Receiving Advice on Machine Learning for Conservation from a Caltech Expert


The Caltech Science Exchange recently hosted a webinar series Conversations on Artificial Intelligence, where two AI researchers, Pietro Perona and Suzanne Stathatos, discussed potential use of AI tools in wildlife conservation and biodiversity research. Perona is the Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering at Caltech while Stathatos was formerly a software engineer at Amazon and JPL, managed by Caltech. Under the moderation of Caltech science writer Robert Perkins, they discussed several ways computer vision can be used to identify and track wildlife to provide fresh insights to biologists, naturalists and other environment enthusiasts.

Computer vision is essentially a way of enabling machines to understand the world and recreate the same ability we have, to recognize, categorize and comprehend objects around us. But it can be particularly challenging when it comes to identification of an object by just looking into it due to a variety of factors like different perspectives, different lighting, etc.

AI techniques can also be used in ecology and conservation. For instance, Stathatos worked on a project which applies sonar imaging for monitoring salmon population in the Pacific Northwest to support both ecological and economic efforts. Similarly, she also worked with a student to understand the response of walrus population in accordance to the changing Arctic conditions using remote satellite imagery and computer vision algorithms.

AI can eliminate labor and provide access to data that would not be else available. Apart from this, iNaturalist, an app developed by Scott Loarie at the California Academy of Science, uses AI algorithms to identify plants and animals through photos captured by smart devices and is a big help for naturalists and amateur biologists.

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Despite the advantages, there are also potential ethical and privacy concerns like facial recognition as this technology becomes more and more accessible. Therefore it is important to ensure appropriate measures are taken to secure data from misuse.

With a deep interest in science and engineering, Caltech is always eager to contribute to society with their research . Their two experts Pietro Perona and Suzanne Stathatos discussed a range of topics that not only help the environment but also highlight how the possibilities of AI are seemingly endless.

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