Paying with a Smile

Alibaba Embraces Facial Recognition for Payments

To pay at a KFC store in Hangzhou, China, all you have to do is smile. KFC has introduced a facial recognition system at one of its branches in the city, which lets diners pay by smiling. The unique “Smile to Pay” system, developed by Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial, debuted at KFC’s new health-focussed concept restaurant, called KPRO.

According to Ant Financial, this is the first physical store in the world to apply facial recognition software to process payments. The company says it’s confident that this new initiative is completely secure and safe to use.

Diners can pay for food without cash, a credit card or a smartphone. Instead, they scan their face at a self-service kiosk and then enter their mobile phone number as an added level of security.

This service is based on Alipay, a digital payments platform from Ant Financial. Alipay has more than 500 million users worldwide and lets people sign into its app by using facial recognition software.

In China, this type of technology has become an increasingly legitimate way for people to identify themselves at business and government agencies. It’s even being used at Beijing’s historic Temple of Heaven to stop visitors from stealing rolls of toilet paper. Transport systems are also implementing facial recognition software. For example, China Southern Airlines began deploying it earlier in 2017 to do away with boarding passes for the first time.

Chinese consumers already lead the world in mobile payments, and Alipay, WeChat and Apple Pay are the three platforms with the most traction.

Alibaba has been pushing its vision of the future of commerce, which it believes integrates elements of both online and offline retail. For example, it launched a cashless store in summer 2017 and it operates 10 neighbourhood stores in Shanghai that use a mobile app to optimise the customer experience.

Smile to Pay is a bit of a gimmick, but it should help boost the popularity of Alipay. The company is eager to stay ahead of the curve with innovative technology, especially as Tencent’s WeChat Pay — a payment system connected to China’s hugely popular WeChat messenger app — is close on its heels.

Payment methods that apply biometrics aren’t unique, of course: popular mobile payment services integrate fingerprint sensors, and facial scanning could soon become a secondary form of authentication. Alibaba’s solution shows that interest in this space is on the rise, and with Apple expected to introduce facial recognition features at the launch event for its new iPhone this week, this is certainly poised to be a hot technology area.