Dr. Wanli Min, is the Founder & CEO of North Summit Capital, a tech-intrinsic investment firm, offering resourceful capital and domain-specific AI solutions for the digital transformation of traditional industries. Dr. Wanli Min was formerly Chief Machine Intelligence Scientist of Alibaba Cloud and is considered to be one of the top AI leaders in China.
You grew up with parents that were farmers in eastern China’s Anhui province, and then studied statistics and physics. How did you find yourself drawn towards big data and AI?
My academic background enhanced my knowledge in the tech field sparked my passion for AI and big data, especially the potential of advancing technology for social good. At 14, I was selected into the Gifted Youth Program from the University of Science and Technology of China, where I mastered skills that laid the foundation for my future research work and shaped the way I approached problems. I received a Bachelor’s degree and started to pursue a Master’s degree in Physics at the age of 19 and then received my Ph.D. in Statistics from The University of Chicago in 2004. With deep passion for big data and AI, I published many highly cited papers, and hold a number of patents in my research interests including probability theory, stochastic process, time series analysis and network flow dynamics.
For over 8 years you had a phenomenal career as a research scientist at IBM, what were some of your career highlights from this time period?
After graduation, I had taken research roles at IBM, T. J. Watson Research Center, and as a senior statistician role at Google, where I had the opportunity to explore the use of theoretical foundation and proprietary DT methodology to transform traditional industries. My ‘unconventional’ and ‘atypical’ path started around 2009 when I moved to IBM Singapore’s Innovation Lab to commercialize data technology applications in Smart City. This move was inspired by my 2008 research work of road traffic congestion prediction up to 1 hour ahead, which meant that traffic congestion could be avoided if commuters and authorities are warned of upcoming traffic jams so preemptive actions can be taken as the intervention. The time saved is the value that wisdom brings to society, and it is also the social value created by scientific and technological achievements. It was the first time I witnessed the power and impact of theoretical work when applied in the right context.
After a short stint at Google you then returned to China to become a principal data scientist with the Alibaba Group. What motivated your return to China?
In May 2013, I met Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group for the first time at Stanford University where he made his last public speech before stepping down as CEO of the group. At that time, he was looking back on his entrepreneurial journey. I was very touched by his views and insights “The next 30 years will be the 30 years of turbulent changes in the world, the age of the young and the passionate. For once in your life, try something. Work hard at something. Try to change. Nothing bad can happen.” That night, I had the chance to chat with many senior executives from Alibaba and learned about its business in depth.
Alibaba has independently developed a large-scale general-purpose computing platform, and the largest user base in China, where I believe can make a great difference and advance tech for social good. So, I immediately decided to join Alibaba and return to China.
You then transitioned to becoming Chief Machine Intelligence Scientist at Alibaba Cloud where you worked on the development of the ET Brain. What is the ET Brain and what made it so important?
Human intelligence comes from the brain, and the industry’s intelligence comes from the ET Brain. The ET Brain simply exploits the value of new data energy. Data energy is fundamentally different from traditional energy. Traditional energy, such as oil, is not renewable. The oil in the Middle East is running out. Data energy is inflatable. If the value of data cannot be rapidly exploited, it will depreciate. What ET Brain is doing is to instantaneously exploit the value during the period of data inflation.
Where can the data and vertical scenarios be combined to unleash huge industrial value? The answer is data-intensive industries.
Let’s look at a city as an example because a city is a typical data-intensive scenario. Sensors in every city are constantly generating data. Where there is data, there is a chance for data technology, and pain points to solve.
The ET Brain has realized the integration of sensing and action. When there are insufficient computing resources, although a large number of sensors are deployed, the information they perceive cannot be computed or analyzed, and decisions cannot be made. With data computing capability, the data can be presented as AI (Actionable Insight), and perceived information can be analyzed based on the ET Brain to make decisions and actions.
How can intelligence be realized? A wider horizon makes intelligence. The intelligence on any single end is only local intelligence, and the ET Brain realizes a global intelligence for all networks and all ends.
The ET Brain’s core is big data rather than hardware. The more data, the more intelligence, and the more value.
Having done research and development in both the USA and China. Could you speak to some of the cultural differences that you have observed between the two giants when it comes to business and AI?
While the US leads the AI field, China has proven to make more fast-paced and pragmatic progress to AI development and implementation. According to a survey conducted by BCG Group, 76% of Chinese people believe that AI has an impact on the entire economy, compared to only half of Europeans and Americans. This may be the cultural influence of Chinese technological pragmatism. Chinese are more willing to apply AI to real scenarios and believe its benefits to the whole society, while Americans are more concerned about the ethical issues related to AI application.
