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Alibaba's Jack Ma Demos Pay-With-Your-Face Technology

When buying is as easy as taking a selfie.

Asa Mathat

Alibaba founder Jack Ma hopes that one day buying things with a smartphone will be as easy as taking a selfie.

In Hanover, Germany, Sunday night, where he was a headline speaker at the CeBit conference getting under way this week, Ma capped his speech by demonstrating a payment system on a smartphone using facial recognition technology. It’s currently being tested by Ant Financial, an Alibaba affiliate that runs the Alipay payment service and that Ma hopes to help take public in 2017.

“I want to take this opportunity to demonstrate a small innovative product that we designed,” Ma said after he initially appeared to wrap up his remarks.

Ma proceeded to use the technology to buy a gift for the mayor of Hanover — a souvenir stamp dating back to one of the city’s trade fairs in 1948 — found on Alibaba, of course.

“[Using] online payments to buy things is always a big headache,” he said. “You forget your password, you worry about security. Today we’ll show you a new technology, how in the future people will buy things online.”

On a smartphone he pressed a “buy” button, which triggered a face-recognition routine. A photo from the CeBit official Twitter stream captured the moment. Ma looked like he was taking a selfie, and a white outline appeared around the shape of his head.

And then just as suddenly as he started the demonstration, it was over. “In six days this stamp will be delivered to the office of the mayor of Hanover,” Ma said.

Ma didn’t take any questions and wasn’t available for any follow-up interviews. Alibaba spokespeople didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment on the product. A source familiar with the company’s plans says Alibaba is “quite serious” about the technology.

Ma was one of the big-gun speakers at the opening ceremonies of the CeBit conference. The other was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who followed Ma on the stage.

Alibaba’s existing payment service is Alipay, which is similar to PayPal but used widely by Chinese consumers. Western companies like H&M, Gilt and Airbnb started accepting it as a payment option last year. Alipay also has a deal with Stripe to offer it as an option.

This wasn’t Ma’s first time in Hanover. Earlier in his speech he described his first trip here fourteen years ago, when he came to CeBit and rented a booth where he hoped to promote Chinese products that could be sold in Western Europe. CeBit has always been notable for being a huge event where only the biggest players tend to get noticed. “I spent a long time looking for the booth. At that time Hanover was not very prosperous, but the fair was very successful. … Finally we got a booth, but very few people found us,” he said.

That wasn’t a problem Sunday.

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