Strategic Topics Grant 2023/24 Layman Summaries of Projects Funded

Topic 1: Using Artificial Intelligence to Address Imminent Challenges in Health Care
Project Title: AI-assisted Microrobotic Platform for Minimally Invasive Interventions
Project Coordinator: Prof Li Zhang (CUHK)


Miniature robots have presented promising ways for medical applications inside the human body. Due to their small size, they are ideal for active and targeted therapy in tiny-and-tortuous lumens which are hard-to-reach by conventional medical tools. However, several grand challenges need to be adequately addressed for in vivo uses, including the imaging and control, the performance in dynamic physiological conditions, and appropriate autonomy for intervention. Besides, integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and microrobotics research can open many new possibilities for boosting the clinical translation of miniature robots and achieving intelligent robotic platforms for next- generation minimally invasive interventions. This interdisciplinary STG project aims to apply AI to miniature robots for minimally invasive interventions, which will address the following key challenges: (1) how to introduce deep-learning algorithms for real-time and adaptive planning and control of reconfigurable microrobot collectives to undertake medical tasks in physiological environments; (2) how to apply AI-based methods to process the noisy raw images and optimize the control performance of the microrobot collectives against physiological disturbances; (3) how to simulate the physiological parameters of human body for pre-operative intervention evaluation and clinical training. To tackle these challenges, our team, which composes of engineering experts and medical professionals in the related fields, will work together to deliver: (1) an integrated deep- learning-based AI control strategy for environment-adaptive morphological control of microrobot collectives in physiological environments; (2) a human-scale magnetic actuation system integrated with real-time imaging tools for robust in vivo tracking and tele-operation of microrobot collectives; (3) an AI-based control scheme for autonomous and intelligent navigation of microrobot collectives in vivo with high adaptability in physiological environments; (4) a microrobotic Interactive Virtual Surgical Platform (μbot-IVSP) for human body simulation, pre- operative microrobotic intervention evaluation, and tele-operation practice. Our project by a research team with long-term close collaboration will generate outputs that provide fundamentally critical new data and references for the field. The advanced technology and the outcomes from this joint research project will significantly contribute to Hong Kong, particularly in the emerging field of AI and medical miniature robots for minimally invasive medicine.

Topic 1: Using Artificial Intelligence to Address Imminent Challenges in Health Care
Project Title: Integrated Innovative Artificial Intelligence, Genomic and Biomedical Technologies in Healthcare: Objective Diagnosis, Personalised Therapy, and Determining the Etiology of Major Mental Disorders
Project Coordinator: Prof Weixiong Zhang (PolyU)


Major psychiatric disorders (MPDs) contribute significant health and socioeconomic burdens worldwide and comprise syndromes such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The current MPD prevalence in Hong Kong is 13.3%, significantly higher than that of other diseases such as cancer. Cultural and socioeconomic factors have made young and ageing populations particularly vulnerable to these disorders. Massive civil unrest and the COVID-19 lockdown have exacerbated the issue in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the quality of mental healthcare has remained unsatisfactory. Less than 40% of patients have achieved complete control of their symptoms with initial treatment. This dismal reality has primarily arisen because standard diagnosis criteria are based on cognitive and behavioural indicators. It is complicated to accurately diagnose MPDs in patients with overlapping symptoms, especially in the early stages.

To facilitate a quantum leap forward in mental healthcare, we propose a paradigm shift from symptom-based diagnosis to artificial intelligence (AI)-based, data-driven diagnosis and personalised therapy. By integrating AI, genomics, and biomedical technologies, we aim to develop an explainable AI-enabled treatment planning system to support reliable diagnosis and guide personalised repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) therapy, which has been shown to treat disorders such as depression effectively.

The proposed work will involve three research focus (RF) areas. In RF-1, we will identify genetic disease biomarkers and brain activity patterns and use them to classify MPDs into distinct categories. Identifying the genetic biomarkers associated with MPDs has remained an unresolved challenge in genetics and pharmacology. This challenge arises from interactions among multiple genes which are difficult to detect. We embrace this challenge by identifying modules within complex networks of genetic interactions. In RF-2, we will study the longitudinal impact of stress on diseases and their inheritance. We will use rodent models to investigate the effects of stress- induced epigenetic changes and the regulatory roles of non-coding transcripts and immunity. We will characterise the molecular basis of rTMS therapy, perform rodents-to-the-humans cross- species studies to understand disease mechanisms and validate the novel disorder categories defined in RF-1. Finally and importantly, in RF-3, we will apply the genetic biomarkers and brain patterns from RF-1 and knowledge of disease mechanisms obtained from RF-2 to guide reliable diagnosis and personalised therapy, thereby improving mental healthcare. The new technologies and AI-enabled treatment planning system developed through the project can be applied to other diseases, such as cancer. The proposed interdisciplinary project will train young researchers by providing collaborative and multidisciplinary research environments.

