Exclusive: Hong Kong’s vision for Artificial Intelligence

By Medha Basu

Interview with Government CIO Allen Yeung on his Smart City plans.

In Hong Kong’s hospitals, tens of thousands of nurses are given work schedules every week that were created by Artificial Intelligence. The same is true for the metro system. And if you have ever applied for a visa to visit, your application will have been vetted by AI.

This technology is starting to underpin the Hong Kong Government, augmenting everything from complaint responses to climate change mitigation. Government Chief Information Officer Allen Yeung is preparing a smart city strategy, and recently published the results of a study commissioned by his office to find the way best way forward.

Yeung tells GovInsider how Hong Kong will use data, IoT and AI to tackle three key challenges - climate change, ageing population and city management.

Climate change

Heavy rainfall has become more frequent in Hong Kong’s islands and the sea level is rising in the Victoria Harbour. A typhoon in 2008 flooded low-lying parts of the city, and the frequency of such disasters is increasing, according a government report on climate change.

Hong Kong plans to use AI to ensure it is better prepared for disasters and to monitor energy use. The city plans to “use big data analytics and some sort of artificial intelligence to quickly understand the trends, and also come up with more timely solutions to respond”, Yeung says. The smart city study recommends that Hong Kong should promote smart buildings and homes, develop a smart electricity grid, and monitor pollution in 3D.

The city already has sensors collecting data on landslides, pollution, energy and water levels, but may need even more data in the future, the GCIO believes. “To gather more real-time city data, we should rely on a wider deployment of IOT sensors,” he says.

This will be challenging in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, he says. The city will look for technologies which can integrate different kinds of sensors into one device and can be fixed on existing infrastructure like street lights.

Ageing population

A third of Hong Kong’s population will be aged 65 or above in 20 years. “That has a lot of implications in terms of how to take care of the elderly people, and also a slight change in the workforce,” Yeung says.

The city plans to use robotics to support the elderly and assist caregivers. For instance, “robotic assistance can help elderly people to get up and off the bed, and get on to the wheelchair”, he says. Or a stair-climbing wheelchair can help make accessibility more “affordable”, he adds.

Sensors could be used to ensure senior citizens living alone are connected with their loved ones and caregivers. Devices can detect falls or a change in health statistics, Yeung says. “Elderly people who sometimes live alone may require certain sensing technologies to ensure their safety and continuous links with the community,” he says.

City management

Another priority will be the “continuous improvement” of city management and services, Yeung says.

For example, chatbots could use past data to respond to citizens’ complaints and answer questions, he adds. “Understanding what sort of questions are asked most and what sort of concerns there are from the general public can actually help us understand the concerns of the day, and perhaps proactively, we can do something about them,” he says.

Traffic is another area where Hong Kong intends to use AI to pre-empt major concerns. “Those predictive models can allow us to make certain changes in routing and diversion of traffic,” Yeung says.

Hong Kong already collects real-time traffic data on speed and volume via sensors across 80% of major routes. However, it has been challenging to get public transport operators to share their data with the government, according to the study commissioned by Yeung. Hong Kong’s public transport is run by private companies on commercial contracts, and without changes to existing laws, the government has “no power to mandate such sharing”, it says.

Payments and digital identity

Payments and digital identity platforms will be key parts of the smart city vision. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority is building a platform that will allow people to pay with mobile phone numbers. This is scheduled to be launched in a year.

Hong Kong’s digital identity plans are at an earlier stage though. The government is exploring a “digital persona” that could allow people to access services across government and private sector. “The idea is to provide e-ID for everyone in Hong Kong, and so it will become a trusted authentication for all kinds of public and private online services,” Yeung says.

The smart city report commissioned by Yeung’s office recommends trialling biometrics for mobile banking and healthcare services, as part of the digital identity project.

The government has not yet decided how it plans to go forward on digital identity, and is just concluding a two-month “public engagement” exercise to gather residents’ views on this and all the other ideas. “It would be something we would like the public to come back and give us their view on, whether this is something they consider useful,” he says.

How will Hong Kong do this?

The GCIO is building a “core team” of digital experts that will initially advise departments on tech use. “We need to build out the expertise gradually through some sort of centralised area and that would become the go-to place for experience and expertise sharing,” Yeung says.

But a small team will not be able to build services for the entire government, and their job will be to train the government departments. Each department will have their specific challenges, and eventually, they will be trained to take the lead, he says.

The core team will also be tasked to build certain government platforms that can be reused across departments, such as for bots, payments and digital identity.

The Hong Kong Development Bureau is already working on a “common spatial data infrastructure” that will allow public and private sector to share location data crucial for all public service delivery. “Once we have such a standard, all land-related applications can build upon it and data can be exchangeable across all different departments,” Yeung says.

The government will select priority services to trial new technologies, with the first pilot to launch next year. “Through a pilot, we can actually learn about all the issues, with a view to make improvements for wider and scalable deployments,” says Yeung.

Shortlisted ideas for the first pilot include converting transport interchanges and lampposts into data collection hubs; upgrading traffic lights to use real-time demand; dynamically adjusting parking prices; using tech for tourism; and a living lab to trial driverless cars and e-payments.

For the past few years, Hong Kong has hidden its innovations away from the world. But an ambitious GCIO; a new agenda; and a willingness to experiment show a bright future for the SAR’s smart city initiatives. When it comes to gov tech: Hong Kong is back.