However, I don't fully believe that these phenomena are caused by cultural differences. Each country faces different situations and challenges, so people have different expectations and moral indicators for social development. AI development requires a global consensus on ethics, but there are differences in the application of technology under different cultural backgrounds. This requires not only mutual understanding between China and the United States but also mutual understanding and efforts on a global scale.
You then went on to become Founder and CEO of North Summit Capital. Could you share the genesis story behind this venture capital investment fund?
It was indeed a “crazy” and unbelievable adventure. In 2018, I was invited to participate in a “Smart City” event in Dubai to showcase Alibaba Cloud’s City Brain in Hangzhou, where ambulance travel time was reduced by 50% via dynamic control of traffic lights based on real-time traffic data. After my speech, I was introduced to a private investor in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I had a pleasant chat with this investor and shared my long-held belief that those data-intensive traditional industries should also enjoy the benefits brought by technological advancement. Surprisingly, after the conversation, I was offered the exciting opportunity to turn my vision into social impact.
North Summit Capital has focused on using AI and big data to transform traditional industries such as manufacturing and agriculture. Could you share your views on why you believe AI can disrupt these overlooked industries?
AI and big data are developing very quickly while manufacturing and agriculture are still operating like they were 50 years ago with high energy consumption, high pollution levels, and low yields. Such unbalanced development present opportunities for technology to create substantial value. Today, we have discovered that we can use satellites, drones, computer vision to digitize the soil moisture and temperature of every inch of land, every minute of the field, and the farmland can be accurately irrigated and fertilized.
In one case, Haofeng Food Co in east China’s Shandong province, which supplies lettuce for global restaurant brands including KFC and Pizza Hut, introduced ET Agricultural Brain, an AI system that analyses data gathered by drones using low-altitude, remote sensing technology. The growth rate, water, and nutrition content of each lettuce can be monitored in real-time, making it possible to carry out customized management of each farm. Eventually, the AI brain helped Haofeng cut its water and fertilizer use by 10 percent, saving US$2.1 million per year
Likewise, Traditional manufacturers in China historically relied on huge pool of physical labour. But as the population age, imminent labour shortage mandates a paradigm shift for those manufacturers – from cashing in on ‘population dividends’ to ‘intelligence dividends’. Years of data are available to be mined – covering all aspects of historic manufacturing history from raw material specs, production environment, to machine operations and output quality. Leveraging on the all powerful and cheap computing resources made available by the cloud, AI can learn from the most experienced factory workers and continue to evolve as time goes by.
For example, in Hengyi Petrochemical, algorithms were used to adjust and optimize the air supply in the combustion process in real-time, increasing the coal burning efficiency by 2.6%. At Zhongce Rubber, the qualification rate of the compound is increased by 3% to 5% through data analysis on the production side. In the TEQU group, we standardized the breeding process, which increased the sow yield by more than 20%. In the context of ‘world factory’ worthy of tens of trillions in output value, 1 percent point of efficiency improvement is anything but trivial.. This is only a preliminary small-scale application. If we go deeper and wider, the value potential will be astronomical
When reviewing investment opportunities in AI companies, what traits do you look for in the company or its founder?
- Ability to solve long-standing, high-impact real-world problems across industries, outside of the tech world
Is there anything else that you would like to share about North Summit Capital?
The mission of North Summit Capital (NSC) is “to advance technology for social good”. It reflects the philosophy of NSC in two orthogonal dimensions.
- Technology-wise, we deeply believe in the triplet of AI, big data and cloud computing. AI is much richer than face recognition (vision) and chatbot (speech). Its application goes beyond cognitive tasks. Rather, AI can turn heterogeneous data streams (including image, video, text, audio, and IoT sensing) into unified perception and support command & control on the fly. AI should be reinterpreted as “Actionable, Accessible and Affordable Intelligence”.
- Traditional industries are well-positioned to receive humongous benefits from AI, big data and cloud computing. The value creation opportunity in agriculture, manufacturing, smart city, healthcare and retail has been repeatedly proven by nearly 100 reference cases of ET Brain, the award winner of leading Internet Sci-Tech achievements during the 4th & 5th World Internet Conference. The development of digital technology does NOT cannibalize socially critical industries but rather transforms them in a mutually beneficial manner.
NSC’s “tech + capital” is by no means a popular or sexy investment approach, neither is its focus on traditional industries. Reminiscent of the 2015 situation when I started working toward ET Brain single-handed at Alibaba cloud, initial overwhelming skepticism contrasted by enormous compliments following later success is a repetitive pattern of the innovation process. Throughout that journey, it takes vision and self-conviction to make the impossible possible.
Powered by the best practice of technology, I will carry the mission of NSC and turn visionary capital into extraordinary impacts.
Thank you for your phenomenal answers, readers who wish to learn more should visit North Summit Capital.