China takes to face, voice recognition tech to make sure pigs are healthy Sui-Lee Wee & Elsie Chen

A database of every pig’s face. Voice scans that detect hogs with a cough. Robots that dispense just the right amount of feed. This could be China’s pig farm of the future.

Chinese companies are pushing facial and voice recognition and other advanced technologies as ways to protect the country’s pigs. In this Year of the Pig, many Chinese hogs are dying from a deadly swine disease, threatening the country’s supply of pork, a staple of Chinese dinner tables. So China’s ebullient technology sector is applying the same techniques it has used to transform Chinese life to make sure its pigs are in the pink of health.

“If they are not happy, and not eating well, in some cases you can predict whether the pig is sick,” said Jackson He, CEO of Yingzi Technology, a firm in the southern city of Guangzhou that has introduced its vision of a “future pig farm” with facial and voice recognition tech.

China’s biggest tech firms want to pamper pigs, too. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, and JD.com, its rival, are using cameras to track pigs’ faces. Alibaba also uses voicerecognition software to monitor their coughs.

Many in China are quick to embrace high-tech solutions to just about any problem. This pig push, however, may be a step too soon. Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the City University of Hong Kong said facial recognition won’t help unless China has a comprehensive database of pig faces to track their movement.

Many Chinese pig farmers are also skeptical. Wang Wenjun, a 27-year-old farmer, said, “Farms that have just over a couple hundred pigs will not find a use for the technology.”

Broadly, the Chinese government in recent years has endorsed technology on the farm. Its most recent five-year plan calls for increased use of robotics and network technology. In August, Beijing city agricultural officials praised “raising pigs in a smart way” using the A-B-C-Ds: artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing and data technology.

The companies backing the technology say they can help farmers isolate disease carriers, reduce the cost of feed, increase the fertility of sows and reduce unnatural deaths. JD.com’s system uses robots to feed pigs the correct amount of food depending on the animals’ stage of growth. SmartAHC, a company that uses AI to monitors pigs’ vital statistics, hooks up sows with wearable monitors that can predict the pigs’ ovulation time. JD.com’s facial technology can detect if a pig is sick and try to find out why. Its system would then notify the breeder, who can prescribe treatment. Alibaba’s system monitors hog activity and allows farmers to track the swine in real time, the company said. It would then prescribe an exercise plan to improve their health.

Pig facial recognition works the same way as human facial recognition, the companies say. Scanners and software take in the bristles, the snout, the eyes and ears. The features are mapped. Pigs don’t all look alike when you know what to look for, they said. “It’s just like how a human face is different from others,” said He, of Yingzi.

Wang Lixian, a researcher, is optimistic that the cost of the tech will drop. “Right now, these applications may not have reached their desired levels, but in the future they will become more and more extensive.”

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