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Alipay allows pet owners to buy insurance by using facial recognition on their cats and dogs

Abacus logo Abacus 21/7/2020 Karen Chiu karen.chiu@scmp.com
a screen shot of a dog: Alipay’s AI algorithm provides instructions that guide users through taking a photos of their pets to enrol them into its pet insurance program. Picture: Handout Alipay’s AI algorithm provides instructions that guide users through taking a photos of their pets to enrol them into its pet insurance program. Picture: Handout

Pet insurance has existed for a while, but it often involves filling out boring paper forms and taking a trip to the vet to implant a microchip in their furry friends. China's e-payment giant Alipay has another idea.

The platform, run by Ant Financial " an affiliate of South China Morning Post owner Alibaba " has launched its first ever insurance program for cats and dogs. Enrolment is simple: Using the Alipay app, owners can set up a digital profile of their animals by taking a few pictures.

A close-up photo of the animal is used to establish a record of its nose print. Similar to how smartphones and law enforcement agencies use fingerprints to identify humans, dogs and cats are believed to have unique and permanent skin patterns on their noses.

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Kennels have long been using nose prints to track and locate lost dogs. Nose prints are taken by coating a dog's nose with ink and pressing it on a white cardboard. Alipay has given the primitive method an upgrade by using AI to locate special markers on an animal's nose.

a screenshot of a cell phone: To enrol, users need to submit basic information about their pets, such as birth date and breed. Picture: Handout © Provided by Abacus To enrol, users need to submit basic information about their pets, such as birth date and breed. Picture: Handout

Alipay says its technology is less invasive than microchipping and has an accuracy rate above 99 per cent. An annual premium for the service starts at 199 yuan (US$28), getting buyers a 3,000-yuan (US$429) policy that covers accidents and non-congenital diseases.

The insurance program is offered in partnership with China Continent Insurance and digital insurer ZhongAn.

Another Chinese company has also been working on a similar piece of technology. AI company Megvii announced last year that it was working on differentiating dogs by their nose prints. At the time, Megvii said it had achieved 95 per cent accuracy.

Alipay isn't even the first platform to offer digital pet insurance by collecting biometric information. Lufax, an online finance platform backed by Ping An, China's largest insurer, introduced its own plan last year. Customers can scan the face of their pets to sign up or file a claim.

In addition to insurance, animal lovers and researchers have found plenty of other applications for animal facial recognition.

Finding Rover, a US smartphone app, uses a machine learning algorithm developed at the University of Utah to match photos of lost dogs against a database.

Meanwhile, conservationists have been using facial recognition to keep tabs on wild animals. Scientists in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, for instance, have been using a collection of images and videos to try to identify bears without interfering with their habitat.

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