Topic 2: Striving towards carbon neutrality before 2050
Project Title: Decarbonization Solutions for Buildings in Hong Kong: Development, Assessment and Deployment
Project Coordinator: Prof Qingping Sun (HKUST)


Buildings are the single most important contributor of carbon emissions in Hong Kong (HK) as they account for 90% of the electricity consumption and 60% of the total carbon emissions of the city. Hence, decarbonization of HK’s building infrastructure is inevitable and plays a dominant role in achieving carbon neutrality before 2050. The main source of buildings’ energy consumption and carbon emissions is the so-called Operational Energy and Carbon (OEC), which is generated from lifetime use of cooling facilities (e.g., ventilation and air-conditioning). Building decarbonization relies on efforts from all stakeholders and depends heavily on what new technology options will be chosen and eventually be developed into more reliable and cost-effective ones suitable for large- scale application in HK. Unfortunately, the HK’s Climate Action Plan is silent on which technologies we aim to develop and how to implement them territory-wide under government-led policies and regulations. This proposed project has the following two objectives:

1. To identify and develop promising building technologies according to their efficacy and viability, for maximizing carbon reduction and energy efficiency, applicable for both existing and new buildings in HK, and to significantly reduce OEC towards a carbon neutral HK by 2050.

2. To integrate the developed innovative technologies with net-zero policies and regulations in the built sector, and to provide a feasible and accountable roadmap to the HK government for implementation, from lab-scale prototypes to real-size demo flats and eventually to city-scale deployment.

We have formed a team of leading experts in environmental and mechanical engineering, material science and engineering, and public policy from HKUST/PolyU/CityU along with key stakeholders (HK Environmental Protection Department and Green Building Council) to develop, assess, and deploy innovative technologies and solutions for buildings in HK. We will take a systems-based and problem-driven collaborative approach, and we will incorporate smart energy-saving building envelopes, advanced cooling materials and green air-conditioning systems into the larger social, economic, political and technological context of HK towards building decarbonization. The goal of this project is to provide evidence-based solid engineering solutions and policy and regulatory recommendations for HK to realize building decarbonization. The research will advance the existing knowledge and hardware-software for building sector, promote a reshaping of the building industry of HK and eventually establish HK as an international center of excellence in this field. The project outcome will also be applicable to heavily urbanized cities in mainland China and worldwide.

Topic 3: Establishing Hong Kong as the Leading Integrated Circuits, and Opto-electronics Innovation and Technology Hub in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area
Project Title: Technology for Next Generation Wide-/Ultrawide-bandgap Semiconductor Integrated Electronics
Project Coordinator: Prof Kevin Jing Chen (HKUST)


The wide-bandgap (WBG) and ultrawide-bandgap (UWBG) semiconductor electronics will play important roles in the more-than-Moore era of the integrated circuits (IC) industry. The distinctive wider energy bandgap in these semiconductors yield far superior properties than the conventional silicon. Hence, the WBG and UWBG semiconductors are emerging as the materials of choice for next-generation high-efficiency and high-power-density power conversion systems to continue and accelerate the electrification process of modern society. The WBG gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductor can also benefit from the versatile heterojunctions and deliver unprecedented efficiency and compactness to the radio-frequency (RF) front-end modules (FEM) in the advanced wireless (5G/6G) networks.

Known for conducting ground-breaking research with industry impact, our internationally recognized project team proposes to conduct focused research on WBG and UWBG semiconductor integrated electronics by developing solutions to the most challenging problems to facilitate their deployment in the more performance- and reliability-demanding applications and expand space for new applications. In power electronics, the GaN power integration platform will be vastly expanded by building embedded active structures into the low-cost silicon substrate for required isolation and by developing the most energy-efficient GaN CMOS technology for on-chip logic control and easier gate drive. New paradigms of reliability enhancement will be established with the goal of eliminating the costly over-designs in GaN power devices. Gate driver ICs will be designed to cope with the unique dynamic characteristics to unlock GaN’s potential in high-frequency switching. Solutions to tackle the most performance-compromising challenge in silicon carbide (SiC) power MOSFET, i.e., low MOS-channel mobility, will be developed from a new angle of surface treatment and reconstruction. To further increase the efficiency and application space for next-generation power electronics, we will develop power devices based on UWBG gallium oxide (Ga2O3) that possesses more attractive intrinsic properties. In RF electronics, GaN-on-Si enhancement-mode RF transistors with high manufacturability will be developed and then heterogeneously integrated with next- generation WBG/UWBG acoustic-wave RF filters into compact and reconfigurable RF FEMs for a vast variety of mobile terminals.

