From the land of Nokia to an AR enabled Hong Kong

Roughly translated by Mr. Tong Li and Mr. Anlan Zhang from an interview article published at MingPao newspaper on 16.12.18 by Ms. Zena Tsang [i]. Special thanks to Dr. CCS Chan for proofreading

Picture illustrating the original MingPao article

In the restaurant, a person with a humble smile sat down in front of me. I looked at him, and several lines of information were listed on my AR glasses, “Pan Hui, Nokia Chair in Data Science and Professor at the University of Helsinki.” The next line is “Director of the Helsinki-Hong Kong AI Research Center ‘H2O Project’”. This is of course still my Augmented Reality (AR) fantasy, but the reality is not far away. Prof. Pan Hui has a grand plan to establish Hong Kong as the world’s first AR enabled city with the help of 5G and AI. Here is a summary of my whole-afternoon interview with him. We have covered many interesting and trendy topics.

1. Talking about Huawei and Trade War

At the dawn of the 5G era, the competition is fierce amongst communication equipment providers. At this critical moment, Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada. American allies are boycotting Huawei’s 5G equipment, and competitors such as Nokia and Ericsson are expected to seize this opportunity.

Under the Sino-US competition, Hong Kong has to find its place in the global technology development map. Prof. Pan Hui has a great idea — to make more strategic alliances and diversify the investment portfolio.

In September of last year, Prof. Pan Hui joined the University of Helsinki in Finland, which is a strategic partner of Nokia Bell Labs. Bell Labs is famous for cutting-edge research and has produced 9 Nobel Prizes (including a Nobel Prize in 2018).

In February, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, announced that the government would spend 10 billion Hong Kong dollars to build two innovation clusters, targeting healthcare technology, and artificial intelligence and robotics respectively. This ambitious initiative is also known as InnoHK. Prof. Hui and his University of Helsinki colleagues immediately took action for the H2O proposal. Currently, University of Helsinki has raised some collaboration matching funds in Finland and will submit proposals to the Hong Kong government shortly.

Laymen may have the perception that AI is all about robots while AR is only about playing Pokémon GO, so what is the relationship between the two? And how are they related to 5G? Prof. Pan Hui presented an AR scenario in the very near future. The stores are hidden in the high-rise buildings. You look at the building and your AR glasses will show the shops you are looking for and the latest discounts. When you arrive at the bus stop, your glasses can tell you the arrival time of the next bus. aCommerce (augmented-commerce) will provide you a completely different shopping experience compared to looking at your smartphone or your laptop. The clothes you are interested in your will be floating in the air around you, and you will even be able to see yourself wearing them through the AR glasses without going to the fitting room. Prof. Pan Hui explained that AR needs to fulfil three conditions, (1) a combination of the physical world with the virtual world; (2) it needs real-time responses; (3) the virtual objects need to be registered in the 3D world. “For example, if a Pokémon appears, it should not be half on the table and half under the table.” AR can recognize faces, buildings, and filter information according to individual needs. It relies on artificial intelligence, and 5G, the “enabling technology” that provides low latency communication. A delay even of one-hundredth of a second is enough to affect the user’s real-time experience.

Giant enterprises monopolize 5G technology patents

Japanese telecom operators have announced that they will provide 5G services in 2019. Last month, China Mobile also revealed that it would launch 5G mobile phones in the first half of next year. The Huawei turmoil occuring at this time is related to the Sino-US technology competition. Prof. Pan Hui took out his Nokia N8 and said he has always been a Nokia fan. Although the Australian and Japanese governments have blocked Huawei 5G devices due to concerns regarding national security, Huawei’s rapid rise in the past few years is an indisputable fact. Prof. Pan Hui pointed that Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Samsung own a lot of patents related to 5G technologies, which means that any company that wants to develop 5G services has to pay a lot of money to these Enterprises. As for the communication equipment market, Huawei dominated with 28% market share in the third quarter of this year, followed by Nokia.

2. Talking about Hong Kong’s strategies in Innovation and Technology

I don’t know whether you still keep a Nokia mobile phone that remains working even after dropping it off a building. Prof. Pan Hui said that today’s Finnish society is famous for its entrepreneurial spirit. He knows many students at the University of Helsinki who are active in businesses.

