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Entrepreneurship that changes the world

Benefitting people and the society with artificial intelligence

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This was the classic storyline of a dystopian thriller – robots with a mind of their own join forces to betray human and take control of the world. However, Mr Chris Shum, co-founder and Chief Financial Officer of the provider of AI-enabled voicebot and contact centre services known as Asiabots, holds opposite views. According to the PolyU alumnus with an MSc degree in Business Administration, the mission of Asiabots is to address corporate pain points and help people with AI and automated services. “It makes sense to let AI do the lower-level routine work that is subject to rigid procedures, so that human workers can focus on tasks that are more human in nature, such as those entailing emotional or cultural sensitivity, creativity or judgment of changing situations. I believe we can enrich human connections with AI, especially those living in remote places.”

Machines that understand human speech
Speech recognition technologies have been around for over 20 years and most of us are no strangers to them. We have probably asked virtual assistants like Alexa from Amazon, or Siri from Apple to call someone or play a song. Public engines such as Google, Microsoft, Baidu and Alibaba also developed their own speech recognition algorithms. According to Chris, public engines from large corporations offer speech recognition service for public to use, but such technologies may not cater specifically to a client’s needs. “To increase speech recognition accuracy, it’s important to deploy domain-specific language models. That’s why most clients find off-the-shelf software inadequate for corporate uses.”

Right now, Asiabots provides a wide range of custom-built solutions for AI-enabled customer services and intelligent automated contact centre management. For instance, its AI Ambassador is the world’s first Cantonese-speaking virtual character that can communicate directly with clients. The interactive conversational system epitomises the future of humanless customer service with over 90% accuracy in speech recognition, human-like responses, intonations, expressions and reaction speeds. AI Chatbots and voicebots are also useful in handling routine and repetitive text-based and call-based enquiries around the clock.

Besides Cantonese, Putonghua and English, Asiabots is treading new grounds in Southeast Asian languages, including Singaporean English, Taiwanese and Malay. It also has plans to launch business in Europe.

Competitive differentiation
Technologies developed by Asiabots are underpinned by AI technologies that process, recognise and understand speech, including automatic speech recognition (ASR), natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU) and text-to-speech (TTS). The start-up strives to stand out from competitors with customisable solutions and the most stringent privacy management possible.

“Although many companies claim to offer speech processing solutions, most of them don’t have their own fundamental infrastructure. They simply use off-the-shelf software, tweak it slightly and apply to a project. On the contrary, Asiabots always tailor-make solutions from the ground up with our proprietary technologies. We have full control on the customer experience delivered, and we can achieve high accuracy even when dealing with customers using mixed language and speaking with heavy accents,” Chris says. Another competitive edge of Asiabots lies in the stringent security and the highest degree of privacy it offers. Without sharing an infrastructure with the public, on-premise or private cloud servers ensure that sensitive information such as customers’ personal data is as secure as possible.

Easing labour gap amid pandemic
Before founding Asiabots, Chris ran an app company at Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks where he met other founders in an exhibition event and they clicked right away. In 2017, they decided to start a company together. “We started out in the healthcare sector first and that has prepared us for an opportunity to pitch in when Hong Kong’s healthcare system was on the verge of collapse at the height of the fifth wave of COVID outbreak,” he says.

In early 2022, COVID cases hit all-time-high in the territory due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Thousands of patients had to wait as long as 48 hours to access emergency services at hospitals. Service disruption was further exacerbated by labour shortage – about 20% of all public hospital staff were infected at one time. Thanks to their experience in the healthcare sector, Asiabots managed to devise an AI Ambassador for the Hospital Authority in merely two weeks. The virtual character interacted with patients in lieu of a manned reception, and classified patients according to a triage system. By answering a few questions, patients knew if they were qualified to be referred to district clinics instead waiting further in a hospital.

To those interested in launching a start-up
It’s tough to embark on an entrepreneurial journey alone – the stress, fear, doubt and loneliness are overwhelming. Chris suggested that entrepreneurs find their own community where they can seek support, brainstorm for new ideas and achieve synergy as they connect with like-minded people. “In this regard, I think PolyU has been doing a great job. Not only did I get to know more people from the entrepreneurial courses, I also enjoyed the study tour to Fudan University. Events like Demo Day and organisations like the CEO Club also provide great opportunities for publicity, networking and high-quality communications. Needless to say, PolyU also supports start-ups founded by its alumni financially. The PolyVentures Micro Fund Scheme, for instance, has been really helpful to our business in the early phase.”

Chris also encourages entrepreneurs to open their minds to the endless possibilities of future. “Keep abreast of the ever-changing environment and keep learning as skills and knowledge become obsolete quickly. Think out of the box. Don’t limit yourself. Dare to take the first step before everyone else, even though it was a very small step. You can then secure a market share first, before fine-tuning according to market changes.”

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