Wireless technology has revolutionised communications and turned the world into a global village. While end-users enjoy the convenience and efficiency of near-instant communications, growing recognition is given to the people behind the scenes whose ingenuity and hard work in developing information and communications technology helped make the whole genre possible.
"Thanks to the foresightedness of the government, the importance of research and development (R&D) of technologies has long been recognised," says I Chih-lin, vice president and group director, Communications Technologies Group, Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute Company Limited (ASTRI). "It was a wise move to put forward a plan to make Hong Kong a centre of science and technology in 2001."
In the same year, the wholly government-funded ASTRI was established with the primary goal of continuously enhancing Hong Kong's technological competitiveness. The organisation performs high quality R&D for technology transfer to industry and develops essential technical human resources. Equally important, it plays a key role in converting R&D assets into real industrial impact in these four closely interrelated domains — communications technologies, integrated circuit designs, enterprise and consumer electronics, as well as material and packaging technologies.
"Hong Kong is in a highly advantageous position at the forefront of technological growth," Dr I points out. She stresses that Hong Kong's well-developed infrastructure, mature legal system, good living standards and countless business opportunities all help give the city its special world class business environment. "As part of Greater China, which is now the biggest market for wireless communications and the largest mobile phone manufacturer, Hong Kong is able to serve as a base for developing key intellectual properties for next-generation products," she adds.
Consequently, in the R&D field Hong Kong has evolved into a hub that attracts talents from different countries. The ASTRI team includes locals, mainlanders and talents from Asia, Europe, America and Africa. The organisation's policy concerning vacancies at all levels is to show preference to candidates who are living here, but expatiates with the right qualifications and competence are equally sought after.
Regardless of nationality, all ASTRI research team members are trained with a hands-on approach. According to Dr I, people involved in their R&D projects will gain knowledge and grow by getting their hands dirty. She adds, "In spite of our non-profit making status, we believe the success of applied research lies in the customer focus. Therefore, people working here should address issues arising from this focus. By building and carrying out a series of customer-driven execution processes, our researchers are able to turn theories into practical use."
Moreover, through the organisation's connections with major universities, internal training opportunities and external exposures are always within reach for ASTRI staff. "In Hong Kong, we have strong relationships with local academic institutions. Around the globe, we are an active player in this field with alliances with such acknowledged leaders as MIT, Stanford, Tsinghua, and UC Berkeley," Dr I notes. This means that ASTRI staff enjoy ample learning prospects in the various partnership programmes with these institutions, and will continue to progress while being equipped with the necessary expertise to face the challenges ahead.
"For many researchers, Hong Kong is a valuable centre for wireless communications. If a technology works amid its skyscrapers and across its hilly landscape surrounded by crooked waterfronts, it will function anywhere in the world," says Dr I. "With Hong Kong's human resources and geographical advantage, we are able to transform from the low-margin OEM (original equipment manufacturer) phase and exploit our own core intellectual properties for the R&D industry."
Dr I advocates three important trends for wireless communications — multimode multifunction terminal technologies, low-power high spectral-efficiency radio access technologies and miniaturisation technologies. She believes that the spotlight for advanced communications technologies will go onto "wireless-mobile-multimode- multimedia-multifunction". Geared to this direction, ASTRI's communications technologies teams have conducted R&D programmes to produce leading-edge innovations.
"We have identified and focused on the applications and services enabling technology platform," Dr I says. This aligns with ASTRI's mission to create real economic impacts on industry customers so that technological breakthroughs are successfully commercialised in the market.
"Developing technology takes time," says Dr I. "It took more than 30 years for Taiwan and 15 years for Korea to get to their current positions. We can't expect too much from the first few years of investment, but over time we will see an increase in profits and market value delivered by local industry partners as our technology catches up."