This kind of ethos is related to Nokia’s downswing. Many tech people were facing unemployment at the time, they began starting their own businesses, resulting in numerous start-up companies. Lately, Nokia has been recovering with excellent communications and networking equipment such as radio base stations and routers. Compared with the big countries of China and the United States, Finland is a Nordic country with a population of only 5.5 million, he analysed. As such, Finland cannot spend money like China and USA and has to be more selective and strategic. The Nordic Innovation House inaugurated its Hong Kong branch last month, which was established by the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland). The other three Innovation Houses in Silicon Valley, New York, and Singapore show the strategic considerations of the Nordic countries. H2O chose to cooperate with Hong Kong because not only Prof. Pan Hui is from Hong Kong but also Hong Kong’s English circulation and legal system offer a serious advantage over mainland cities to open the Asian market.

Finland has its strategy of selective investment like the Nordic Innovation Houses, and the big countries also are sitting on enormous resources and technologies. What is the best strategy for Hong Kong? Prof. Pan Hui proposes to “establish an alliance relationship with different economic systems.” In his view, the InnoHK project is an excellent opportunity for Hong Kong to not only benefit from innovation development but also to make strong alliances in the world.

Hong Kong is a good platform for building artificial intelligence and robotic technology innovation, thanks to the government’s strategy to attract the cooperation of the world’s top academic institutions such as Harvard. Prof. Pan Hui pointed out that choosing internationally famous schools is one way, but the Hong Kong government can also diversify its investment. Top universities in small countries can have a significant influence on their countries. For instance, many politicians and government officials in Finland are graduates of the University of Helsinki. Of course, there are many highly ranked universities in the United States, but the government should not only consider the rankings and also think about the alliance. By spending all your money in a specific country, you increase the risk to get nothing back if a trade war suddenly occurs. However, the small country administration is less constrained by the bureaucratic system. H2O started its plan at the beginning of this year and has already been supported by the mayor of Helsinki and the Chairman of Nokia. This again demonstrates the efficiency of the Finnish system.

3. Set up the Think Corner in ToKwaWan, a down-to-earth place

Prof. Pan Hui revealed that in addition to the plan of establishing a research centre, he would also like to setup a Think Corner for brainstorming. Unlike most people in Hong Kong who are envious of the new central library in Helsinki, Prof. Pan Hui appreciates the renovation of the old administrative building of the University of Helsinki, involving in a public Think Corner [ii] inside of the building. If there is a Think Corner in Hong Kong, should it be located in the Science Park? The answer of Prof. Pan Hui is ToKwaWan which is a bit far away from the Science Park and not near any universities, but it is at the center of the city and in a vibrant neighbourhood. “There are a lot of old industrial buildings that can provide enough space.” He said, “I think a place near the city is a better choice for attracting more local people which is our goal. People who happen to pass by can drop in, have a cup of coffee and talk about their ideas.”

ToKwaWan is also the place where Prof. Pan Hui grew up. His younger brother, Yuk Hui, is a young philosopher who is highly regarded in the West nowadays. He is famous for examining the concept of Chinese and Western science and technology, and promoting the idea of multi-universe science and technology (cosmotechnics). Yuk Hui recalled that when he was young, he spent a lot of time in the Kowloon Public Library with his elder brother, enjoying books related to physics and Mou Zongsan’s Chinese philosophy.

Professor Pan Hui went on to describe the importance of science and technology education and his early inspirations from science fictions, popular science books, and technology books, which later influenced his decisions to take up engineering in the University of Hong Kong and further his academic pursues at the University of Cambridge.

4. Privacy is not an obstacle. It is just hard to establish a universal standard for regulatory issues

Professor Stephen Hawking repeatedly expressed his concern that artificial intelligence may destroy humanity. Will 5G push a step further in this direction? Prof. Pan Hui said, “I am not very worried.” Kai-Fu Lee, former president of Google China, said that China has caught up with the United States in the commercialization and application of AI, while the development in Europe is relatively backward because of privacy regulations. Prof. Pan Hui said, “Regulation is not necessarily a bad thing for Science. Have you heard about Lulu and Nana, the germline genetically edited babies in China? I do not think a large amount of private data is indispensable for conducting research in AI.” The EU implemented the “General Data Protection Regulations” (GDPR) at the end of May this year. He believes that “Some research fields may not develop so fast because the data in Europe cannot be used indiscriminately. However, the development of the privacy-safe AI in Europe is better than other places.”

