No country for math men

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Hong Kong’s high school students may be renowned for math diligence, but the city is sorely lacking in the university grads needed to build the administration’s much ballyhooed Smart City.

Whither our math dorks?

Hong Kong may perform admirably on comparative global measures for K-12 math performance, but when it comes to the university graduate brains needed for the Fourth Revolution that will marry AI, big data, bioinfomatics and other new technologies, we may be a dumb city that needs to import its brains.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce played host to a curious collection of professionals from three continents speaking on cryptography. Prof Stephen Watt, former Board Chair of Descartes turned University of Waterloo Dean of Mathematics, APrivacy CEO Cédric Jeannot and Hong Kong Police Force Detective Inspector Dicky Wong talked about meeting the threat of cyber attacks.

(photo provided)
(photo provided)

Mr Jeannot has chosen to build his cryptography firm, APrivacy, in the relatively small town of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, not his native France. With a greater metropolitan area of less than 500,000 (less than Yuen Long), it’s not for the nightlife, global connections or diverse population. His super high end technology, originally designed for military and government applications, needs math geeks. Tech dorks. Lots of them.

His firm is now serving the finance industry to protect their data. This isn’t cybersecurity like “don’t make your birthday your password” level security – this is the serious stuff. In Hong Kong, their office is hiring sales and marketing people. According to Mr Jeannot, tech people at their level just can’t be found here. But in Waterloo, they’re everywhere.

What it takes

The University of Waterloo was founded to make math. Canadian insurance firms were desperate for the math proficient for the new profession of actuarial science when they got behind funding a new institution. The math was mighty and the corporate need was met. The law of unintended consequences, usually detailing the disasters arising from government action, saw its opposite as this math factory produced the raw material to drive Canada’s participation in the tech world.

The university’s Faculty of Mathematics makes up about 25% of the student body. The math department alone has 240 professors. Of course, computer science, engineering and other math heavy areas of study are also strong. A co-op programme forces students (as a requirement of graduation) into the working world, a ready boon for local companies looking for cheap genius labour. The programmes are hugely popular and competitive. Once you’re in, you’re in with the best and you graduate with work experience and connections.

Those business connections are strong. Professor Watt is a former Board Chair of Descartes Systems and worked with IBM. He explains that professors and students get to keep all the IP they develop at the school – no strings attached.

Hong Kong’s math?

Hong Kong has about 170-plus math professors in seven universities in a city of seven million people. Many are from mainland China and so are many students, the latter likely to return home after graduation. Of course Waterloo grads spread out around the world after graduation. Google, Microsoft and Amazon have large recruiting services there – and operations.

Waterloo math programme grads are in Hong Kong – about 1,000 of them according to Prof Watt. But you can’t do a lot of high end cryptography with actuaries. When he threw the quip out, the room laughed. We’re a finance town and we know it. Undergrads know it when they look to the job market. Young Hongkongers look around and see the money is in finance, not tech.

All this calls into question the plan to make Hong Kong a smart city. It suggests our new Innovation and Technology Bureau would do its job best by loosening the ever-tightening grip of our Immigration Department, so we can import the talent we need. A topic for another day, but this author knows people who threw their hands up and relocated their tech businesses to the Philippines and Singapore at frustration in getting visas for one or two key staff that would have supported scores of tech jobs here.

Some bright spots

While the top end of tech and building a smart city may be beyond us for now there may be some areas where our traditional strengths can help.

While most of our manufacturing kings have divested themselves of factories and expertise and become real estate moguls, some imports into the city can make something of this heritage. A Spanish entrepreneur with an English chief technical officer assures one that all his other tech staff are locally hired and quite sufficient for his needs. His field is the promising Internet of Things. This seems more suited to Hong Kong’s background in design and making things and may be a more promising area for Hong Kong.

Mr Jeannot suggested that if Hong Kong opened a cryptography school, it would be a huge hit, the only one in Asia, and wildly oversubscribed. Nice idea, but we may not be there yet. And it may be that we can do better by letting industry lead. If the businesses know what they want, they can pay for it and benefit from it. Central planning isn’t likely to deliver the tech Hong Kong needs nor the expertise, jobs and entrepreneurship that our people need to thrive.

Hong Kong is full of smart people being pulled visibly into one industry en masse and quietly into others in smaller numbers. If we don’t take up mental space and taxpayer dollars pushing people into industries that are an awkward fit for Hong Kong, it’s likely the quiet geniuses can find a place to thrive – like the quietly successful legions of math geeks in the small, successful town of Waterloo.