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The energy consumption of a new artificial visual system developed through joint research led by City University of Hong Kong (CityU) can be reduced by over 90% per synaptic event when compared to synapses in the human brain. The new system’s low energy usage will be a boon to the next generation of artificial intelligence (AI), helping to perform data-intensive cognitive tasks as effectively as the human brain.

The findings of the research team led by Professor Johnny Ho Chung-yin, Associate Head in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at CityU, have been published in Science Advances titled “Artificial visual system enabled by quasi-two-dimensional electron gases in oxide superlattice nanowires”.

Scientists have been trying to develop AI computers that can be as light, energy-efficient and adaptable as the human brain. Communication between neurons occurs at tiny gaps called synapses in the human brain. An artificial synapse mimics the brain’s efficient neural signal transmission and memory formation process.

“Unfortunately, effectively emulating the brain’s function of neural network connections in existing artificial synapses through an ultralow-power manner is still challenging,” said Professor Ho.

To enhance the energy efficiency of artificial synapses, the research team has introduced quasi-two-dimensional electron gases (quasi-2DEGs) into artificial neuromorphic systems for the first time. The team has designed quasi-2DEG photonic synaptic devices using their newly developed oxide superlattice nanowires, a kind of semiconductor that allows the electrons to move freely in the superlattice interface.

These devices can achieve record-low energy consumption, down to sub-femtojoule (0.7fJ) per synaptic event. This translates as a decrease of 93% in energy consumption when compared with synapses in the human brain.

Upon exposure to light pulse, a series of reactions between the oxygen molecules in the environment and free electrons inside the oxide superlattice nanowires was induced, changing the conductance of the photonic synapses and resembling that seen in the biological synapse. Hence the quasi-2DEG photonic synapses can mimic how the neurons in the human brain transmit and memorise signals.

The special properties of the superlattice nanowire materials enable human synapses to have both photo-detecting and memory functions simultaneously. The team’s device can save energy as there is no need to construct additional memory modules for charge storage in an image sensing chip, Professor Ho explained.

This artificial visual system could accurately and efficiently detect a patterned light stimulus and “memorise” the shape of the stimuli for as long as an hour. “It is just like how our brain remembers what we see for some time,” said Professor Ho.

The team’s experiments have demonstrated that the artificial visual system with human photonic synapses could simultaneously perform light detection, brain-like processing and memory functions in an ultralow-power manner. They believe their findings can provide a promising strategy to develop bionic devices, electronic eyes, and multifunctional robotics in the future, the Professor added.

The synthesis of the photonic synapses and the artificial visual system does not require complex equipment, either. The devices can be made using flexible plastics in a scalable and low-cost manner.

Professor Ho is the corresponding author of the paper. The co-first authors are Meng You and Li Fangzhou, PhD students from MSE. Other team members include Dr Bu Xiuming, Dr Yip Sen-po, Kang Xiaolin, Wei Renjie, Li Dapan and Wang Fei, all from CityU. Other collaborating researchers come from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Kyushu University, and the University of Tokyo. The study received funding support from CityU, the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong SAR, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and the Science, Technology and Innovation Commission of Shenzhen Municipality.

A team of physicists, engineers and chemists from across local institutions, led by Chair Professor Wang YAO of Research Division for Physics & Astronomy under Faculty of Science, The University of Hong Kong (HKU), working on the research of fundamentals and emerging technologies of two-dimensional (2D) materials, has recently been awarded funding of over HK$80 million from the Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme 2020/21 (Ninth Round) under the University Grants Committee (UGC).

This will facilitate the exploration of fundamental physics in the new realm of two-dimensional atomic crystals and their van der Waals heterostructures with the abundant quantum degrees of freedom (e.g., spin, valley); and to explore quantum engineering of materials and devices in the unprecedented atomically thin 2D geometries, to revolutionise electronics, optoelectronics and photonics.

The team of leading experts of 2D materials in Hong Kong were assembled to capitalise on this great opportunity. This AoE project is an inter-institutional and interdisciplinary one covering physics, applied physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, comprising 17 scientists from HKU, City University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Professor Yao stated that the team is grateful to UGC for the recognition of their past achievements through the award of this funding, and most importantly for this opportunity to work together as a team to achieve something bigger in this exciting area.

Dean of Science Professor Matthew EVANS extended his congratulations to the Project Coordinator and Co-Principal Investigators of this inter-institutional research project. He said, “I am most delighted to see the concerted efforts of our top-notch physicists and their collaborators in diverse disciplines on developing fundamental research on 2D materials, outracing other cutting-edge research and being recognised through the award of funding in this vigorous exercise.”

