How AI for Earth is inspiring new generations to help the planet

Climate change will challenge humanity for generations to come. But today’s young people are proving that they have the passion – and inspiration – to rise to the occasion. Some will be attending the United Nations Youth Climate summit in New York City on Sept. 21 that leads up to the U.N. Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23.

These young scientists around the globe are using Microsoft AI for Earth grants to expand our knowledge of the natural world, putting Microsoft cloud and AI tools in the hands of those working to solve global environmental challenges:

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle: streamlining camera traps

Manoj Sarathy, a high school student, is working with Dr. Robert Long of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to develop an AI tool that processes data from wildlife camera traps to monitor species in the Pacific Northwest and in the Rocky Mountains. Using machine learning, this resource will be able to identify and index a wide variety of animals in a much shorter timeframe than if processed manually. Camera traps can generate large amounts of data, some of which are false positives – for example, when something triggers the camera, but nothing meaningful is photographed. This AI tool examines the images and eliminates images that don’t require more detailed inspection.

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Cornell University, Ithaca, New York: listening to the sound of the rainforest

Dr. Laurel Symes and Dr. Holger Klinck are leading a project that uses insect sounds to monitor rainforests. Working out of the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program in Ithaca, New York, their team of researchers uses AI to monitor insect sounds to develop a better understanding of the dynamics of these habitats. Tropical rainforests are home to great swathes of biodiversity, in part, because they are inaccessible to humans. The combination of plant density and high canopies makes these rainforests a challenging environment for traditional study techniques. This team’s first focus is on neotropical rainforest katydids, or bush crickets. The research will then move beyond insects to birds, monkeys and other vocal animals.

ETH Zurich: making the rainforest everyone’s joint concern

David Dao is a doctoral candidate at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He is building AI and data systems to help fight deforestation. Historically, figuring out which body is responsible for looking after a section of forest has been a challenge. Dao and his team came up with an innovative idea: Make everyone a caretaker of the forest. This system allows people to make a financial investment in the forest’s wellbeing, with the hope of gaining a return. This gives – giving everyone an incentive to help fight deforestation.

University of Alberta in Canada: grizzly bears and the right to roam

Clayton Lamb is a researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, specializing in grizzly bears. Lamb is particularly interested in the scope of the bears’ territory – or lack of it – as grizzlies only occupy a fraction of the land they formerly roamed. Much of the remaining population also faces competition for land use from humans. Lamb’s work uses AI and machine-learning tools to create a comprehensive analysis of the human and environmental factors that could contribute to the limiting of grizzly bear density.

iNaturalist: Using AI for species identification

iNaturalist is a social media platform that helps people identify the plants, animals and insects they see anywhere in the world. With badges and features that offer a gaming element, users capture biodiversity data and share their findings. The iNat’s Seek app was created with families in mind with features to mask location data and other potentially sensitive information about children using the app. There are an estimated 10 million species in the world, but only 1.8 million have been discovered and just 90,000 analyzed. So there’s plenty of scope for getting involved.

Colorado State University: Inspiration from above

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, CoCoRaHS for short, works with thousands of trained volunteer observers, including children, to gather data on rain, snow and hail. Using tools like plastic rain gauges, citizen scientists measure rain or snowfall each morning and submit their readings to the CoCoRaHS database. Making this data available to weather forecasting services is helping improve severe weather models, making it easier to issue accurate and timely alerts when needed.

City University of New York: Looking to the future 

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Just off the Pacific coast of North America lies the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) Regional Cabled Array. It sits atop the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, collecting oceanographic data. Dr. Dax Soule at City University of New York uses that data to engage students from a variety of backgrounds. One such study concerns the Axial Seamount, which combines a volcanic hotspot with a mid-ocean ridge. Using cloud-based tools to access this data and then conduct important research, Soule is helping to inspire the next generation of oceanographic scientists.

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