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 — and, more darkly, that the Chinese government increasingly uses to spy on its own people — 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, chief executive officer of Yingzi Technology, a small firm based in the southern city of Guangzhou that has introduced its vision of a “future pig farm” with facial and voice recognition technologies.
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 voice-recognition software to monitor their coughs.
Many in China are quick to embrace high-tech solutions to just about any problem. A digital revolution has transformed China into a place where nearly anything — financial services, spicy takeout, manicures and dog grooming, to name a few — can be summoned with a smartphone. Facial recognition has been deployed in public bathrooms to dispense toilet paper, in train stations to apprehend criminals and in housing complexes to open doors.
This pig push, however, may be a step too soon.
“I like the idea, I like the concept, but I need to be shown that it works,” said Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the City University of Hong Kong. “Because if it doesn’t work, it’s counterproductive.”
Facial recognition won’t help unless China has a comprehensive database of pig faces to track their movement, he pointed out. Also, facial recognition doesn’t help “once the animal is in the slaughterhouse and they chop it into bits.”
“How then can you connect the head to the rest of the carcass?” Professor Pfeiffer asked.
Many of China’s pig farmers are also skeptical. China is in the midst of closing and consolidating many of its small pig farms, blaming them for polluting the environment. But there are still 26 million small pig farms in the country, representing about half the number of farms, according to the agriculture ministry and experts.
“We will not choose to invest in these things,” said Wang Wenjun, a 27-year-old farmer who won a modest amount of fame after he uploaded videos of himself singing to his hogs.
“Unless it’s a large-scale pig farm, farms that have just over a couple hundred pigs will not find a use for it.”
Broadly, the Chinese government in recent years has endorsed technology on the farm. Its most recent five-year plan, a major economic planning document, calls for increased use of robotics and network technology. In October, the State Council, or China’s cabinet, said it wanted to promote “intelligent farming” and the application of information technology in agriculture. 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.
So when African swine fever swept through China’s farms, the country’s technology companies saw an opportunity. The disease has no known vaccine or cure. It can spread through contact between animals or through infected pig products, meaning it can lurk for months in sausages or ham. It doesn’t affect humans, but they can carry it. China has culled nearly a million pigs, set up roadblocks and built fences, to no avail.
There’s a lot at stake. China is the world’s largest pig breeder, with a current population of about 400 million, and its largest pork consumer. The meat is so important that the country has its own strategic pork reserve in the event of a shortage.
The disease could also ripple across borders. It has been found in sausages transported by Chinese tourists in Australia, Taiwan, Japan and Thailand, stoking fears that it could end up in the United States. A prolonged outbreak could cause prices to rise globally.
Government rules to fight the swine fever prevent outsiders from visiting pig farms to see the technology in action, so claims by the companies couldn’t be independently verified. Local media and the companies said several big farms use the systems.
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 A.I. to monitors pigs’ vital statistics that offers commercially available services, hooks up sows with wearable monitors that can predict the pigs’ ovulation time.
They pitch their technologies as an alternative to the tagging of pigs’ ears, a practice that many farmers find cruel. The tags — which are far cheaper — can be manipulated by humans or fall off if pigs get into fights, they point out.
JD.com’s facial technology can detect if a pig is sick and try to find out why, said a spokeswoman, Lu Yishan. Its system would then notify the breeder, who can then prescribe treatment. The company said that it has put the system into use at a farm in China’s northern Hebei Province that it created with China Agricultural University in Beijing, and that it is for sale to willing farmers.
Alibaba’s system monitors hog activity and allows farmers to track the swine in real time, the company said in a statement. It would then prescribe an exercise plan to improve their health. Its marketing video shows pigs running in the woods and playing with a ball. Alibaba said Tequ Group, a large pig farming company based in the southwestern province of Sichuan, uses the technology. Tequ didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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 Mr. He, of Yingzi.
The pigs don’t always cooperate. Yingzi, which introduced its products commercially last year, uses video to capture them in motion.
“You can’t take a single picture of a pig,” said Mr. He, who is trying to add to his database of more than 200,000 pig images. He said his technology, which is being used in a pig farm in the southern region of Guangxi, won’t eliminate swine fever but could help farmers detect it sooner.
Not everybody in the pig technology field agrees on approach.
Chen Haokai, the co-founder of SmartAHC, said farmers don’t really need facial recognition. According to Mr. Chen, the cost of trying to map a pig’s face is about $ 7 versus $ 0.30 for tagging a pig’s ear. He said his products are used by four pig breeding companies.
“We found that in trying to capture the faces of pigs, the labor cost far exceeds that of tagging,” he said.
Wang Lixian, a research fellow of animal and veterinary science at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, is optimistic that the cost of the technologies will drop.
“Right now, these applications may not have reached their desired levels,” he said, “but in the future they will become more and more extensive.”