Biometrics stocks this week: the burgeoning Chinese biometrics sector
Investment capital continues to pour into the flourishing Chinese biometrics sector. This is a country that already has some 600 million cameras deployed across the land. Biometrics-based systems are being set up in schools. So it’s not really a surprise that the Chinese biometrics industry is evolving at such a rapid pace.
Rounding up the latest news in the biometrics space in the Middle Kingdom, this past week it was reported that SenseTime is set to receive nearly $1 billion from the SoftBank Vision Fund. SoftBank is, arguably, the world’s largest technology investor. The company’s CEO Masayoshi Son is a true tech guru. He’s a believer in the Singularity, the idea that once AI becomes 10,000 times more powerful than the average human brain, humans will be so taken with technology (it will solve all our problems, answer all our questions) we will, as a species, end up worshiping the network as a God. Believers in the Singularity predict that’s an event still thirty or forty years into the future. In the meantime Son sees the value in biometrics and is putting money into SenseTime, which has already raised $1.2 billion in previous funding rounds (the money in those rounds coming from Alibaba and Fidelity, among others). That the mystical and majestic Son is putting money in SenseTime is a big vote of confidence in the company.
Another Chinese biometrics firm raising venture capital is Megvii. The company is expected to pull in at least $600 million from investors in the next couple of weeks. The funds are coming from, again, Alibaba, as well as a firm called Boyu Capital. Ant Financial, a huge Chinese financial services firm (and parent of the Alipay payment service) participated in a previous funding round. That round also included money from a Chinese state-controlled venture fund and Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer that makes iPhones. Megvii announced the fresh cash will be used to pitch its “unmanned stores” to the retail sector. If there is one area where China is ahead of the West in tech, it’s in unmanned stores. These shops use biometric and AI technology to serve up customers without human assistance. Another big Chinese tech company, Tencent Holdings, beat Amazon to the punch and opened the world’s first unmanned shop a while back. Over its first weekend the store attracted 30,000 visitors. More recently a Chinese convenience store chain (JD.com) along with a real estate developer, China Overseas Land & Investment Ltd., announced plans to open “hundreds” of unmanned convenience stores in the months ahead. Just this week, in reaction to news that some stores in Beijing were refusing to take Chinese cash from tourists (the stores were demanding foreign currencies through credit or debit cards) the Chinese central bank released a new rule demanding all stores accept cash. The central bank did announce one exception to the rule, unmanned stores.
In another bit of Chinese tech IPO news: Xiaomi, the smartphone maker, has filed a massive 600-page document in preparation for a coming IPO. Xiaomi recently launched the first smartphone with an in-display fingerprint reader, and it has been a leader in applying the latest biometric tech in its products. The company’s much-anticipated IPO could raise up to $10 billion, which would make it the largest IPO since Alibaba went public in the U.S. in 2014. The company is ranked fourth based on global smartphone shipments and said to be one of the few OEMs to buck the trend of slowing smartphone sales in China that has bedeviled fingerprint sensor makers of late.
One more Chinese-related biometrics news bits involves a firm doing face recognition software called YITU. The company recently announced it had picked up $100 million in a C round investment from China Industrial Asset Management Ltd. The $100 million is in addition to the $200 million raised from investors in the last round. One investor in this latest funding round is the Industrial Bank of China Ltd., a massive state owned firm that is, by some measures, the largest bank in the world. It is one of China’s “Big Four” state-owned commercial banks. It has assets worth USD $4 trillion. It comes in number one on the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s biggest public companies. In an interview with Biometric Update earlier this year a YITU executive said the company is expanding its Silicon Valley research lab. In June YITU Technology took first place on the NIST facial recognition test.
As the biometrics sector leaps ahead in terms of sophistication a new world that merges the IofT with AI is coming to be. The changes seem to be occurring faster than the culture can comprehend. This week it was announced that Amazon will continue to sell its face identity system, Rekognition, to police forces. These sales had drawn controversy a few months back. The ACLU asked Amazon to stay sales of the tech to police forces. But it seems Amazon is going ahead with the sales. The revenue Rekognition will create for Amazon’s cloud-computing division is just too tempting, clearly.
