When the Chinese government named a new batch of national champions in artificial intelligence (AI) in August, one name was relatively unknown to most of the population.
MiningLamp, a Beijing based big data company, joined home-grown tech giants Huawei Technologies, JD.com, and Xiaomi Corp as companies tasked with spearheading innovation efforts in the field.
Although not as well known as US equivalent Palantir Technologies, which reportedly contributed to America’s success in hunting down Osama bin Laden, MiningLamp’s data mining software is used to spot crime patterns, track drug dealers and prevent human trafficking.
“Cases are being resolved on our platforms every day” in more than 60 cities and regions in China, said founder and CEO Wu Minghui. “We can run fast analysis on potential drug dealers or major suspects, improving the overall case-solving efficiency several hundred times.”
MiningLamp’s software enables users to search huge volumes of heterogeneous data – information with a great variety of types and formats – and process that into actionable knowledge and insight using a combination of proprietary and commercially available data management tools.
For example, police in far flung cities may use different suspect descriptions and methods of recording evidence for theft cases. Using data mining, connections can quickly be found among the disparate data instead of having to manually cross-check dozens of case files.
Dressed in a white business shirt and sporting a fresh crew cut, Wu recounted to the Post how the decision to go into public security five years ago came from a childhood “pain point”.
While growing up in the seaside city of Yantai in China’s northeast Shandong province, Wu’s father worked as a policeman, dealing with grass-roots level community problems such as noise complaints, local disturbances, and even quarrels among families.
“Growing up, I hardly saw my dad,” said Wu, in a quiet moment of contemplation. “Police are under a lot of pressure in China where the population per officer is about three times the world average.”
When pitching the software to early clients, Wu would even point out its advantages in helping small-town police officers spend more time with their children.
In training machines to think like humans, Wu’s engineers rely on the knowledge graph, a concept used by Google to enhance its search engine results with information gathered from a variety of sources.
“The human learning process also requires us to weave a network or database of knowledge and build connections through logical reasoning and associative thinking. Such an ability is often a determinant of one’s intelligence level,” he said.
The ability to find connections and generate new insights does not only apply to public security. MiningLamp’s business analytics tools are used by more than 200 companies in the Fortune 500, ranging from P&G and Coca Cola to LV and China UnionPay.
Smaller clients include Shanghai Metro Group which uses the software to conduct automated subway overhauls and maintenance, and the producers of popular Chinese debate show Let’s Talk, who use it to gain insight into the social media habits of their audience.
Founded in 2014, MiningLamp was spun off from Miaozhen Systems, an advertising analysis start-up Wu formed with classmates while pursuing postgraduate studies in computer science at Peking University in 2006, where he also received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
The company initially gained success by offering online ad performance evaluations and fraud detection services for advertisers, before expanding the business to industries such as public security, smart cities, finance, logistics, entertainment, retail, and manufacturing.
MiningLamp, backed by investors including Tencent, China Renaissance, and Sequoia Capital China, has now broken even with annual revenues of several hundred million US dollars, according to Wu.
Comparisons with Palantir do not bother Wu, as he notes the two companies have a similar trajectory, especially in their focus on fraud detection in their early days.
“While Palantir was spun off from Paypal’s anti-fraud team, we started helping e-commerce platforms crack down on fraud in online advertisements before we expanded into public security,” he said. “One of our shared values [with Palantir] is being customer-centric. We have several hundred engineers working on-site with clients, while many more are on standby for any incoming requests.”
Wu is not shy when it comes to what he describes as his world leading team in data processing and analysis. “China is home to the most e-commerce transactions and largest number of online advertisements, which have pushed companies like us to take the technological lead,” he said. “Any leading-edge technology is meaningless unless it is proven in real-life scenarios.”
This article first appeared on the South China Morning Post.