The development of 2D materials and beyond

The rapid development of information technology has been based on the continuous scaling down of microelectronic devices that improves cost, performance and power. This trend, empirically summarised as Moore’s law, is coming to an end because of the intrinsic scale limit of silicon microelectronics.

The new era of innovation will be profoundly different, calling for new material systems to host even smaller devices under new geometry, new heterogeneity, new quantum degrees of freedom to carry information, and new physical principles to process and store information.

Two-dimensional materials have a great potential to revolutionise microelectronics and information technology. The variety of 2D materials feature a wide range of material properties from metal, semiconductors, insulators to magnets and superconductors, as well as exotic physics associated with electrons’ quantum degrees of freedom (spin & valley) that could be exploited to encode and process information more efficiently.

Their extreme thinness – which is just a few atoms at most – promises the ultimate miniaturisation of devices and unparalleled control of materials and device functions. Moreover, 2D materials feature unprecedented flexibility in their assembly into heterostructures, through which new materials and device functionalities may emerge.

This project aims to explore these exciting opportunities for revolutionising electronics, optoelectronics and photonics, through a concerted effort addressing the fundamental issues from physics, materials synthesis to device engineering based on 2D materials.

Led by pioneers in the field of 2D materials, the team will seek to sustain Hong Kong’s edge in the field through basic and applied research, with a long-term goal of developing new prototype devices that will have application and commercialisation potentials for Hong Kong.

A local tech firm operating under the Hong Kong Smart Government Innovation Lab recently announced that it has launched a new solution. It is now ready to be acquired by companies and institutions.

Solution description

Conversational user experience

Chatbots offer a new and flexible way for businesses to create a brand-new experience for mobile users. Chatbot responses are conversational, it can give personalised suggestions, answer enquiries, process orders, show the effect of a certain product or update the latest news stories etc.

Natural language processing – can understand Cantonese, Mandarin and More

The firm has designed a bot that uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to understand the meaning behind what is being said to it; the bot can also respond appropriately. Modern NLP relies on machine learning, which means the bot is continually learning from the conversations it’s having and improving its own performance.

Artificial Intelligence – can provide personal recommendations via machine learning

The research found that 35% of what consumers purchase on the leading online shopping site and 75% of what they watch on an American over-the-top content platform come from product recommendations. The HK tech firm’s bot can be trained to learn what user’s like or dislike and make personalised recommendations about users’ products.

Application Areas

The solution was designed to be applied across a variety of areas including Broadcasting, City Management, Climate and Weather, Commerce and Industry, Development, Education, Employment and Labour, Environment, Finance, Food, Health, Housing, Infrastructure, Law and Security, Population, Recreation and Culture, Social Welfare as well as Transport.

Technologies Used

The solution employs Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing.

Use case

Use case 1

The firm’s chatbots enable customers to engage with utility services via a self-service experience that is highly efficient, check for plan usage and purchase bonus service options on various social media sites, buy prepaid plans and recharge data plan without the need of visiting a store, troubleshoot for customers who need advice when installing new equipment, modifying service plans and connecting with a live agent if needed.

Goal: Drive revenue via various messaging channels and provide scalable services to customers with an immediate response.

Functionality: Mobile Usage Data, Consumption Controls, eCommerce Integration, Step-by-step Troubleshooting, Surveys

Integration with: Product Database, CRM Software, Support Ticketing Software, Plan and Billing Database


Use case 2

The firm deployed the chatbot for the government sector and other public institutions for help desk support.

About the Smart Government Innovation Lab

In 2018, the Government established the Smart Government Innovation Lab to explore hi-tech products such as AI and relevant technologies, including machine learning, big data analytics, cognitive systems and intelligent agent, as well as blockchain and robotics from firms, especially local start-ups.

The Lab is always on the lookout for innovation and technology (I&T) solutions that are conducive to enhancing public services or their operational effectiveness. I&T suppliers are encouraged to regularly visit the Lab’s website to check on the current business and operational needs in public service delivery and propose innovative solutions or product suggestions to address them.

Two tech firms operating under the Hong Kong Smart Government Innovation Lab recently announced that they have launched a new solution which is now ready to be acquired by companies and institutions.

Solution one – Tree Stability AI Monitoring System

This solution uses a motion tracking MEMS module to determine the inclination angle of the object according to the output components of the gravity acceleration “G” on each axis. When the object is moving, the angular velocity of each axis is integrated to obtain the angle change of the object and can be accurately monitored the trajectory of the object, including the angle of the object from beginning to end.

Application Areas

The solution was developed to be applied in the areas of City Management, Climate and Weather, as well as Environment.

