In June 2018, a rescue attempt to save a pilot whale who was struggling to swim and breathe failed in Thailand. The autopsy revealed that the whale had more than 17 pounds of plastic bags and other trash clogging its stomach, which had made it difficult for the animal to digest food. Such examples have become fairly common nowadays.

According to UNESCO’s Facts and figures on marine biodiversity, by 2100, without major changes, more than half of all marine species will be at risk of extinction. Oceans contain the greatest diversity of life on Earth and protecting them has become one of the world’s most important challenges. One of the latest powers to take charge in this field is Artificial Intelligence.

How does Artificial Intelligence play a role?

AI can and is being used to complete tasks that are usually done manually by researchers, like identifying individual animals from photos for population studies to categorizing the many millions of camera trap photos gathered by field scientists. The big data that is received through advanced technologies like machine learning can be analyzed for various purposes. New advances in satellite observation, open data and machine learning now allow us to process the massive amounts of data being produced. Here are some examples where smart technology is making a difference.

In 2014, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, (UCSD) built an artificially intelligent camera intended to monitor and track endangered species. The submergible system records video when it hears a vocalization created by a marine animal and produces relevant data for biological monitoring. The SphereCam is powered by an Intel Edison compute module which allows for flexibility, energy efficiency and easy programming. In addition, the module can run on batteries for up to a week and fit inside the camera, preventing it from getting wet.

Global Fishing Watch uses satellite-based monitoring to track all fishing vessels in real-time to protect fisheries around the world. They collect satellite imagery and analyze boats’ movements with a specially designed form of machine learning to determine if they are fishing or sea-fearing vessels. Then they post all fishing boat data to their open source website, so that researchers, law enforcement agencies and the public can keep watch on key trends such as frequency and monitor if any fishing boats venture into protected waters.

Google has teamed up with Queensland University to create a detector powered by machine learning, which can automatically identify manatees (or sea cows) in ocean images. This detector can save the time, energy and resources that researchers spend while sifting through thousands of aerial photos to spot the animals, as the image recognition system will do this work for them.

How do all these devices and information help?

Information such as this helps conservationists track populations, identify the results of human interventions in manatee habitats and can play a key role in managing the future of this endangered species. Similar software can also be developed to track other marine life as well, such as humpback whales and other ocean mammals.

Researchers are also using computational sustainability — the ability to analyze Big Data and make predictions based on trends — to understand marine life and find solutions.

In partnership with Microsoft, The Nature Conservancy has combined traditional, academic research with cloud and AI technologies to map, in high resolution, ocean wealth. By evaluating the economic value of ocean ecosystem services- such as carbon storage and fishing activity- it will make better conservation and planning decisions possible.

IBM recently announced a new AI-power microscope capable of detecting plankton’s behavior, to predict the health of the environment. In a few years, IBM anticipates that these small autonomous AI microscopes will be networked in the cloud and deployed around the world, continually collecting information that will provide tremendous insight into the health and operation of the ocean’s complex ecosystem.

Combining AI and robotic technology could also reduce illegal activity by poachers through tracking as well as reduce emissions from cargo ships by suggesting the best routes. “Not only will a healthy ocean benefit its inhabitants, but the entire human race. AI is thus the next step”, writes Megan Ray from the Women of Green.

While AI is disrupting numerous industries and transforming lifestyle, it could also be a smart way to save marine life.

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