Customers of China’s e-commerce giant will soon be able to buy online by taking a selfie, and the method could be a way to make payments easier for people with disabilities.

Alibaba customers will soon have to smile, no matter how much an item costs. Company founder and CEO Jack Ma demonstrated “Smile to Pay,” a new technology that lets you pay for an item with a selfie, at the CeBit conference in Hanover, Germany. 

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

Ma then used his smartphone to buy a stamp from a 1948 Hanover trade fair on Using face recognition software, the phone approved Ma’s identity, processed the payment and, “in six days this stamp will be delivered to the office of the mayor of Hanover,” Ma said.

The technology is being developed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. affiliate Ant Financial, which also operates the company’s online payment service, Alipay. Spokeswoman Miranda Shek says Alipay has more than 300 million registered users and handles approximately 80 million transactions per day.

“Our goal is perfecting and just to make it as convenient as possible for mobile payments,” Shek says. “We had a gentleman who had disabilities in his fingers visit our booth at CeBit. He couldn’t use a touch screen to type in passwords, and so he tried Smile to Pay. All he had to do was smile at the camera. This encouraged us to innovate on payment verification, and is one of the reasons why Ant Financial is developing more convenient payment verifications. Perhaps this is the solution for payment verification for people with disabilities.”


Smile to Pay will be launched in China first before rolling out to other countries. There is no launch date set for the technology, Shek says, but Ant Financial isn’t “rushing it.”

Facial recognition software has been criticized in the past for constantly accusing Asians of “squinting” in their photos. Questions about security, as well as faulty technology have some critics skeptical about the viability of Ma’s selfie payment service.

“There are security concerns and we are working on the technicalities,” Shek says. “We’re looking to perfect online and mobile payments system. We believe this could be disruptive to the future of payment verification.”

Along with Smile to Pay, Ant Financial is developing features that will allow users to pay by speaking a key word, phrase or even something Shek calls “Kong Fu,” which will allow clients to pay by taking a photo of a tattoo or pet. The company declined to give a launch date for these features, and would not comment on how much Smile to Pay or other technologies cost to develop. But Ant Financial technicians have been practicing paying—and developing the technology to do so—with selfies for the past year, Shek says.