Singapore

CHINESE artificial intelligence company Yitu Technology plans to hire 50 to 60 researchers in Singapore for its upcoming R&D centre, following the opening of its first international office on Tuesday.

"We see Singapore as a springboard to enter more markets in this region - for example, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia," said Lance Wang, Yitu's general manager of South-east Asia, Hong Kong and Macau.

At yesterday's opening of its new office in Asia Square, the firm demonstrated technologies such as a visual employee-tracking system and an ATM which relies on facial recognition instead of bank cards.

"Imagine if you're on the street and you want to buy something but you've forgotten your wallet. You just use your face and enter the password - it's very convenient," said Mr Wang.

One of Yitu's clients, China Merchants Bank, has already rolled out some 2,000 such ATMs in China.

Yitu's facial recognition technology has won international competitions and is used by 170 municipal and provincial security departments in China. The firm's other AI solutions include security for large-scale public events, medical diagnosis, vehicle recognition and traffic management.

Changi Airport Group and Certis Cisco are among Yitu's first Singapore clients. The firm is also in talks with potential clients here in financial services, healthcare and other industries, as well as the public sector.

Mr Wang would not be drawn into talking about sales revenue targets, saying instead that the firm aims to help develop South-east Asia's AI ecosystem and train local talent.

Singapore has been focusing on growing the local AI sector, with efforts such as the S$150 million AI SG programme, launched last year.

Yitu's entry to Singapore follows a visit to the firm's Shanghai headquarters by officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).

Said Ang Chin Tah, EDB's director of infocommunications and media: "EDB played an active role in engaging Yitu to understand their expansion plans beyond China, and facilitated connections and conversations with various public and private sector partners within Singapore's AI ecosystem.

"As these companies establish R&D and engineering centres here, they create exciting new jobs in computer vision, machine learning, data analytics, and software development, and drive the transformation of our economy," he added.

Yitu is still firming up the details of its R&D centre but plans to start with 50 to 60 researchers, aiming for 90 per cent to be local hires. This number may grow, said Mr Wang: "We don't want to limit ourselves."

The average age of Yitu's 500-plus employees is just 27, with researchers accounting for about 70 per cent.

One area which Singapore's R&D centre will explore is customising existing solutions for the region, or finding new applications, said Mr Wang.

For instance, casinos - which China does not have - provide a chance to explore possibilities such as facial recognition of VIPs.

Founded in 2012, Yitu received Series C funding of US$55 million in May 2017 from Hillhouse Capital Group and other investors. Previous rounds drew investors such as Yunfeng Capital and Sequoia Capital.