Top scientist at Chinese AI giant Megvii dead at 45

A staff member speaks in front of a display demonstrating the facial recognition system of Chinese artificial intelligence firm Megvii during an organised media tour at the Zhongguancun National Innovation Demonstration Zone Exhibition Center in Beijing on Feb 10, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters

Sun Jian, the 45-year-old chief scientist of Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) firm Megvii Technology, died on Tuesday (June 14) of a sudden illness, which the company did not specify.

“Dr Sun Jian has dedicated his whole life to scientific research. With his unfortunate passing, Megvii has lost a leader in the exploration of and innovation in the AI technology field,” the facial recognition company said in a statement.

Sun, a former Microsoft researcher with years of expertise in computer vision and computational photography, joined the Beijing-based start-up as the chief scientist and managing director of research in 2016.

While at the company, he led the development of ShuffleNet, a neural network that works efficiently on mobile devices, and Brain++, the company’s core AI productivity platform, among other breakthroughs, according to the website of Megvii Research, the unit that Sun established.

An undated photograph of Megvii Technology’s chief scientist and managing director Sun Jian, who died of a sudden illness on Tuesday.

Prior to joining Megvii, Sun was with Microsoft Research for 13 years, starting as an associate researcher in Asia in 2003 and rising to become principal research manager and a partner in the US, according to a curriculum vitae on his personal website.

Sun was named by MIT Technology Review on its Innovators under 35 list in 2010, and he was the recipient of a range of industry and academic awards. He also had 35 US patents to his name, 13 of which were registered internationally, most of them from his time at Microsoft.

Born in October 1976, Sun returned to China when he joined Megvii. In 2019, he also became dean of the College of Artificial Intelligence at Xian Jiaotong University, his alma mater.

Sun’s tenure at Megvii covered some of its most tumultuous years. His death also comes just after the AI giant resumed its pursuit of a public listing on Shanghai’s Nasdaq-like Star Market last month, where it expected to raise 6 billion yuan (S$1.2 billion), after its attempt to list in Hong Kong failed for reasons related to US sanctions.

Megvii was among dozens of Chinese companies that the US put on a trade blacklist in 2019 for what Washington said was its “human rights violations and abuses” against Uygurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region. Megvii denied the accusations, but inclusion on the blacklist meant that international investment banks and other overseas investors were likely to eschew the initial public offering.

The company reported a net loss of 1.86 billion yuan in the first half of 2021, according to its prospectus, which listed Sun as a core technical talent of the company.

Among the company’s Big Tech backers are computer maker Lenovo, fintech firm Ant Group and its affiliate Alibaba Group Holding , owner of the South China Morning Post.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.