When Ant Financial decided to hold its Technology Exploration Conference (ATEC) in Silicon Valley this past month, it chose an unabashedly idealist theme: bringing greater equality and access to financial services for the masses.
ATEC is Ant Financial’s exploratory summit for communicating with its global partners and technologists. And in the inaugural event (co-hosted with PingWest), leaders from across the global fintech field turned out for an introduction to what Ant Financial has already achieved, and what it is planning next.
Hu Xi, an Ant vice president and chief architect, illustrated the real significance of the company’s work with the stories of four people. In 2014, at a Mt. Everest base camp, a young Tibetan man by the name of Tsering posted Alipay QR codes on the camp tents, letting visitors pay for minor camp services through Alipay and sparing Tsering the trouble of trekking off to the bank just to deposit change. In 2015, using facial scans to confirm payments might have seemed redundant to many, but for elderly users like 60 year old Wang Yanling, it meant no longer having to scrounge up hard-to-remember PIN codes. Within a year of its introduction, some 200 million users were making use of the feature.
Chinese users are no strangers to “Ant Forest,” a program where every transaction earns points that eventually be used to have a tree planted for anti-desertification efforts. Thus far, Chinese users have supported the planting of over 10 million trees through the program, making a difference that’s large enough to be literally visible from orbit.
Finally, a dairy cow farmer was able to secure loans through Alipay that solved his cash flow problems and allowed him to expand his operations. Smallholder farmers like him have traditionally been neglected by banks.
All of this was new for most of those listening. In the last two years China’s internet sector has blossomed, competition has intense, and innovation has accelerated to a point that it has overturned preconceptions about what China’s industry was capable of. Alibaba has been part of all of that, and as one of its affiliates, Ant Financial’s role cannot be overlooked.
In the process, technology and innovations have been rapidly commercialized, penetrating every market, urban and rural, adult and youth, wealthy and poor. And that is exactly what Ant Financial has been pursuing, a future where technology reaches far and wide, cutting across boundaries.
“Empathy” is a word that Chinese internet companies have long overused in their pitches and advertisements, but there may be no other description for what is behind Ant’s drive.
Having been with the company since 2007, Hu Xi has seen for himself how Alipay has evolved, from a plain and simple means of securing transactions on Taobao to a shortcut for simplifying online bank payments to its current incarnation with QR scanning and mobile payments and the beginnings of a credit system.
That outlook, he says, is based on Ant’s BASIC strategy, comprised of blockchain, AI, security, IoT, and cloud computing. It is in those fives areas that Ant is setting the foundation for its future technical developments.
Alan Qi is Ant’s chief data scientist, helping to lead the company’s work on AI. In the past year, he says, Ant has opened up more and more of its work to the world, including smart finance, smart customer service, and image recognition based loss assessment tools that have all helped to enhance security and efficiency.
As to the image recognition and loss assessment, Qi showed a case involving assessing the damage to a car. Ant’s algorithmic tool was able to accurately estimate the repair costs just from a photo, bypassing the need for a professional assessment.
Qi shared some examples of the kinds of surprising and otherwise undetectable correlations that can be teased out of Ant Financials’ data. For instance, there’s a strong connection between young women who wear skinny jeans and broken phone screens: they are, apparently, more likely to drop their phones when fishing them out of their pockets and then need to get the screen replaced.
But as anyone could guess, what many in the audience at ATEC came to hear about was blockchain, and it was on that subject that the head of Ant’s technology labs, Geoff Jiang, had come to speak. And blockchain, Jiang believes, has the makings for shaping the next decade of financial technology.
As he revealed, Ant’s own blockchain platform was coded from scratch, and as a technology company, Ant Financial is looking to make breakthroughs of its own in the field. Jiang contrasted the performance, privacy, and other features of Ant’s own blockchain system with mainstream ones. He says that the first project for Ant’s platform has been in verifying food safety and product sourcing. For instance, for ten different brands of imported baby formula from New Zealand and Australia, each can is now given its own individual QR code, so that its provenance, production date, shipping, and inspection information can all be checked through Alipay.
Moutai, the liquor company, is another partner, using Ant’s blockchain to verify the authenticity of liquor sold online. Jiang added that Moutai’s own app now involves a hefty amount of IoT technology. For instance, the bottle caps are studded with RFID tags to help in monitoring logistics, but the magnetic fields associated with them can be adapted for blockchain purposes as well.
It has to be said that, while many have been awed, frustrated, and overjoyed by the price fluctuations in cryptocurrencies, Ant has been putting blockchain to use in charitable giving, bringing greater transparency to help ensure that donations go where promised. If three people donate a total of 60 dollars to a cause, Ant’s platform will allow them to each track and be sure that all of the money ends up in the hands of a needy child’s and not in someone else’s pocket.
At the same time, Ant is planning for its blockchain platform to serve brands and regions beyond China. Jiang hopes that the technology can be open, and may even help to increase efficiency between organizations.
It was not all just Ant Financial’s own staff, though. MIT professor and Turing Award winner Silvio Micali was there to deliver a keynote talk digging into the real value, and disruptive nature, of blockchain technologies. There were additionally panels on how technology stands to make financial services more equitable and inclusive and whether or not blockchain is really the gamechanger it has been celebrated as (both moderated by PingWest’s own editor-in-chief, Thomas Luo). The former panel was joined by Alan Qi, Hans Tung of GGV Capital, and Wang Min, VP of Visa’s research division, while the latter included Geoff Jiang, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s Digital Channels, Umar Farooq, Emi Yoshikawa of Ripple, and Lin Xiahong of prediction marketplace Bodhi.
ATEC will be heading next to Singapore and then London.