China implements AI-driven facial recognition for its cows and pigs

Can you facially recognize me? Shanjiaying village, north of Beijing. Photo: Elizabeth Dalziel / AP

Tech-savvy Chinese firms are making the country’s farms a living laboratory of how AI and facial recognition technologies can be used to improve agricultural insurance claims processing and monitor livestock health to boost productivity.

Why it matters. China is at the forefront of human facial recognition. This technology is now being transferred to livestock. It will reduce the chances of diseases among swine and cows, a crucial point for a country with huge needs in meat production.

«This underscores a broader use of the cutting-edge technologies in China from human-beings to animals», says Xiao Jing, chief scientist of Ping An Technology, the tech arm of China’s second-largest insurer Ping An Group.

What’s happening. The Shenzhen-based company uses the technologies to identify livestock via cow’s patterns and pig’s faces and tails. This facilitates the claims for its agricultural insurance and helps spot fraud. Traditionally, agricultural insurance policies have long been fraught with fraud risk due to livestock not being easily recognizable. Farmers often exaggerate their herd count in hope to receive more from insurances.

Meanwhile, the AI-powered system is said to help monitor the movement of every cow and pig and alert farmers if an animal shows signs of strange behavior. The experimental system records data from drinking, milking and other activities in real time, and compares collected information with historical data to keep a close watch on animal’s health through AI-enabled analysis.

Nobody asked this pig if he wants his picture in the cloud. Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province / EPA

Chinese internet behemoth Alibaba Group also loses no time in joining the fray. The conglomerate tests the potentials of its voice recognition technology to detect the grunts and squeals of piglets that are in trouble.

The big picture. Agriculture stands as the last frontier in China where the transformative technologies are waving magic wands. The most populous country on earth needs to produce food to meet the huge demand of its 1.4 billion inhabitants. As labor costs hike and society rapidly ages, the sheer power of technology means the nation’s more than 300 million farms have modern solutions to embrace a raise in efficiency.

  • Since last year, China - the world’s largest pork consumer - has seen its hog industry deadly hit by African swine fever.

  • «Disease has become the biggest factor restricting the pork production level in China, says Wang Lixian, a researcher at the Institute of Animal Science of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. This is where innovative technologies could come to lend a helping hand, by minimizing accidents and reducing unnatural deaths».

Yes, but. According to Ping An, piglets remain the livestock that poses the greatest difficulty to facial recognition. The animal can grow up in a few short months with the enormous change of appearance. This means photo and data should be collected on a constant basis to the cloud-enabled database, otherwise the technologies could be rendered useless.