Alibaba is said to seek biggest stake in AI startup SenseTime

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(Bloomberg) -- Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is in discussions to invest about 1.5 billion yuan ($227 million) and become the largest backer of Chinese facial recognition startup SenseTime, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The Chinese e-commerce giant is keen on owning a sizeable stake but has no interest in exerting control over the artificial intelligence startup, the person said, asking not to be identified discussing a private deal. SenseTime, which says it’s valued at more than $2 billion, is backed by Qualcomm Inc. and considered one of the more advanced players in machine vision technology.

If the deal goes through, billionaire Jack Ma will have corralled two major facial recognition startups into a corporate empire that includes Alipay-operator Ant Financial. The online lender and payments service is already an investor in Megvii Inc.’s Face++, which this month said it raised $460 million to sustain research into a field of AI that’s rapidly getting adopted across financial services, grocery stores and even in police surveillance.

SenseTime, which is incorporated in Hong Kong but operates mainly in mainland China, and Alibaba declined to comment in emailed statements.

SenseTime needs money to bankroll research in nascent fields such as image recognition and autonomous driving applications. It claims some 400 clients and partners including Qualcomm, chipmaker Nvidia Corp. and smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. In July, it raised $410 million in a series B round -- a reflection of growing interest in the evolution of AI in the world’s second largest economy.

China has enshrined the pursuit of the technology in a national-level plan that calls for the country to become the leader in the industry by 2030. Five years from then, the government claims the AI industry will create 400 billion yuan in economic activity.

Domestic tech titans from Alibaba to Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Baidu Inc. are also getting on board. Beyond police surveillance, Shanghai’s courts are testing an AI system that scours criminal cases to judge the validity of evidence used by all sides.

--With assistance from David Ramli

Bloomberg News