China’s recent 5-year development plan to designate Shenzhen as the engine behind all tech innovation in the Greater Bay Area came as no surprise.
Indeed, China’s digital transformation was well underway long before the pandemic, attributed to its expansive adoption of mobile technologies and artificial intelligence applications. The corollary is the creation of a wealth of new data about the world. This data collection innovation provides a comprehensive treasure trove of its citizens’ daily habits, including shopping and travelling predilections. In terms of data quantity, China vastly outpaces what western companies such as Facebook and Google can amass from sporadic online searches, a few clicks of “likes” or browsing history.
The efforts to expand data collection is also in line with China’s desire to establish a nationwide medical database, which could help authorities make real-time decisions should another healthcare crisis arise. Despite the cataclysm it has inflicted upon this world, the pandemic is one of the main drivers behind the government’s commitment to spread the search net even wider. When combing through such extensive data using AI deep-learning algorithms, companies and government can customize their solutions to address the most-urgent needs, ranging from city planning to efficient deployment of healthcare solutions.
Inspired perhaps in large part by the strides it has made, the local Shenzhen government is now tasked to further lead China’s process of socialist and technological modernization. Will Shenzhen’s elevated role as China’s tech pioneer help or hurt Hong Kong?
This concern cannot be trivialized. The roles of these two neighboring cities have profoundly changed over the last two decades. Hong Kong’s tardiness in technological development was a case of missed opportunity. Ironically, as early as 2004, Cyberport was a government initiative to encourage innovative ventures to move Hong Kong away from over-relying on industries that were indigenous to its economy since the 1980s. Although the jury is still out on a tech overhaul, Hong Kong is now fighting to compete on that front. To put it in context, Hong Kong’s GDP was almost three times that of Shenzhen’s GDP back in 2004. Now, our neighbor has caught up.
Shenzhen is not Hong Kong’s only competitor. Many other Asian cities are now responding to the digital upsurge as if they have just heard the starting pistol of a race, one-upping each other to attract companies to their regions with favorable subsidies and policies. In contrast, Hong Kong, stultified by tradition and cushioned by reputation, slides backwaters. However, it is not all doom and gloom, especially for our professionals — if we can openly embrace the discomfort induced by disruptive technology.
Creating an AI superpower requires more than an abundance of data and an unbending political will, but also the availability of human capital. Common argument that AI will eventually take over humans is plainly wrongheaded. Well-trained AI scientists, entrepreneurs and experienced professionals are all indispensable to the efficacy of AI adaptation. Eliminating redundant information from the mass of available data and extracting useful information requires advanced analytics. Yet, it is up to the industry experts to perform last-mile relevancy vetting and tailor their eventual strategies based on such insights for commercial applications.
In the field of medicine, a broader AI application can revamp the entire diagnosis process for a wide variety of diseases. Currently, advanced medical knowledge is concentrated in the hands of trained physicians. It takes as long as 10 to 15 years to train a specialist in a relatively narrow medical field. In contrast, AI deep learning has the power to spot correlations and make predictions, while minimizing fallacies and biases to which the human mind is susceptible. Some medical apps can sift through millions of existing records and continually search for latest publications to make recommendations. Given enough training data, an AI-powered diagnostic tool can empower well-trained professionals and supplement their expertise with better accuracy and lower costs.
AI, for all its magic, can never fully displace a human doctor or a lawyer — who can choose to adopt or deviate from AI recommendations. In the past, professional knowledge was often built on the aura of inaccessibility. A select few possessed the expertise, which was made even more consequential by those excluded. In connection with information-heavy products, the hyper-connectivity in modern society facilitates information exchange and democratizes general knowledge access. When combined with AI-enabled operation management, industry experts can now focus on the more ‘human’ tasks, such as making patients or clients feel cared for when things go sideways, and provide personalized services to those who have been denied access due to a scarcity of resources.
Hong Kong is known for its professional services. China’s commitment to data usage lays the groundwork in the age of AI implementation. Despite possessing a stockpile of valuable assets, major China cities are still lagging behind Hong Kong in meeting the most stringent professional standards. Looking to the future, Greater Bay Area companies will continue to seek out Hong Kong’s professional service providers to optimize their operations.
Currently, the most successful tech companies take the benefit of rapid digital information transmission and leverages it to build real applications in the real world to touch on every aspect of our lives. However, the true riches of the new tech world have yet to be fully realized. Every activity in the digital universe, from food delivery, commuting activities, online payments to virtual doctors’ appointments, continues to add new layers to the ‘data-scape’ that coordinates real-life consumer patterns. This creates a wealth of information never seen before.
Subject to prevailing privacy law, digital information access can provide real-time insights for businesses. Hong Kong has a vast professional network to support AI-experts to serve the 72 million people in the Greater Bay Area. More data leads to better services, which in return increase users, who generate more data that further improves the service quality. It is a self-perpetuating reinforcing loop that runs on the interrelated alchemy of accumulated data, political sponsorship, start-up grit and market-driven professionalism.
In the past, the possession of unique products and expertise was sufficient to rein in market monopolies. The digital world blurs the thin line between the online and offline worlds. Going forward, competition will be played out in the field of those who can monetize data and rapidly roll out digitized goods and services that fit changing consumer needs. As we push out into the radically different Greater Bay Area, we must learn to embrace change and rewire our mindset to acculturate to an AI-and-data driven world.
(An abridged version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post)