• Dr. Timothy Smith

Protecting Wildlife with AI


In popular culture, artificial intelligence (AI) emanating from computers and embodied in robots so often gets cast as evil or anti-human. AI is depicted as helpful and caring for humans much less frequently. Notable examples include R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars or Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In each case, the robots not only care for the people around them, but, in Commander Data’s case, continuously strives to become more human-like. Given the typecasting of artificial intelligence in many movies and science fiction, along with the daily news often describing how AI will gobble up so many of our jobs from cab driver to factory worker, I decided to share some examples of AI acting as the good guy by helping to save wildlife and the environment around the world.

Back in 2013, researchers at the University of Southern California developed a system that uses AI and a type of mathematics called game theory to protect endangered species such as the African Elephant and the rhinoceros. They named the program PAWS, which stands for Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security. PAWS helps park rangers to optimally select the best anti-poaching patrol routes to protect the most animals and intercept poachers. The tool uses artificial intelligence to analyze features of the terrain such as hills, mountains, rivers, lakes and forests as well as known migration paths for certain animals. The system learns over time from the results of every patrol and uses game theory (a mathematical way of guessing what your opponent will do) to predict where the poachers will be. The PAWS system has given the rangers a much better chance to protect the animals in their park. With tens of thousands of animals being poached each year for their skins, medicinal qualities, or sport, PAWS provides a great example of AI working for the common good.

One of the drawbacks of PAWS stems from the fact that it makes the route calculations based on past route performance. Now, another AI system developed by a research team at Deakin University in Australia employs real-time data about where the animals requiring protection are in the park. Using remote, motion-activated cameras, the system can collect information on animal whereabouts. One of the difficult aspects of monitoring many remote cameras is that there are only so many people to monitor and analyze the data, but with AI, the system can learn what each type of animal is and then continuously and tirelessly keep track of where all the animals are, predict over time where they will go next, and track poachers and their vehicles.

The world tiger population has been diminished by poaching over the past 100 years. In an effort to raise money for the protection of tigers, the World Wildlife Fund in conjunction with Tiger Beer has launched a program called 3890Tigers. 3890 represents the estimated wild tiger population in the world today, and 3890Tigers stands for a AI driven art project designed to raise global awareness of the dwindling population of the wild tiger. Additionally, the project supports an international initiative to double the wild tiger population by 2022. The project uses AI to generate pictures that incorporate unique art styles, a selfie, and a tiger image (https://3890.tigerbeer.com/us/age-gate). 3890Tigers asks everyone to share their image across social media to spread the word of the cause.

More often than not, AI and robotics in popular culture are depicted as anti-human, either as agents of change that will distort our lives by taking our jobs or as villains in movies such as Ex Machina or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some examples of a more benevolent AI exist in movies such a Star Wars. There are, however, a number of examples where AI is being deployed today for the preservation of endangered species. AI helps park rangers better protect animals by not only selecting the best patrol routes to foil poachers, but to predict where the animals will be. Additionally, the World Wildlife Fund has teamed up with Tiger Beer, 13 Asian countries, 6 artists, and artificial intelligence to raise awareness of the tiger plight and support a program to double the wild tiger population over the next 5 years. AI can assist people and help protect wildlife in new and powerful ways not possible before the rise of artificial intelligence.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

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