Technologies Used

The solution was developed using the latest in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data Analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), Machine Learning, Mobile Technologies, Predictive Analytics and Robotic Process Automation.

Use case

Through its MEMS module & Internet of Things technologies, the solution can connect with smart lampposts to manage them in smart cities to reduce accidents or casualties caused by the collapse of trees. Through smart management, effective contributions to environmental protection can be made and carbon emissions can be reduced.

Solution two – Network optimization with AX4 & Supply Chain Suite (SCS)

The second solution, Supply Chain Suite (SCS), lets users design, monitor, manage, and understand their entire supply chain. The holistic, data-driven view of the supply chain lets users design processes more efficiently and cut costs, leaving them ideally positioned to meet the challenges of next-generation industry.

Application Areas

The solution was developed to be applied across the areas of City Management, Commerce and Industry, Development, Environment, Food, Housing, Infrastructure, Population and Transport.

Technologies Used

The solution employs Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cloud Computing, Data Analytics, Machine Learning and Predictive Analytics technologies.

Use case

Network simulation

Available sources of data are leveraged to define preparatory and transformational steps toward creating a uniform data model. The simulation engine is configured based on restrictions and equipped with parameterization options that offer a simple, intuitive interface for modifying the simulation rules. “What if” scenarios can be simulated, then methodically compared and saved. Comprehensive visualization options in the form of maps, diagrams, and reports make it possible to quickly understand and compare results.

New strategies for users’ network

Simulation with real data lets users find the optimal network strategy – don’t guess, simulate!

Cost transparency

Visibility of costs, service, and capacity utilization rates – in both the current situation and future scenarios.

Action instead of reaction

Prepare users’ network proactively for future changes such as increased demand, changes in inventory management, and new service requirements.

About the Smart Government Innovation Lab

In 2018, the Government established the Smart Government Innovation Lab to explore hi-tech products such as AI and relevant technologies, including machine learning, big data analytics, cognitive systems and intelligent agent, as well as blockchain and robotics from firms, especially local start-ups.

The Lab is always on the lookout for innovation and technology (I&T) solutions that are conducive to enhancing public services or their operational effectiveness. I&T suppliers are encouraged to regularly visit the Lab’s website to check on the current business and operational needs in public service delivery and propose innovative solutions or product suggestions to address them.

A three-fold improvement in the efficiency of solar-to-hydrogen energy conversion can facilitate solar energy harvesting technology, according to environmental scientists at City University of Hong Kong (CityU).

This research outcome could contribute to tackling the global energy shortage and provide new insights into the development of solar-to-fuel materials for photocatalytic applications in the emerging field of hydrogen technology.

The research team led by Dr Sam Hsu Hsien-yi, Assistant Professor in the School of Energy and Environment (SEE) at CityU, has developed novel lead-free bismuth-based hybrid organic-inorganic perovskites (HOIPs) with a semiconductor heterojunction structure.

The heterojunction structure could serve as a driving force to enhance the charge carrier transportation which is beneficial for hydrogen production under visible-light irradiation without the addition of co-catalysts such as platinum or ruthenium.

The research is featured as the cover of the prestigious international journal Advanced Functional Materials under the title “In-situ formation of bismuth-based perovskite heterostructures for high-performance co-catalyst-free photocatalytic hydrogen evolution”.

In the past few years, HOIPs have been widely used in solar energy conversion because of their remarkable photoelectric effects and extraordinary photovoltaic performance.

However, their application in the field of photocatalysis is limited. Besides, most comprehensively developed HOIPs comprise toxic metal lead, raising concerns about environmental health threats.

“As a result, we would like to construct a lead-free HOIP material that can drive the photocatalytic hydrogen production without a noble-metal co-catalyst,” said Dr. Hsu.

In the process of exploring and developing their application for the production of photocatalytic hydrogen, Dr. Hsu’s team discovered a straightforward method for constructing a junction structure, which led to improved photocatalytic activity.

They employed time-resolved photoluminescence spectra (TRPL) to characterise the materials. From the TRPL result, the charge transfer of the HOIP material with heterostructure exhibited a longer lifetime than the material without the heterostructure. The longer lifetime indicates a reduction of nonradiative recombination in the heterostructure.

Therefore, the in-situ formation of the heterostructure benefits photocatalytic performance. The result shows improved efficiency by three-fold and a more stabilized solar-induced hydrogen evolution for the perovskite heterojunctions, even without the addition of any noble metal co-catalyst under visible light irradiation.

Their next step is to improve hydrogen production performance. Dr. Hsu believed that in the long run, hydrogen would become one of the major energy sources. He hoped that this research would help to harvest solar energy in response to the global challenge of the energy crisis.

