How Facial Recognition Is Coming for the Animal Kingdom

Key Takeaways

  • Facial recognition software is increasingly being used to monitor animals as well as humans.
  • Chinese farmers use the software to monitor the health of pigs and cows.
  • Conservationists are using facial recognition software to study species ranging from tigers to elephants.


imagenavi / Getty Images

Facial recognition isn’t just for tracking people anymore. Software that can identify the faces of animals is increasingly being used to monitor everything from exotic species like tigers and elephants to more common creatures like cows and pigs.

While the use of facial recognition is growing in the U.S. for law enforcement purposes, in China, the use of facial recognition software is surging to monitor pigs in a bid to increase pork production. The AI-powered software is used to track diseases, make farms more efficient, and help protect endangered species.

“If they are not happy and not eating well, in some cases, you can predict whether the pig is sick,” Jackson He, CEO of Yingzi Technologies, which developed the software, told The Guardian. Last year, the company unveiled its wireless network “Future Pig Farm” system, designed to reduce direct human-pig contact and curb the spread of swine fever and other contagions.

Measuring Ear to Snout

Yingzi’s software analyzes pigs’ snouts, ears, and eyes in order to tell them apart. It can also monitor the pigs’ pulses and sweat rates, and also check on an individual pig’s coughing. The system is designed to monitor pigs to prevent them from getting ill or underfed.

Another Chinese company, Beijing Unitrace Tech, develops software that uses facial recognition to monitor cows. Cameras monitor feeding troughs and milking stations, and farmers can input information on a cow’s health conditions, insemination dates, and pregnancy tests. 

“We’ve been using it for sheep, pigs, and cows,” company founder Zhao Jinshi told The Washington Post. “For pigs, it’s more difficult because pigs all look the same, but dairy cows are a bit special because they are black and white and have different shapes.”

“If they are not happy and not eating well, in some cases, you can predict whether the pig is sick.”

China’s use of facial recognition isn’t all good, however. The country has been criticized for its use of facial recognition technology to curtail civil liberties, as well as to profile and control ethnic minorities, human rights groups say

“China uses facial recognition to profile Uyghur individuals, classify them on the basis of their ethnicity, and single them out for tracking, mistreatment, and detention,” a bipartisan group of 17 senators said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 11. “And these technologies are deployed in service of a dystopian vision for technology governance, that harnesses the economic benefits of the internet in the absence of political freedom and sees technology companies as instruments of state power.”

Software That Saves

The effort in China is one of many facial recognition software efforts to track all kinds of animals. In Africa, facial recognition software is being used to help save elephants from poachers. The software is designed to recognize the trunks and tusks of individual elephants and notify conservationists when poachers are nearby.


Prasert Krainukul / Getty Images

Facial recognition is also used to identify the faces of individual wild chimpanzees. Researchers are studying the lives of chimpanzees over several generations, but searching through video footage would have taken hundreds of hours. 

A computer model was designed using more than 10 million images of chimps, and was then used to search for and identify individual chimpanzees. It was correct about 92% of the time, according to a paper published last year in Science Advances by researchers from the University of Oxford. 

“Automating the process of individual identification could represent a step change in our use of large image databases from the wild to open up vast amounts of data available for ethologists to analyze behavior for research and conservation in the wildlife sciences,” the authors wrote. 

Facial recognition technology is causing privacy concerns among people around the world. For animals, though, the software may help them lead healthier, longer lives.

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