Universities in Hong Kong were very different places back in the 90s. As the Internet captured the world’s imagination, it was not only subjects like medicine and law but also information engineering that drew the best and the brightest. Consistently top of his cohort, Edmond Lau was admitted on a fast track to CUHK’s Department of Information Engineering in 1993. There he immersed himself in the worlds of mathematics and science, for which he had always had a gift and a deep love.
To this day Edmond remembers proudly the Department’s outstanding faculty and the courses it offered, which were way ahead of their time, ‘Those were the days of pagers and personal handy-phone systems, yet we were already learning about high-speed communication, cryptography and artificial intelligence.’
After graduating with first-class honours, he joined the world’s largest IT consultancy. Four years later, he moved on to pursue an MBA at the London Business School, getting another first. He became Vice President of a major bank, and on he ventured into the investment sector, now serving as managing director of Lingfeng Capital and focusing on FinTech investment.
Dazzling as his resume might be, Edmond is a man of humility. ‘Wherever I am and whatever I do, all I want is to give everything for the advancement and application of technology,’ he said humbly.
While the term ‘FinTech’ has been the rage for only about five years, finance and technology have gone hand in hand for quite some time. The financial sector, Edmond noted, is always the first to take advantage of a technological breakthrough. Time and again, technology has proved to be a real profit and efficiency booster: credit cards have encouraged spending, ATMs have taken burden off tellers, Internet and phone banking have saved us time in making transactions, and so on.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, the world began to see the problems of traditional financial institutions for what they are. It was also a boom time for tech companies. From a fresh perspective, innovators in the technology industry realized there is great potential in the financial sector for what we now call ‘ABCD’―artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing and big data. With these powerful tools, finance could come with more transparency, safety, cost-efficiency and individuality.
Consider what technology can do in the loan market. Previously, applicants would have to present a large amount of information in person and go through a long-winded process, proving they could pay off their debt on time. Individuals and small businesses without a credit history might not even get this far, with banks being unable to serve them in the first place.
Nowadays, though, loan requests can be submitted online and processed at amazing speeds. Thanks to FinTech, financial companies can get a full picture of their applicants’ credit activities as well as their social media footprints, what they do with their mobile apps, their network of friends and family, etc.―all in a matter of seconds. This allows companies to more quickly determine their applicants’ credit rating and loan size.
What it can do to boost productivity makes Edmond a tireless advocate of technology. Pointing at the pen voice recorder in front of him, he said, ‘Let’s say you were to transcribe this recording. Even with the world’s fastest computer, you couldn’t type more than a hundred words per minute. With speech recognition technology, though, all it would take is the click of a button. Such is the revolution technology has brought about.
‘None of us has all the time in the world, and there’s only so much we can do in that limited amount of time. Technology frees us from tedium and routines, giving us the space to be creative and to think critically. This is the only way we humans can move forward.’
But with every invention there must be users testing it out. For Edmond, it is important that the public keeps an open mind about technological innovations and is willing to give them a try. ‘Any technological product will require feedback from a good number of users to keep perfecting itself.’
He understands how important security is to Hongkongers, who may have second thoughts about FinTech products like mobile wallets. One solution he proposed is to dedicate a card with a lower credit limit to mobile payments. That way, the loss will be minimal even if things go wrong. ‘It’s always fun to try out new stuff―it gives you and your friends and family something to talk about too. You don’t have to kill all the joy just to stay safe.’
Being a global financial centre and home to countless banks, insurers and asset management companies, Hong Kong is an excellent testing ground for FinTech products. It is a place for FinTech companies from all over the world to open up their market. Edmond is pleased to see that the government is actively changing their financial policy and keeping abreast of the winds of FinTech by issuing licences to virtual banks and insurers.
That being said, Edmond also sees the need for Hong Kong to pick up its pace in order to hold the lead. ‘Besides New York and London, places like Switzerland, Singapore, Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai are also in the race. They’re all strong competitors, working round the clock for a breakthrough. We don’t need a flawless plan to be able to get down to work. Improvements can be improvised as we go along, learning from our experience. Meanwhile, society should be able to tolerate mistakes. Only this will keep Hong Kong in the game.’
The devotee of technology wishes that younger generations will also see its many splendours and bright future. ‘Being part of the tech industry is as monetarily rewarding as it is a service to the world. I look forward to the day engineering subjects regain their eminence in Hong Kong, the day schoolchildren would once again flock to join this world-changing force.’