AI engine Athena is a modern-day teacher

Xjera Labs' artificial intelligence engine can train software to perform specific tasks, whether these pertain to recognising sushi, teaching drones to fly or spotting intruders


TEACH a man how to fish, and you can feed him for a lifetime. Homegrown artificial intelligence (AI) company Xjera Labs aims to do just that, with the aid of neural networks and deep learning algorithms.

Its AI engine Athena can train software to perform specific tasks, whether these pertain to recognising sushi, teaching drones to fly or spotting intruders.

The company's co-founder and chief executive Ethan Chu compares Athena to a school for its "pupils" - in Xjera's case, these are its products named XIntelligence, XTransport and XHound.

Taken together, the trio offers a bevy of functions, including facial recognition, emotional analysis and identifying vehicle types.

In an interview with The Business Times, Dr Chu describes how neural networks drive the machine learning process.

"Our AI engine generates neural networks which take in and process all kinds of sensory input. These can be videos, images, speeches and text. In the future, these inputs may even include smell and taste."

Repeated exposure to these external stimuli will familiarise the software with actions that the AI engine wants to encourage or dis-incentivise. With the right dose of feedback to an autonomous drone, for instance, Athena can teach it to fly, pitch forward or yaw clockwise.

As a PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the United States, Dr Chu saw potential in deep learning.

Jeremy Heng, who was then the deputy director of the Advanced Digital Sciences Center in Singapore, also shared his vision. Together, they co-founded Xjera Labs in December 2013.

The startup's first breakthrough came in 2015, when Xjera took home the top prize at the IDA Video Analytics Tech Challenge. Tasked to develop video analytics algorithms to enhance crowd and traffic monitoring, Xjera bested 10 other teams from the startup scene and research centres.

Xjera received a cash prize of S$20,000, and has been on a winning streak ever since. In 2018, BT reported that the AI firm was the first start-up that operator Changi Airport Group (CAG) had invested in. In that same year, Xjera also became accredited by the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

In its Series A funding round in March 2018, Xjera raised a seven-digit figure. CAG was the lead investor, flanked by venture capitalists Rekanext Capital Partners and OMG Capital.

While Xjera managed to break even in the last two years, it will be profitable in 2019. The company owes its success to the "maturity of its products and advancement in our AI technology", said Mr Heng, who is also Xjera's executive director.

"We recorded a seven-digit revenue last year. Our revenue has tripled every year - 200 per cent annual growth - from 2016 to 2019," he added

Its sterling track record also "allows our customers to trust us with larger projects,'' said Mr Heng.

To stay ahead of the competition, Xjera has to deliver surveillance technology that is "very fast, very accurate, and cost-effective".

Maintaining a high level of accuracy is no mean feat as Xjera takes on challenging lighting conditions and outdoor environments, in order for its products to outperform the market. Having found success across a number of verticals including security, smart estates, transportation and retail, Xjera counts more than 15 government agencies among its past or current clients.

Over time, economies of scale and developments in AI technology will lower costs, said Dr Chu. He paints a rosy picture for the industry, one in which AI firms may branch out into the education sector.

With "high demand for behaviour analysis", the education sector is ripe for video analytics solutions.

"For campus security, there may be issues like students fighting or voyeurism. Educators are also interested in analytics like how engaged their students are in class," he said.

While Xjera is based in Singapore, it recently opened an office in Suzhou in China. The Middle Kingdom is Xjera's fastest growing overseas market today, with the AI firm closing more than four million yuan (S$777,088) worth of sales in the past three months.

It is full steam ahead as the firm sets its sights on the United States, Japan and Australia. Currently Xjera has traction in six markets, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and India.

"We are honoured to be one of the 15 Emerging Enterprise finalists in 2019. It is an endorsement of the progress that we have made and we hope it will help us as we expand beyond Singapore," said Mr Heng.