Pay with a selfie? Alibaba's Jack Ma debuts face-recognition payment tech

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 11:32am

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is developing a technology that will allow users to pay for goods and services by taking a photo of their face. 

The technology was unveiled during a speech by company founder Jack Ma Yun at the CeBit conference in Hannover, Germany, where Ma was the headline speaker. 

In a Steve Jobs-style "one more thing" moment, at the end of his speech Ma told the audience he wanted to show them a "small innovative product that we designed". 

"[Using] online payments to buy things is always a big headache," he said. "You forget your password, yo worry about security, today we'll show you a new technology, how people in the future will buy things online." 

He then used his smartphone to buy a souvenir stamp from a 1948 Hannover trade fair found on Alibaba's e-commerce site. Using face recognition software, the phone approved Ma's identity and processed the payment. 

"In six days this stamp will be delivered to the office of the mayor of Hannover," Ma said. 

According to Alibaba, the technology is being developed by Ant Financial, a subsidiary of the company which also operates Alipay, China's largest online and mobile payments service. Alipay, which has more than 300 million registered users and handles around 80 million transactions every day, has faced increasing competition in recent months from domestic rivals including Tencent and UnionPay as well as foreign firms seeking to enter the lucrative Chinese mobile payments market such as Apple and Japan's Line

Alipay was initially part of Alibaba itself but was spun out by Ma ahead of the parent company's blockbuster IPO in New York last year. At an event in Hong Kong last month, Ma suggested that the financial affiliate may also go public in the near future. 

"I think Ant Financial should go public but it is still a baby," Mas said. "I haven’t considered when and where to list the operation."

As well as the "Smile to Pay" face-recognition technology, Ant Financial is also developing systems which would allow users to pay by speaking a key word or phrase, or by taking a photo of a tattoo or even a pet, according to CNBC

Smile to Pay will be launched in China first, before rolling out in other countries. At present no launch date is set. A company spokeswoman said Alibaba is "quite serious" about developing the technology. 

Ma was followed at CeBit by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who used her keynote speech to highlight the importance of the digital economy to both Germany and China, something Chinese premier Li Keqiang also recently emphasised

Face recognition software has had limited success in the past. High-tech cameras with "smile detectors" have been criticised for constantly asking if Asian photo subjects are "blinking", while a much vaunted feature in basketball game NBA 2K15 which allowed players to take a photo of themselves and be rendered as a player in the game was widely mocked online after it failed to recognise most faces and those that did appeared horribly deformed when showed up in the game itself.