With US$600 million in fresh funding, SenseTime is now the richest artificial intelligence startup on Earth. Haven’t heard of it? Here’s a quick primer.

Who are SenseTime?

Founded in 2014, SenseTime was created by a group of university researchers. Filled with 150 PhD graduates, it’s published more papers at top AI conferences than Facebook or Google.

SenseTime surveillance software identifying details about people and vehicles during a demonstration at the company's office in Beijing, China. The descriptions next to the woman reads: Adult, long sleeves, long pants, navy blue top, grey bottom. (Picture: Reuters)

The company mission statement reads, in part, “We believe that AI will unlock another era of China-led global development.”

The Hong Kong-based startup isn’t shy about flaunting its Chinese identity. SenseTime, or Shang Tang, shares its name with the first king of the Shang dynasty, an era beginning in around 1600 BC that saw rapid development in the country. As cofounder Xiaoou Tang explained to the MIT Technology Review, “China was leading the world… And in the future, we will lead again with technological innovations.”

So what do they do?

It’s no secret that China wants to become a world leader in AI -- and use the powerful technology to track its citizens. SenseTime’s services can help exactly with that.

Want to scan faces in a surveillance video? How about matching individuals in a large database of faces, or figuring out a person’s gender, ethnicity and age? SenseTime says it can do all of that.

Who are their clients?

SenseTime has more than 400 clients and partners -- around 10% of them are local Chinese governments.

SenseTime highlights two of these customers on its website, including the Public Security Bureau of Guangzhou, a southern city with more than six times the population of Houston. A computer system lets police quickly identify a suspect by prowling through a massive database of faces.

A similar system deployed by the Public Security Department of Yunnan, a southwestern province, claims to help authorities “crack down on terrorist activities” and potentially “prevent acts that endanger public security”.

The company says its technology is also being used in a high-security prison in Inner Mongolia to monitor inmates.

A demonstration of SenseTime's technology in Tokyo, Japan. (Picture: Bloomberg)

What about privacy?

These practices raise plenty of questions about privacy in a country that’s building a network of street cameras. Some Western countries like the US are also experimenting with technology to help identify suspected criminals and track people in airports -- but none has taken it as far as China.

Last year, SenseTime CEO Xu Li told the South China Morning Post, “We first explored mainland China because of the explosive demand in the market, where there is a huge population and big amounts of data being collected.”

Xu Li, co-founder and CEO of SenseTime. (Picture: SenseTime)

Software for surveillance… and selfies?

There are also less controversial uses of SenseTime’s technology. Facial recognition is apparently the perfect tool for taking better selfies -- and SenseTime’s software is used by Chinese phone makers like Vivo and Oppo, as well as selfie apps publisher Meitu and microblog platform Weibo.

Beyond selfies, Chinese retail giant Suning is using their technology to develop cashierless stores, allowing shoppers to grab what they need without stopping to pay.

Outside of China, it’s collaborating with Honda to develop autonomous driving software that recognizes moving objects, and Qualcomm to power smart devices with AI.

Next stop: The United States

Despite its strong Chinese identity, SenseTime’s CEO said this month the company is planning a research and development facility in the US.

China may be aiming to become a global AI leader -- but a recent Oxford University study says the country has lots to do to catch up. Experts say that right now, it simply doesn’t produce as many experienced AI researchers and innovations as the US.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba -- an investor of SenseTime.)