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Level Blog

3 min read

Will AI save the sixth mass extinction?

Nov 16, 2018 9:11:00 PM

To put in context, the fifth mass extinction, some 65 million years ago, removed 75% of all known species, most notably, the dinosaurs.

We are not very nice, the Human Race. Not when it comes to our fellow planet inhabitants. In fact, we have managed to wipe out 60% of the total animal population since 1970 according to a major report by the WWF.

“If there was a 60% decline in the human population It would be the equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania…. Nature is not ‘nice to have’ it is our life support system ”

Mike Barratt Executive Director of Science and Conservation at WWF.

Since the dawn of civilisation, we have exterminated around 83% of all mammals. Mass extinction has happened on five previous occasions on earth. Previous mass extinctions were caused by climate change, geological catastrophes, volcanic eruptions or even earth strike from meteors. This is the first mass extinction where the blame can be laid firmly at our door in terms of responsibility.

We are poisoning the planet via our reckless and wasteful inhabitance by chemicals and pollution, destroying marine life with over fishing, but, perhaps above all, we are destroying natural habitats by introducing industry and farming to much of the earth’s land. Wildlife is being pushed out of its natural habitat, hunted or simply dying of starvation as a result of the reduction in its natural prey. It's affecting all species too.

The African lion population has declined by 43% in 20 years and they are now extinct in 15 African Countries. There is a distinct possibility that in less than 30 years time, the only examples remaining will be those in captivity.

Protection and conservation can work and it is heartening to see some examples where it’s using Artificial Intelligence to do so. In a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest nations on the planet, sophisticated technology is being used to track one of the most endangered species: The African Elephant.

It is estimated that their population has declined by two thirds in recent decades, primarily as a result of ivory poachers. Ironic that on the boat I was taking photos of this beautiful matriarch a month ago, the consensus of some was that the planned re-introduction of hunting was a “good thing”.

Help though is at hand. Cognitive Technology, more specifically, Cognitive Agents (which for the uninitiated, replicates human thought) are being used to distinguish between elephant calls and other sounds. Movements can be tracked (very difficult by satellite in thick forest or dense African bush) and signs of poaching may be captured in real time and possibly averted. One such project is even monitoring where elephants congregate at certain times of the year (their movements are historic and movements and migrations are passed within herds over many decades). This means that "industrial interference" such as logging in forests) can be postponed for the duration of these gatherings.

The technology utilised in classic AI. It uses rules and algorithms to determine elephant behaviour more accurately and reduce the amount of human intervention required. Data analysis which when performed manually is quite a time consuming and prone to human error. This can be automated using a combination of a rules-based algorithm and Natural Language Processor. This ensures data is analysed much more quickly and too far greater degrees of accuracy. It is therefore much easier to count the animals and track the population, but also reduce the opportunities for poachers to successfully stalk their prey. Algorithms are also being used to track and then ultimately predict, the paths of poachers based on past movements. Anti-poaching enforcement can be dispatched in real time to thwart those in the act. In some countries, most notably Botswana, the elephant population has started to increase again after years of decline.

Artificial Intelligence has had some seriously negative press of late. In our view, it isn't about the reduction of jobs which seems to be the main thrust of any articles and commentary of late. It's about providing sustainable benefit to society. In the example above the application of AI is being used to supplement human thought. By application of Cognitive Agents, tasks which would take hours or weeks take minutes or even seconds by the reduction or even removal of laborious, repetitive tasks. Automation of these tasks also enables the reduction of human error.

If we are to avoid the sixth mass destruction, or even the removal of precious wildlife from their natural habitats, then there are many more factors or changes in behavior that need to occur. As ever, technology, most specifically, AI is a key enabler to this particular transformation. Let us hope it isn't too late to reverse the change.

David Watts
Written by David Watts

David was Level's Commercial Director in 2018. After graduating in Business Studies, he has over 30 years sales and Senior Management positions in the IT industry. During the past 10 years, David has held UK board positions in Oracle, EMC and most recently Sage. He managed the harmonisation of Sun Microsystems after the acquisition by Oracle and was responsible for the accelerated growth of Sage’s Enterprise business.