According to a recent article, Hong Kong and China-listed solar-energy stocks rose sharply on 23 December 2020, extending the sector’s momentum as investors bet on strong demand and favourable policies.

The upbeat trend came after Chinese authorities last week issued a draft regulation that would allow solar glass manufacturers to increase capacity free of restrictions.

Globally, an increasing number of countries have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in the next few decades amid the falling costs of solar equipment and growing pressure to cut emissions.

It is expected that the trend to support global demand growth of more than 28% for solar power in 2021. And Chinese companies, which account for more than 70% of many key solar-energy equipment’s supply capacities globally, are poised to benefit from such a demand boom.

Organised by Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), the API EcoBooster (the Programme), a first-of-its-kind programme in collaboration with a British multinational investment bank and financial services holding company, has resulted in close to 30 Hong Kong and overseas start-ups and technology ventures showcasing their innovative open banking solutions at the Demo Day.

To drive smart banking innovation in Hong Kong, the Programme, launched in mid-July, has provided start-ups and the developer community with the opportunity and resources to co-create a range of solutions in the areas of transactions and operations, loans, credit card, digital payments or customer records management for commercial and retail banking sectors in Hong Kong.

These shortlisted companies from Hong Kong and overseas markets like the UK and France were provided with mentorship and coaching from the bank’s digital banking specialists during the six-week programme. HKSTP’s technology partner, an API development company, offered dynamic support from technical clinics to sandboxes for the innovators to conduct trials by making use of more than 100 banking APIs and mock data from the bank.

The Demo Day featured a fireside chat titled “Driving Innovation in Open Banking” with HKSTP and representatives from the bank, who shared the challenges and opportunities arising from the API developments. It was followed by a series of pitch presentations from the 28 teams about their respective innovations, as well as on-and-offline one-on-one demonstration on site.

The Chief Corporate Development Officer of HKSTP stated that the success of API EcoBooster highlights the enormous opportunities for both start-ups and established enterprises to jointly pilot various ideas and solutions in a fast and risk-free environment.

As Hong Kong and the world embrace the new normal, the transformative power of innovation becomes even more apparent and effective. Open APIs propel us towards an era of rapid evolutions within the Fintech ecosystem and as an international financial centre, Hong Kong is at the forefront in driving such adoptions.

HKSTP is a tale of more than 1,000 technology companies, as well as the stories of over 9,000 R&D entrepreneurs, who are driving Hong Kong’s innovation using their various platforms and infrastructure. HKSTP strives to continue to unlock new opportunities for innovators and business partners and aims to cement Hong Kong as a global centre of Fintech innovation.

The Head of Commercial Banking at the Hong Kong arm of the bank stated that the financial institution and HKSTP have forged strong partnerships to support the innovation and technology ecosystem for years. Committed to driving digital banking innovation for our customers, the bank’s leadership is thrilled to see the enthusiastic response and inspiring submissions to this meaningful programme.

This new level of crossover between banks and tech ventures has opened up many new possibilities. This paves the way for more co-creation to bring continuous breakthroughs to the financial services industry, making banking more accessible to customers in the long term.

According to the HKMA, the formulation of the Open API Framework was one of the seven initiatives announced by the HKMA in September 2017 to prepare Hong Kong to move into a new era of Smart Banking. Following a public consultation, the HKMA published the Open API Framework for the Hong Kong Banking Sector on 18 July 2018.

The Framework takes a risk-based principle and a four-phase approach to implement various Open API functions, and recommends prevailing international technical and security standards to ensure fast and safe adoption. It also lays out detailed expectations on how banks should onboard and maintain a relationship with TSPs in a manner that ensures consumer protection. The HKMA believes that the Framework will serve as an important guide for the banking industry in Hong Kong to adopt APIs effectively and strike a good balance between innovation and risks.

Scientists at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) have developed a novel computer tool to extract, track and visualize cells, and analyze the formation, structure and functions of Caenorhabditis elegans (a type of worm) during cell division. The research can help scientists understand cancer and find a possible cure by enabling them to learn how an animal’s body and organs are formed through cell division.

The research was co-led by scientists at CityU, Hong Kong Baptist University (BU) and Peking University (PKU). Researchers at BU used laser beams to obtain cell images of Caenorhabditis elegans at different depths and at different time points to form a 4D data array during cell division, CityU developed the computer software for cell image analysis, and PKU provided biological interpretations.

The findings were recently published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications under the title “Establishment of a morphological atlas of the Caenorhabditis elegans embryo using deep-learning-based 4D segmentation”.

