In today’s world it’s easy to get swept up in the cool side of Artificial Intelligence. Whether it be a new Amazon Echo, autonomous cars or perhaps the new Boston Dynamics Robot, which now has the amazing ability to open a door (just watch the video on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean). However, whilst the cool stuff is put right in front of our eyes, for us to fascinate over it’s easy to forget about what goes on behind the scenes of Artificial Intelligence.
Now I’m not saying that the tech, gadgets and robots aren’t cool, they’re very cool. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be the first in line to buy an autonomous flying car, when the time comes. But, what I would like to do is showcase a couple of examples of how AI and ML is helping nature.
Where’s the Bear?
First up is the Bear. An animal I’m sure we all could spot (and run very fast away from) should it be standing within close proximity. But what if you had hundreds of bears to spot across an area spanning nine square miles, pretty tricky right?
Sedgwick Ranch Reserve in California had just this problem. They had over 10 years of image data collected from thousands of camera traps all over the reserve and no quick way to sort through it all. So, in came the Data Scientists and their machine learning algorithm to sort through it for them. Using this algorithm, they were able to teach their computers to identify and classify a huge array of bears, deer, coyotes and pretty much any animal which calls the reserve home, in real time! A task which may have taken someone months, maybe even years to sort through.
I understand that being able to recognise bears isn’t exactly saving nature, but it’s the application of this technology which can. Now that Sedgwick’s machine has the basis for identification of species it will be able to start recognising healthy bears from unhealthy ones. They can count animal population numbers, track migration habits and even tell animals apart from one another. Basically, it is an Ecologist’s dream. Imagine being able to use this machine to monitor the effects of drought or natural disaster on animal populations, and how we could use the data collected to help them in future. Furthermore, it could be used to set up a real-time notification system, say to alert hikers to the presence of an angry bear or even the local authorities to an unfamiliar individual, such as a poacher. Which brings me to my next point…
The Hunters Becomes the Hunted
Illegal poaching is responsible for thousands of animal deaths every year. Whilst amazing animals such as Elephants, Tigers and Rhinos are hunted towards extinction for their skins and ivory, the criminal underworld reaps the benefits in a trade which is estimated to be worth up to $200 billion per year.
The war between conservationists and poachers has been going on for years and with over 1000 rhinos killed in South Africa alone last year, it can often seem like a losing battle.
Enter Neurala, the new weapon in the war on illegal hunting. Neurala is an AI company responsible for using a machine learning algorithm along with cameras and drones to stop poachers dead in their tracks. Similar to Sedgwick’s ‘Where’s the bear?’ technology, Neurala’s tech will assist human analysts by sifting through large quantities of data and footage within hours, so that it can track the predicted paths of animals and poachers alike.
However, Neurala wasn’t the first organisation to develop such technology. In 2013 the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Army Research Office developed a programme aptly named PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security). Using information given to it PAWS would use the data to predict where poachers might next strike and therefore be able to plan patrols accordingly. As the system developed it was even able to randomise patrols so that the poachers wouldn’t catch on to what was going on.
Since it’s inception PAWS has been used by organisations to protect forests in Malaysia and won the Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence award, as one of the best AI applications with measurable benefits.
Whether it be an application to track bears so that we can manage their ecology more efficiently or a computer which can turn the hunters into the hunted, we can see that AI can be used as a force for good. Using this amazing technology, we have given the animals of the world a fighting chance and proven that AI can be so much than just flashy tech which we use on a daily basis. Yes, the smartphones and drones are still cool, but if we all look a little bit deeper we might find an application of AI which is even cooler.
How do you think AI and machine learning can save nature? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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