2008-10: Postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) AI laboratory

2010-11: Research fellow, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University

Career milestones:

2012: Co-founded Yitu Technology (with Lin Chenxi)

2015: China Merchants Bank deployed Yitu’s facial recognition technology at over 1,500 ATM outlets for cardless withdrawal

2016: Launched Yitu Healthcare

2017: Invested in AI chipmaker Thinkforce

2018: Yitu launched internationally in Singapore

Quick takes:

What attracted you to the world of AI?

What I find interesting is that AI allows us to explore the boundaries of human intelligence, evaluate its performance and help us understand ourselves better. With AI we will have to redefine what it is to be human. We will have to ask ourselves what the foundations of our species are. 

How do you tackle such a challenging question? 

For the answer, maybe we will have to watch 3-year-old children, not experts. Knowledge and skills can be replicated by large-scale computing, (but) young kids have already developed the basic things that make us human.

Where do you see AI going in the next five to 10 years?

When the technology has been developed to a certain new level, it will unlock new scenarios for its application. Take facial recognition as an example: if the ability to search/match faces grows from 100 million to 10 billion, it doesn’t just mean we can search more faces, but more importantly, it will be able to enter new markets we wouldn’t think of right now.

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