Professor Yan Hong, Chair Professor of Computer Engineering and Wong Chun Hong Professor of Data Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering (EE) stated that the computational framework the teams developed is called CShaper. It helps biologists reconstruct and visualize the 3D shapes and their temporal changes in Caenorhabditis elegans embryos, which share many essential biological characteristics with humans and provide a valuable model for studying the tumour growth process in humans.

In addition, the researchers developed a deep-learning method, called DMapNet, to segment embryo membranes.

The team generated a time-lapse 3D atlas of cell morphology for the Caenorhabditis elegans embryo from the 4- to 350-cell stages, including cell shape, volume, surface area, migration, nucleus position and cell-cell contact with resolved cell identities.

Previous image analysis systems could detect only the cell nuclei well, not the cell membranes. The nucleus and membrane were imaged from two channels simultaneously, but the image quality of the membrane was much worse than that of the nucleus because of low fluorescence density.

Using the new system, the scientists can accurately detect the membranes, track the cells, and reconstruct their 3D shapes. The new tool opens a window to analyzing cell features, such as cell shapes, cell-cell contacts, cell-cell communication, and gene and protein functions during cell division.

Cao Jianfeng, PhD student in EE and one of the first co-authors of the paper stated, “we are proud to be able to develop a useful computer tool for automated analysis of massive amounts of cell image data. To the best of our knowledge, CShaper is the first framework for segmenting and analyzing a Caenorhabditis elegans embryo systematically at the single-cell level. Using this tool, we can characterize cell shapes and surface structures, and provide 3D views of cells at different time points.”

CShaper revolutionizes the way biologists inspect experiment data. It cuts down the time required to annotate the images of an embryo from hundreds to just a few hours and enables biologists to implement quantitative and statistical analyses on cell morphological features on a large scale. The system can be further developed to analyses images from other types of cells, such as plant cells.

The formation of an alliance between the HKU Business School and the School of Economics and Management of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) marks another step forward for the international engagement and Fintech research projects of HKU Business School.

HKU Business School strives to advance academic and research excellence through new initiatives and collaborations. Building upon the existing collaboration in respect of the Theme-based Research Scheme Project on “Financial Technology, Stability, and Inclusion”, the HKU Business School and UCAS signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish the HKU-UCAS FinTech Lab, which enables both Schools to realise their complementary strengths and create mutual benefits through co-efforts in research and activities.

Capitalising on the strength of the two schools in financial, machine learning and engineering system research, the collaboration platform is expected to be a powerhouse of trailblazing Fintech research. More collaborative research and grant applications will be supported with more academic exchanges of faculty members.

The platform will be a cradle of next-generation researchers through joint supervision of PhD students and cultivation of talents. In addition, the collaboration will benefit the broader society with the co-created insights shared through publication of research, and organisation of knowledge exchange events with external stakeholders.

The Associate Dean (Research and Knowledge Exchange) of HKU Business School and the Project Coordinator of the Theme-based Research Scheme Project stated that amidst the backdrop of the challenging local, regional and global economy, it is vital for HKU Business School to build a stronger community sharing different views and expertise.

He noted that Fintech is a technology for all – it is essential to maintain financial stability among the institutions and economies, as well as fostering financial inclusion at the individual level to strengthen the economies’ resilience to future challenges.

“I look forward to creating synergies with UCAS, which is home for leading data analytics research in Mainland China, and contributing in the long-run to the development of Fintech industry for the benefit of Hong Kong, China and beyond,” he added.

The Dean of HKU Business School stated that the university is honoured to partner with the School of Economics and Management of UCAS to leverage the strengths of the two Universities as well as the two regions. This partnership represents a new milestone of HKU Business School for academic collaboration in Mainland China and we will continue to establish stronger connection around the globe.

Meanwhile, the Dean of UCAS School of Economics and Management, expressed that UCAS scholars have exemplary research in information management and digital economy, which are intertwined with FinTech in this digital age. One of the School’s strengths is its strong network with the government authorities and the industry. They are frequently engaged by these stakeholders on large scale FinTech initiatives and product developments.

Their work has successfully facilitated the policy-makers and company decision-makers to resolve major challenges in the highly sophisticated operational environment. The School values the establishment of the HKU-UCAS FinTech Lab and looks forward to having more collaboration with the HKU Business School through this platform.

In addition to contributing to the academic community, it is hoped that the platform will open the door for collaboration with international partners, as well as benefiting individual consumers and investors through promulgating our research and greater uptake of the applications.

GLF Forum 2018

OpenGov Government Leadership Forum – Empowering the Digital Business.