Imagine you are meeting a friend for dinner at a restaurant in a mall and you are running late. You don't know the restaurant's exact location but the mall's interactive service (regarded by some as a step backwards in efficiency) has a long queue. The frustration mounts as the clock ticks away.
Now imagine this: When you walk into the mall, click on the Facebook page or website of the store and type in or say the name of the restaurant, you can know the route to the restaurant. At the same time, the website has already booked in the restaurant the parking lot. Even when you need cash, the website can provide you with a route to the nearest ATM. After dinner, it will remind you that your favorite store is holding a sale.
This one-stop AI concierge service is the brainchild of Fano Labs, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup headed by Dr Miles Wen, an engineering PhD graduate from HKU, and his former PhD advisor, Professor Victor Li, Chair Professor of Information Engineering at HKU. The team had been working on AI technology for several years when a chance of encountering with the manager of a shopping mall made them realize the potential to apply their research to concierge services.
"Some mall operators told us that they had been looking for solutions to improve customer services without having to hire more customer servers. We realized that we had the technology that could address this need," said Dr Wen.
"Our focus is on providing AI concierge services for the public sector and service industry with a much better user experience. Shopping malls and large institutions with a lot of contact with the public don't necessarily have enough customer servers to meet demand. However, we can serve millions of customers at the same time with AI technology."
The technology works in Cantonese, Mandarin and English through text and speech. It does not require customers to download anything – they can access via a client's website, Facebook page, WeChat or WhatsApp accounts and other social media. All the client has to do is add an option that takes users straight to the AI concierge service.
Fano Labs also provides a data analytics service to help clients understand their visitors better and conduct targeted marketing.
Founded in 2015 by Professor Li and Dr Wen, the company received TSSSU@HKU (Technology Startup Support Scheme for Universities) funding in 2015 and again this year, and Fano is also supported by the Incu-Tech program of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation.
"The importance of the TSSSU funding is that it has given us the time and opportunity to test, make mistakes and correct them. Being able to do a lot of trial and error is as important in running a business as in conducting scientific research. We have also received a lot of mentorship support through HKU.
"The time for AI technologies is coming. We are working hard to create real values to our community using our technologies," Dr Wen said.