World’s first ‘AI casino’ delayed by technical hitches

Creating the world’s first “AI casino”, with robot croupiers and cameras that can spot bad behaviour, was a flagship project for SenseTime, one of China’s leading artificial intelligence companies, as it tried to find a global market for its technology.

But its ambitious plan to transform Genting’s Resorts World Sentosa, Singapore’s first casino, has run into technical difficulties, according to several insiders, and a public announcement that was due last year has been delayed.

“SenseTime was very proud of the Genting project. They wanted to do a big announcement with the government and resort, but it keeps getting delayed. Now, it has just gone silent,” said one person involved with the project.

The start-up, founded in 2014, specialises in facial and image recognition and has become one of the world’s most valuable standalone AI companies, as China prioritises the sector. After raising nearly $5bn from investors, it is now preparing for an initial public offering in Hong Kong after getting regulatory approval last week.

But its prospectus warned that its international business had suffered during the coronavirus pandemic and stated that challenges with commercialising its products in new markets were a risk factor.

The Resorts World Sentosa casino in Singapore
Genting’s casino complex sits on the man-made island of Sentosa and is popular with rich expats and foreign residents © Edgar Su/Reuters

The Singapore project, revealed in detail here for the first time, was designed to show off what the company’s AI could do. Genting’s casino complex sits on the man-made island of Sentosa and is popular with rich expats and foreign residents. Before the pandemic, it was a magnet for wealthy gamblers from all over the world, but particularly from mainland China.

A comprehensive surveillance system would be able to track people across the entire casino resort, identifying them every time they moved in front of a new CCTV camera.

“The big focus is on preventing fraud,” said one former SenseTime employee. The casino wanted to make sure, for example, that staff “are not meeting people they should not be meeting [and] monitoring dealers to make sure they do not steal chips”.

SenseTime’s system would use “gesture recognition” to track the hands of dealers and customers and check on gamblers’ winnings, a former Genting employee said.

Another priority was tracking gamblers with facial recognition, both to blacklist customers the casino did not wish to serve and also to understand the way that gamblers behaved inside the casino so they could be targeted with more accurate promotions.

But the two former employees said there had been a range of technical hitches. The CCTV cameras existing in the casino did not offer high quality images, particularly in poorly lit areas such as the car parks.

“They had to change the camera[s] or work with what we had, that was a problem,” one of the former employees with knowledge of the project said. In July 2020, Genting announced a partnership with Canon to provide the resort with new security cameras.

Another challenge was that all casino staff wore a uniform, which made it more difficult to distinguish between them. “There are features other than clothing . . . but those are weaker signals,” one former employee said.

A more advanced part of the project that involved replacing human dealers with machines to “make the casino feel like it is run by AI” has “not been super successful yet”, one of the former employees said.

While local officials in the gambling destination of Macau have said AI should only be used for security purposes, lawyers said there were no specific laws in Singapore for the use of the technology by casinos. Shaun Leong, partner at international law firm Withers, said any use of AI would be covered by existing privacy laws.

“In theory, casinos could use facial recognition technology, or machine learning functions, to supervise and monitor patrons who are gambling on the floor to catch cheating behaviour. That’s quite an interesting use I think, the legalities of which perhaps are still being explored,” Leong said.

SenseTime itself has said information safety and data privacy are “top priorities” and that it only uses data for purposes explicitly authorised by customers, including identity verification, record-keeping and statistics, and does not use data for purposes without prior approval and consent.

“We continuously monitor our data processing collaboration with third parties, and regularly review the content of such collaborations, the scope of the collaboration agreements and the execution of such agreements to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations,” the company said.

Asked about the delays and challenges to the Genting project, SenseTime said it did not comment on customer relationships and complied with local laws and regulations.

Genting did not respond to a request for comment.

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