Cardea: A visual privacy protection system

Some inventions and research by Prof. Pan Hui will also protect ordinary people from advanced technology. He led the development of a system called Cardea that allows bystanders to say no to the camera. “You can use hand gestures to say no to a camera. Rather than communicating with the photographer, now you can communicate directly with the camera” The camera running Cardea is able to recognize some gestures recognized as rejection. If the subject straightens his/her palm against the lens, the camera will automatically blur his/her face. People can also pre-set the places where they don’t want to be photographed and even the people whom they are not willing to be photographed with. This technology has not been adopted by companies for the time being, but Prof. Pan Hui mentioned that there was another simple method used to achieve the same purpose on a festival in Netherland: the participant can put a red dot on his/her forehead. The participant with a red dot in his/her forehead will be edited to be unrecognizable in the photograph.

Comment on China’s “Social Credit System”

Big data is a hot keyword nowadays but Prof. Pan Hui prefers to call it data science. “The reason why I prefer using the term data science is because I would like to emphasize the word “science”. There are two important reasons to make science important in the age of big data. First, it is about the scientific methods and also the repeatability of an experiment for verification. Second, ethics and responsibilities are the spirits of science and they are of great importance in the field of big data.” But when the country uses technology as a monitoring aid, will Big Brother become more frightening? In the “Social Credit System” in China, personal credits will affect their rights. There are reports that people with low credit social credits are refused train tickets. Professor said, “It’s not very good for privacy. There are big problems in the eyes of people who are outside that system.” When mentioning people’s criticism about the closed-circuit televisions in the streets in the Mainland, he said that he heard from local people that this indeed improved the security there and they regarded as a good thing. People from different cultures and environments have different perceptions of things. Can we set a universal standard for privacy? Prof. Pan Hui said, “It is not that easy. But the most basic thing is to let all users know which aspects of them are infringed, which data will be collected, and what the system is doing.” Will the public be closely monitored after Hong Kong evolves into an AR city? “In the Global Open Data Index ranking [iii], Finland is at the 5th place and Taiwan is the first.” He said, opening his mobile phone, “ah … Hong Kong ranks 24.” He smiled, “For the time being, we are safe.” Prof. Pan Hui said that in H2O, a cooperative project between Finland and Hong Kong, they will strive to make the protection of privacy meet European standards and conduct the research in AI ethics.

Living in “the happiest country in the world”, Prof. Pan Hui needs to fly back to Hong Kong to meet his students every one or two months. “I am living in the best of the two worlds although the commuting is hard.” People in Hong Kong yearn for Christmas in Finland, but Prof. Pan Hui stays in Hong Kong for the holidays. Slush, a venture capital conference was held in Helsinki at the beginning of the month. Slush is also snow mud consisting of semi-snow and semi-water. Prof. Pan Hui described the beginning of December as the worst time in Helsinki. The sun sets very early, and there is not much snow to reflect light. But the Finns choose to hold this international conference at this time. “Can you imagine that the hotels were full of people in such weather?” He laughed, “Maybe this can also be regarded as an invention.” In addition to liquorice chocolate, he also felt the Finns’ open minds when he was in the local supermarkets. “In the ordinary supermarkets, you can see Asian seasonings such as oyster sauce.” You can also find a brand of cup noodles that are common in Hong Kong there. There is freedom as well as openness. “Finland’s working hours are very flexible. I need to work 1624 hours a year. No matter how I distribute the time, I just need to meet the requirement of the total time, although as a workaholic I work much more.”

[i] The original article is available at https://news.mingpao.com/pns1812161544897355130

[ii] Translator’s note: The Think Corner is a physical space located in the city center of Helsinki, offering information and dialogue in easily digested form. Experts, researchers, influencers and the audience meet through themed events, hot topics and demos will be available from a broad range of fields. https://www.helsinki.fi/en/think-corner

[iii] Translator’s note: The Global Open Data Index tracks the state of open government data publication. https://index.okfn.org/