February 26, 2019

Alibaba is adapting facial recognition tech to address China’s swine shortage

Chinese tech companies are using sophisticated facial recognition technology to monitor pigs, but farmers aren’t convinced.

China’s most cutting-edge surveillance technology isn’t just for tracking citizens anymore. Instead, The New York Times reports, Alibaba and other companies are building elaborate facial recognition and voice recognition systems for a new audience: pigs.

With pork production imperiled by a recent outbreak of disease, China’s tech giants have turned to AI to keep pigs healthy.

China’s got swine fever

China is the world’s largest pork producer. But swine fever, which spreads through live pigs and pork products such as ham and sausage, has led to the mass slaughter of more than 1m sick piggies.

If the supply continues to fall, global pork prices will rise. So to fix the problem, Alibaba, JD.com, and other startups use facial recognition to monitor pig health and prevent disease. 

JD.com’s system feeds information to robots to feed pigs optimal amounts. Alibaba’s system goes even further by using a voice recognition system to listen to pigs’ coughs and determine their health.

Maybe not the best way to bring back the bacon

Despite the investment in pig technology, many farmers are skeptical of the benefits. For one thing, the systems are no help once pigs are slaughtered.

“How then can you connect the head to the rest of the carcass?” asked Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the City University of Hong Kong.

But even more critics point to the cost of the process: Tagging a pig’s ear (the normal process for tracking pig health) costs approximately $0.30 per pig, while facial mapping costs $7 per pig.

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