Courtesy of Wildbook

Scientists at Microsoft and conservation groups are beginning to use artificial intelligence to save threatened species, conserve protected lands, and enforce laws against overfishing.

Why it matters: AI, though traditionally associated with private industry, is allowing environmentalists to better protect polar bears, fish, and stream fauna.

Here are three projects in which AI is being used to protect the environment:

Tracking species: University of Illinois computer scientist Tanya Berger-Wolf's Wildbook project uses computer vision to recognize species including the polar bear, count their number, and track their migration, using crowdsourced images or those already compiled by conservationists. Wildbook also improves scientists' understanding of animal behavior.

Protecting the Chesapeake: Microsoft, working with the Chesapeake Conservatory, is leveraging AI to analyze pictures of land surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and creating a "land cover" dataset that is 900 times more detailed than previously possible. This increases scientists understanding of landscape features like trees that grow along streams that feed into the bay. Such fauna are oftentimes the last defense against polluting runoff, and understanding their placement allows conservationists to more efficiently deploy their resources.

Keeping fishermen honest: Regulators typically employ monitors to enforce rules against overfishing or ensnaring protected species in fishing nets. But for the vast majority of fisheries, human observers are too expensive, meaning that just 2% of global fishing operations can be monitored in this way. Now, regulators are using AI-equipped cameras to monitor what is caught, and AI software to analyze that data to make sure than fisherman are observing regulations.

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