The WBG and UWBG semiconductor technology is much less constrained by expensive micro/nanofabrication facilities and could be supported by a region of the size of the Guangdong- Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (GBA). This project thrusts to establish Hong Kong as an innovation hub for WBG and UWBG semiconductor research in the GBA that offers a unique combination of a strong corporate R&D sector, world leading electronics manufacturing capabilities and top-tier industrial end users.

Topic 3: Establishing Hong Kong as the Leading Integrated Circuits, and Opto-electronics Innovation and Technology Hub in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area
Project Title: Photonic Integrated Platforms Based on Topological Physics
Project Coordinator: Prof Shuang Zhang (HKU)


The proposal aims at revolutionizing the design of integrated photonic circuits by applying the fundamental principles of topological physics. The topology of a structure characterizes discrete properties, which are inherently immune to flaws, are robust to environmental factors. More widely than electronics, incorporating topology into the design of new structured materials opens the door to the photonic realm. Meanwhile, recent development of integrated photonic platforms offers the opportunity of creating sub-wavelength optical waveguides in a large scale while requesting more robust operations. These demonstrations have now created an exciting ecosystem with a variety of high-performance photonic building blocks ready for further integration into larger-scale photonic integrated circuits (PICs) with advanced functionalities. However, there exist open questions such as how to overcome the factors that constrains the density of optical information channels within confined device volume and how to interface photonic communication links with individual isolated quantum systems. Leveraging the recent advances in both topological photonics and integrated photonics, our program will make the attempt to incorporate the principles of topological physics into the design of dynamic and programmable photonic integrated circuit platforms with unparalleled functionalities. Specifically, our project will implement novel concepts such as gauge field and non-Abelian topological pumping, topological singularities such as Dirac points and Weyl points, non-Hermitian and supersymmetric physics, for the design of compact and dynamically tuneable integrated photonic circuits, leveraging the concept of synthetic dimensions in the parameter space and providing new design strategies to achieve robustness against fabrication errors. The existing world-renowned local research strength of different universities will be assembled and propelled to a higher level by this strategic project. Local young talents will be incubated and trained, and global talents will be attracted to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is currently unique in having a critical mass of photonic scientists, fully capable of making fundamental discoveries and taking such discoveries to real world applications, benefiting industries in the Greater Bay Area.

Topic 4: Managing the Socio-economic Implications of Pandemic and Other Public Health Challenges
Project Title: Improving Pandemic Preparedness by Reflecting on Experiences in the COVID-19 Pandemic from Different Perspectives
Project Coordinator: Prof Benjamin Cowling (HKU)


Respiratory virus pandemics occur at unpredictable intervals. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, stringent public health and social measures (PHSMs) were implemented to control transmission and prevent high levels of morbidity and mortality. The development of effective vaccines and antiviral drugs allowed a gradual relaxation of non-pharmaceutical measures in most parts of the world in 2021 and 2022, with China’s transition to “living with the virus” in December 2022 being one of the final locations to end COVID restrictions. It is important to recognize that the consequences of the pandemic far exceed the impact on physical health, and also include social and economic harms that may take many years to recover from. Here, we propose a series of complementary research activities in four areas to identify efficient approaches to mitigate the socio-economic-mental health impact of future pandemics while at the same time controlling the threat posed to public health by infections. Hong Kong provides a unique opportunity as an important social laboratory for this work, given the implementation of strong measures for an extended period as well as the continual challenge of introduced infections due to the city’s global nature. Our overarching aim is to provide evidence that can improve global pandemic preparedness, as well as provide an evidence base for future policy recommendations in Hong Kong and elsewhere. While a future pandemic could have different characteristics and therefore potentially require a different set of control measures, we aim to identify common principles and best practices that can be integrated into pandemic planning to guide public policy decisions in future pandemics.