Benefits from high-tech research must reach entire SAR population

To some local youth, their first day of 2022 was kick-started with a hypnotically dazzling experience — cloud exploration of the mystery of the universe with Shenzhou 13 spaceship taikonauts. While they are wrapping their heads around the enigma of the universe, they are contemplating how to make more scientific and technology breakthroughs in an era in which the world is their oyster.

Cultivating an encouraging, vigorous and organic innovation and technology ecosystem bears some resemblance to crop farming. An idea is the seed; research and development, the fertilizer; while funding is the water and sunshine. But the raw harvested crops are coarse, bland and unpalatable until they are processed into digestibly edible flour. It is what Hong Kong’s I&T farmland is most deprived of.

Hong Kong has the seed of knowledge and innovative ideas galore. Five Hong Kong universities have a listing in the world’s top 100 university rankings. It also gives Hong Kong a competitive capacity in R&D, which together with accelerators and incubators provided by universities, Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science Park allow ideas to sprout and mushroom. Increasingly generous funding by the government, complete with preferential policies under the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, nourish innovative impulses and brainchildren. But when it comes to translating them into concrete scalable products, there’s less activity.

While there’s no official number exacting how many research results remain a mere result without being developed into a product in Hong Kong, there’s no denying that the former disproportionately outnumbers the latter.

Such an I&T ecosystem is incomplete, non-instrumental and unhealthy, and could sap innovative energies.

Personally, I hold that Hong Kong has immense potential in many disciplines, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and innovative medical health.

Artificial intelligence and robotics have been frenetically adopted in companies, factories and industries to optimize production lines, inventory management and assessment systems, to inform decision-making and boost operational efficiency. In Hong Kong, where manpower is always direly coveted and expensive, efficiency supersedes everything. Low efficiency has bitterly led to grumpy voices, whether among customers outside restaurants or applicants for public housing or government allowances. Machinery-learning streamlines the vetting process, ensuring eligible applicants can get their hands on resources in the shortest possible time. AI and robotics automate routine-based and labor-intensive tasks, allowing workers to focus on high-value intellectual inputs and outputs.

While the benefits of AI and robotics to manufacturing may not be salient in Hong Kong, the service industry will be an undoubted beneficiary of the technology, not only shedding manual costs but also improving the quality and precision of on-demand services. AI and machine-learning algorithms could help relieve Hong Kong’s housing shortage woes with land zoning, mapping and development, and facilitating organic urbanization.

Despite the whole bunch of dividends that AI and robotics promise, they are not fully tapped in the city.

We have good intentions and are on the right track, with promising initiatives and supportive funding programs in place. For example, the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation launched AI Plug and the Robotics Catalysing Centre with a view to fostering a local AI community and accompanying startups through its growth by providing help that includes technical support, knowledge transfer, business matching and infrastructure for prototyping, as well as trials of new robotics solutions. In the AI+U: Explore and Experience Exhibition last year, over 70 local companies showcased their ready-to-deploy AI solutions. But we don’t want the lifespan of these supposedly game-changing technology solutions to cease at the prototype stage. We want them to be trialed, fine-tuned, commercialized, and applied broadly — and to genuinely change the game.

What’s missing between the R&D results and products in the city is a testing ground or market that is sizable and diversified enough to gauge the prototype’s efficacy, validity, and economic feasibility. Hong Kong has a small consumer market, which is a hard-and-fast fact, but the markets in our neighboring cities in the Greater Bay Area are a ready sounding board.

Shenzhen, for example, is no stranger to robot-powered restaurants, hotels and warehouses; Chinese e-commerce giant Meituan tested delivery robots in Shenzhen and Beijing; a Shenzhen-based warehouse robotics startup, Hai Robotics, announced it had secured $200 million in funding; Shunde opened a “robotics supermarket” as early as 2015, allowing companies to display and sell their latest robotics products and models; Shenzhen-based drone behemoth DJI has dominated 80 percent of the global nonmilitary drone industry, selling one of the most compact drones. The list of successful examples of technology commercialization in Shenzhen and other Guangdong cities is exhaustive, which is a solid testament that the playground for technology conversion is at Hong Kong’s fingertips.

The Shenzhen-Hong Kong-Guangzhou technology cluster ranked as the world’s second-largest, according to the Global Innovation Index 2020. In the cluster, innovative ideas can be cross-fertilized and commercialized.

While the government has consistently pumped a handsome amount of investment into technology R&D, which has paid off, it should have doubled down on promoting government-funded research projects to private enterprises and developers, to expedite knowledge transfer. Private sectors should be incentivized to purchase the patents of those government-funded projects and convert the technology into commodities.

The true value of a research is visualized only when it has a price tag and when residents can feel the benefits, rather than slumbering in the laboratory or in academic reports.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.