Chinese facial recognition start-up Megvii Face++ has raised $460m in an investment round led by a government fund, as the country pours money into efforts to become an artificial intelligence superpower to rival the US.
The Beijing-based Face++ said on Wednesday that it had raised money from China State-Owned Venture Capital Fund and the China-Russian Investment Fund, which is backed by the sovereign wealth funds of both countries. Private investors including Alibaba』s payments affiliate Ant Financial also participated.
Face++, which had a valuation of Rmb10bn ($1.5bn) before its recent round of investment, declined to reveal its post-fundraising valuation.
The company is benefiting from a plan laid out this year by China』s State Council to become the world』s unchallenged leader in AI research and applications by 2030, and a subsequent push by government-run venture capital funds to support domestic start-ups.
According to KPMG, the government has invested more than $1bn to date in early-stage funding for young start-ups.
「Investment from the 『national team』 [state-owned funds] means Face++ will receive much more policy support from the government, which will greatly benefit their development,」 said Leng Biao, professor of body recognition at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
「But there are risks too, because national-team funding comes with restrictions on who can invest in them in future.」
Face++ is pioneering technologies that are used by mobile payments company Ant Financial, which is trialling its software to let customers pay with scanning their face. It is talking to banks about the use of its software in their branches.
Last week, the Chinese start-up beat teams from Google, Facebook and Microsoft in tests of image recognition at the International Conference on Computer Vision in Italy, the industry』s major worldwide gathering.
But Face++ also is helping China』s police automatically track the country』s 1.3bn citizens and identify them in surveillance footage. 「We want to build the eyes and brain of the city, to help police analyse vehicles and people to an extent beyond what is humanly possible,」 the company said.
The use of AI allows police to trace a target across multiple cameras in different locations. The government aims to be able to predict crimes before they happen by analysing patterns of movement.
「Every prefecture』s municipal police department [of which China has 294] has invested at least Rmb100m each into their facial-recognition surveillance systems,」 Mr Leng added.
Unlike fingerprinting or retinal scans, facial recognition software can analyse targets without their knowledge.
Since AI technologies require data to learn from, Face++ benefits from training its algorithms on China』s vast pool of cheaply available data — and from more relaxed privacy laws on the mainland.
Its software can recognise people without them having given the company any information, since it links up to China』s national photo identification database of more than 1bn records — the largest in the world.
Face++ opened its first overseas lab in Seattle in July, and poached Wang Jue, a principal scientist at Adobe, to head it. The company says it hopes to expand globally in future.
Additional reporting by Yingzhi Yang