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Roll Call Alum

Peter Pan and His Everlands

Chris Shum’s philosophical perambulations through business and life

Chris Shum: ‘Technology is tough: you can’t come too early or late. The timing has to be right.’

Meeting Chris Shum at Science Park for interview, I was impressed with the way he dressed: sporting a company T-shirt and tucking it in belted navy twill trousers, he looked like a university student activist who devotes the best of his days to campaigning for student causes. A quick glance at his back downstairs caught him talking with his colleagues in earnest. Later he told me he had been discussing quantum physics with a bunch of physics graduates from CUHK.

In Defence of Uselessness

Almost twenty years after graduation, Shum still has that appetite for adventure that is admittedly more a mark of youth. Graduating in 2001, the former philosophy major and executive committee member of Student Union is now chief financial officer and co-founder of artificial intelligence (AI) startup Asiabots. Rather than focusing on the company and its products, our talk was like one of those free-flowing conversations philosophy students relish inside and outside the classroom. His eyes sparkled beneath his thick, black eyebrows, as his mercurial thoughts ran through a galaxy of topics ranging from startups, the use of philosophy, AI, the meaning of work, fast learning, innovation and technology development in mainland China and the difficulty of and frustration over pitching big companies, to horoscopes, feng shui and divination. ‘My star sign is Greedy Wolf.’ In Tzu-wei astrology—a kind of divination based on a set of virtual stars generated by one’s birth time, Greedy Wolf is the star of desire. To Shum who values freedom above anything and partakes greedily of every subject under the sun, the pick of philosophy looks like a matter of course.

‘A lot of people think that philosophy is useless. But philosophy concerns precisely the art of thinking which teaches us to think about life, studies, etc. Nothing is more practical. Business is full of ups and downs, it is thinking which endows one with elasticity and resilience to go through it. Back then we often asked what we may do with a philosophy degree, and my seniors would put forth the gnomic case of “the use of the useless”—not being trained in any particular trade means one is fit for any trade. I take it to mean we must not limit ourselves. Who says we must?’

His effervescent life trajectory proves the point. Leaving school, Shum became a designer jewellery salesman. Before long, he had become the top salesperson in the company. ‘I build trusting relationships with ease.’ Targeting lucrative fields like women’s jewellery, the philosopher with one foot in the world also stays at the forefront of his times. In 2009 he founded an online platform selling women’s jewellery to companies in Europe. Year 2014 saw him starting another business curating internet of things applications. ‘But we were behind the app wave. We had adopted new technologies like contactless payment and virtual tokens at that time, but that was far too soon. Technology is tough: you can’t come too early or late. The timing has to be right.’ The right time came in 2017: in those days when AI was coming to hype, he met his current partners and co-founded Asiabots.

‘People think founding a startup takes a lot of money. But really it’s not about money, but the knowhow. There will be resources if your invention is of use to the world. Resources may not be pouring in, but there will be openings when you do it right.’

Carey (left, on the vertical screen) and Temi the cat (middle at bottom) are virtual ambassadors developed by Asiabots. They can answer queries or even do small chats

Human-friendly AI

The strength of Asiabots lies in natural language processing (NLP), which involves training robots to understand human language. You are likely to have used their services, if you have interacted with chatbots on instant messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

‘There are more to chatbots than Q&As. It encompasses the entirety of human knowledge, since words are the depositories of human wisdom and thoughts. It marks the beginning of intelligence, and we expect it to solve even more puzzles in future.’ Another expertise of Asiabots is the voicebot which chats with people on phone. ‘Sometimes one has to learn how to chat with AI, say pressing buttons or finding the menu, but with the voicebot you can simply talk. It is difficult, you know, to make people change their habits.’ Most local AI companies would employ NLP engines of big enterprises like Google and Facebook, but Asiabots is choosing the hard way—they research and develop their own NLP engine, one that is singularly fluent in Cantonese, English, Mandarin and even mixed speech. ‘I want to take the long view. Only when you have something of your own can you build it from the ground up.’ Philosophers start with the nature of things. They understand too well whether something stands or falls depends on the basics.

‘I tread narrow paths all my life—but they invariably lead me to lands glorious,’ Shum articulated his own brand of Peter Pan philosophy.

The Dialectic of Vessel and Value

Unapologetic for his love of money, Shum frequently brought up the topic of self-actualization as we chatted on. Running his own business allows Shum to own his life, and it gives him joy to see others flesh out their brilliant selves on life’s stage. The observation made by Marx a century ago, that economic Shum’s cascading discourses independence is a necessary condition for individuality, still rings sterling true today. Did his family and friends support his venturing out?

‘Not really. You have to thank God if they do not object to that,’ Shum let out a hearty laugh. ‘It is a misconception that startups receive a lot of support—truly there’s naught. Relying on yourself is the way to go—support in the form of money can only distort. Resources are necessary, as in the form of opportunities. Don’t fetter us when chances present themselves.’

No AI professional can eschew the ongoing apprehension of robots’ dominance over humans. To this the philosopher-entrepreneur gave a clear-headed analysis: ‘The tech sites’ fearmongering being over, we are going to witness AI replacing humans in a number of trades and professions. People are sure to feel jittery about being replaced and made superfluous, if they see their value as being instrumental only. What makes human life valuable? What confers dignity to humanity? Marxist theory sees the base, representing production, determining the superstructure that consists in thought and culture. Maybe AI can help us tackle the production issue,’ he continued, ‘Humans may enjoy greater prosperity and be freed to pursue loftier endeavours, such as philosophy and music. We are often said to be spiritually impoverished; AI may enable more human connections, allowing people to develop their love, sharing and empathic faculties.’

Chris Shum reckons that AI may help us get around the issue of production. Humans may no longer toil to live, but be free to pursue their vocations and reach higher planes in the existence pyramid

The apocalyptic vision of an AI-controlled world in The Matrix is familiar to thinkers and conspiracy theorists. But Shum has his own sanguine view about the world in which AI has a prominent role to play: ‘Our political order today is full of flaws. But AI can simulate human thinking and find the optimal solution that transcends the provincial interests of any political party or school of thought. If we start with good will, with AI establishing the best institutions and practices which the majority of us are happy with, complete with the blockchain technology ensuring safe records and transactions, we may come close to an embryonic form of a cyber age country—with the caveat that new technologies are needed to play executor. Sounds futuristic, no?’

Whether AI is the philosopher king envisaged by Plato, only time can tell. But listening to Shum’s cascading discourses, one can easily feel the freedom and happiness afforded him by philosophizing. Thought makes us human; it brings pain and also deliverance. Floating and struggling in the tempestuous sea of thoughts, one descends into the region of strife, secures his equipoise through frantic paddling and manages eventually to rise above disturbances of the hour and impositions of fate. As the halo of rational thinking fades away, action and creation make their graceful entrée.

By Amy L., ISO
Photos by Eric Sin

This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Aug 2020.

alumni Chris Shum philosophy startups artificial intelligence robot