SoftBank Fund Is Said to Seek Investment in Chinese AI Giant

(Bloomberg) -- SoftBank Vision Fund is seeking to invest almost $1 billion in China’s SenseTime Group Ltd. as it seeks a stake in the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence startup, people familiar with the matter said.

The fund, created by SoftBank Group Corp., and SenseTime are still finalizing terms of the deal and the details could still change, the people said, asking not to be identified as the details are private. The company has already announced two other funding rounds this year as it raised more than $1.2 billion.

SenseTime, a four-year-old startup, makes systems that analyze faces and images on a huge scale and contributes to China’s vast surveillance system. The company is one of a host of local startups at the forefront of Beijing’s goal of making the country the world leader in AI by 2030.

Tokyo-based SoftBank has made China one of the main destinations for the Vision Fund, a near $100 billion pool of money that’s become the world’s largest technology investor. It’s already backed sectors as diverse as robotics, ride-hailing, e-commerce and semiconductors. The fund has put billions into Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and has taken a stake in ZhongAn Online P&C Insurance Co.

SenseTime fits into SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s vision to invest in a future dominated by AI and data. His firm spent $32 billion to acquire ARM Holdings Plc, the chip designer that he believes will be a linchpin in the development of artificial intelligence.

SenseTime declined to comment, and a representative for the SoftBank Vision Fund didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

SoftBank would join some of the biggest names in technology and investment if the deal goes ahead. Qualcomm Inc. backed SenseTime last year while Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Temasek Holdings Pte joined April’s $600 million funding round. Fidelity International, Silver Lake and Tiger Global Management took part in a June financing that raised $620 million and boosted its valuation to more than $4.5 billion.

Beyond facial recognition and identity verification, SenseTime is pushing into autonomous driving and augmented reality. It’s developing a service code-named “Viper” to parse data from thousands of live camera feeds -- a platform it expects will prove invaluable in mass surveillance.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.