Hogging the limelight or bringing home the bacon?

Alibaba is using software that can learn by itself to raise pigs. Is it just a marketing gimmick or does it solve a real problem?

Artificial Intelligence has come a long way since IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

By beating 18-time world Go champion Lee Sedol in 2016 and reigning world No 1 Ke Jie a year later, AlphaGo – developed by Google’s DeepMind unit – not only showed machine intelligence could beat a human in a complex board game. It also showed machines could be taught to act intuitively and strategically much like humans and, crucially, to learn for themselves.

The result? An R&D boom in artificial intelligence (AI) fed on the swelling belief among businesses, investors and governments that software that learns by itself will change the way we do everything from supply chain management to pig farming.

Take China, where the ruling State Council is targeting global AI leadership by 2030. There, Alibaba Cloud has partnered with two groups – Tequ Group and Kangde Group – to raise live pigs, using AI technology to manage feeding and health and eventually boost the entire hog production process.

The question is whether Alibaba has found the right use case for artificial intelligence. Will it bring organic food into the mainstream, or is it simply a case of trying to use AI to crack a problem for the sake of it?

“We believe enhanced operating efficiency will help ensure pork supply and maintain a stable market price that will benefit enterprises and consumers alike in China,” Simon Hu, president of Alibaba Cloud, said in June at the launch of its ET Agricultural Brain programme.  

Organic pig farming is much more than just allowing pigs to roam free. Ali Cloud said ET Agricultural Brain will record everything from the breeding process to how many hours pigs sleep, with a view to improving birth rates and minimising premature deaths.

It will also monitor the emotional and psychological wellbeing of pigs and provide consumers and pig farmers with full access to the data, before and after slaughter.

The partnership aims to breed 10 million pigs by 2020 – “a scale that no ordinary automation system could cope with, let alone a human system,” Degen Wang, chairman of Tequ Group said in the statement. 


The ET Agricultural Brain investment is part of a broader strategy by Alibaba to, er, beef up its “new retail” strategy, upgrading the whole supply, sales and logistics chain. Rather than a one-stop shop, Alibaba may be targeting something akin to a one-stop shop/bank/farm.

As it is, retail customers are increasingly able to order meat through an Alibaba online platform and pay for them with Alipay, its payment unit. These orders can either be picked up at its Hema supermarkets or delivered through Ele.me’s on-demand delivery service team.

Perhaps in future customers will be able to choose their piglet, watch it fatten, and bring home the bacon when the time is ready – assuming they haven’t turned vegan or vegetarian by then or lost a means to an income due to inroads in the labour market made by AI. 

To be sure, other internet entrepreneurs have been inspired to overhaul pig farming and agriculture before, without achieving the technological breakthroughs or market share they hoped.

Ding Lei, boss of US-listed internet portal NetEase, moved into organic pig-rearing in 2009, but it wasn’t until last year that his venture started to sell pork on a trial basis through a pop-up store and online channel.

“[The] pig farming business is much tougher than operating an internet company because you need to overcome the regulatory problems,” he said earlier this year. “You need to get at least 100 stamps from different government bodies before you raise pigs.”  

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