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A Shanghai Metro train. The system operates more than 4,000 trains on 17 lines and has 367 stations in its network. Photo: Zigor Aldama

Shanghai subway to use Alibaba voice and facial recognition systems in AI push

One of the world’s longest and busiest mass-transit railway systems aims to ease commuting experience of passengers with intelligent ticket machines


The subway system in the Chinese city of Shanghai will bring in voice and facial recognition technologies developed by e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding, as it seeks to make life easier for the millions of commuters on one of the longest and busiest mass-transit railway networks on the planet.

Alibaba, its affiliate Ant Financial Services Group and Shanghai Shentong Metro Group, the operator of the Shanghai Metro, said in a joint announcement on Tuesday that the Metro would install Alibaba-developed “far-field” voice recognition technology in ticket machines in all stations, as well as facial recognition system at the entrance of stations to verify the identities of commuters.

Passengers would be able to tell their destination to ticket machines, and the machines would then recommend the best route.

“Passengers don’t even need to use any special word to activate the kiosk,” said Yan Zhijie, director of intelligent speech recognition at Alibaba’s Institute of Data and Science Technology.

Yan said the far-field voice recognition technology enables accurate communication with a smart device from a distance of up to five metres, even in extremely noisy public areas like subway stations.

He said the facial recognition technology was still in the early stages of development, so commuters would be required to submit their photos to be put into a database for verification by the system.

No launch dates for the new systems were given. Ant Financial’s Alipay payment option for Metro, the smartphone app of the Shanghai Metro, will be available early next year.

Commuters at a Shanghai Metro station. The system is one of the world’s busiest. Photo: Zigor Aldama

China has been forging ahead with developing applications for artificial intelligence, a field it has set out to dominate.

In July, the State Council, China’s cabinet, laid out goals to build a domestic artificial intelligence industry worth nearly US$150 billion by 2030, and to make the country an “innovation centre for AI”.

With more than 60 years of international development behind it, AI has become an umbrella term covering multiple technologies, including machine learning, cognitive computing, natural language processing and so-called neural networks.

Paul Haswell, a partner at international law firm Pinsent Masons, said Alibaba “could take the lead in rolling out artificial intelligence systems in China’s transport sector”.

He pointed out, however, that “these would not be enough to differentiate Alibaba from the AI solutions being developed by Baidu, Tencent and Huawei”.

For Alibaba, the collaboration with Shanghai Metro marks the first time that its systems will be used in China’s transport industry, according to a company spokeswoman.

She said Alibaba was also keen to deploy the technologies in airports and other commercial environments, including restaurants, retail stores and company reception desks.

More than 4,000 trains serve Shanghai Metro’s network of 367 stations. The railway system accounts for 53 per cent of all public transport in the central coastal city of 24 million people. Average weekday traffic on the Shanghai Metro stands at 10.65 million individual trips.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Shanghai Metro gets tech upgrade from Alibaba