Microsoft also reported quarterly earnings this week. It impressed analysts with massive revenue, surpassing the $100 billion for the fiscal year, but beneath the headlines some sharp-eyed tech columnists pointed out some interesting changes that have been made to the boilerplate language contained in the companies securities filings.
Publicly-traded companies have to satisfy various legal requirement in terms of what is contained in an annual report. In the “Forward-Looking Statements” section of a securities filing companies have to disclose realistic risks that could affect business in the future. If you really want to know what risks challenge a corporations outlook, check this section–company lawyers are required by law to list real risks in an accurate. For those wondering how soon we can expect some serious disruption from the IofT and AI on our way to the Singularity, Microsoft has your answer—it’s sooner than later. In this latest quarter Microsoft updated its boilerplate language in the Forward-Looking Statements section of its annual report with a couple new points. According to Microsoft there are new risks to the company around the “development of the internet of things,” which presents, “… security, privacy, and execution risks.” As well, issues around the use of, “… artificial intelligence in our offerings that may result in competitive harm, legal liability, or reputation harm; and damage to our reputation or our brands that may harm our business and operating results.” That is, Microsoft, like many, realize a wave of disruption is bearing down as a result of AI and the IofT, and no one is really sure how these shifts are going to play out. As these new technologies are released into the culture it’s impossible to say who will be harmed and what lawsuits will be filed, but it’s clear Microsoft’s lawyers are making sure that investors know this technological evolution is getting underway.
What might this future look like? Check out another bit of venture funding news involving a company called AnyVision. It just closed a $28 million round of Series A funding led by technology giant Bosch. AnyVision is just three years old. But it’s already got 130 employees, and its proprietary technologies (artificial intelligence and machine learning) are hot properties. AnyVision’s products revolve around applications for, “… face, body, and object recognition…,” according to a press release. It will deploy a facial recognition solution at a London stadium for ticketless entry this summer. And that’s good news. Biometric ticketing is quickly becoming a battleground market. But this buddy-up with Bosch is really interesting as it suggests AnyVision’s products are going to end up in that other emerging behemoth of a market, automated vehicles (AVs).
According to an senior vp with Bosch’s Building Technologies division, “Our customers around the world are increasingly asking for ways of integrating person and object recognition software into our cameras; collaboration with AnyVision will allow us to fulfill this customer wish even better and offer an enhanced package of solutions.” Apparently the AnyVision product allows computer vision to happen on any sensor, which is a technology that falls right into a key area Bosch is working in.
According to the Bosch website a key task in terms of creating self-driving cars is to fuse object information coming from sensors into a perception that allows planning components, “… to generate a sequence of intelligent actions.” According to Bosch, this is a key task, and the company’s AV unit is working on, “… perception combining the data from different sensors like radars, cameras and lidars into a representation of dynamic objects and static features.” A self-driving car has to create situational awareness if it’s going to work. This is occurring through advancements in machine learning and deep learning. It seems the AnyVision product will fit right into this space.
And this AV space is one that is growing, rapidly. It’s worth mentioning that Bosch has partnered with Vodafone and Huwei to test AVs in Germany and has teamed with Daimler and Nvidia to bring robo-taxis to Silicon Valley. Bosch has also signed a collaboration agreement with the Chinese internet group Baidu to work on a product to use information collected by Bosch’s radar and video sensors in vehicles to generate and update maps.
That is, there is an amazing flurry of activity in the AV space. As for Baidu, the company announced recently that it has partnered with Ford to collaborate on developing, “… onboard devices equipped with voice and image recognition” as a way of expanding upon their partnership in autonomous driving. It was only two years ago that Ford collaborated on an EU-funded project to combine facial recognition technology with biometric sensors tracking pulse, breathing rate and sweat as a way of designing a car that would know if the driver was having a heart attack at the wheel.
The AI-powered, biometrics-enabled machine–the Singularity–is on its way, and that’s kind of amazing. Don’t bet against tech.