Abbreviated Science Round-up: AI IDs animals, why cancer causes weight loss, fat cells that aren't
A few weeks ago, I downloaded an application, one of the over two million in the App Store that supports my phone. But this particular download wasn’t yet another camera filter, or another effort in my attempt to find the perfect hiking companion. It was a program called “iNaturalist” that works to help identify the plants and animals around us.
I took a picture of a large insect pulled from a pool behind a family home — iNaturalist instantly identified it as a a American Giant Water bug. I took a picture of a frog screaming loudly from a perch high on a wall. INaturalist tagged it as a Grey Tree Frog. Over in the garden some long tendrils and a cluster of long, arrowhead-shaped leaves were outed as the first steps of an invasion from Field Bindweed.
All three of these pictures were not staged or professional. They were shots taken from my phone—a bug on the lip of a plastic cup, a frog crouched down on a board, a few leaves in dappled shade. And in every case, I didn’t provide the app a single prompt for what I was looking at — not even whether what I was looking at was a plant or an animal. Since then, iNaturalist has quickly and accurately identified turtles, birds, bugs, trees, with no input from me other than pointing the camera. That little white flower I don’t know the name of? Common Star-of-Bethlehem. That rather nondescript moth turns out to be a Willow Beauty.
The way the app pulls the item of interest from the background for evaluation is a bit of edge-detecting software magic, but the way it got so smart about hammering out those IDs is easier to explain — lots and lots of people. About 70,000 people a day add more than 10,000 new images every day and also go back to look at other people’s images and share their own identifications. Behind the scenes, the app and it’s web counterpart use these feedback to hone identification skills.
At one point in the last couple of weeks … I was a bad use. I uploaded an image that was intentionally nondescript, a small brown bird, and added an ID of my own. That was intentionally wrong. However, within a matter of minutes, both the app and multiple users had appeared to drown out by mis-identification with correct results. They kept piling on—and kept being right, despite me seeding this little experiment with an incorrect response. Which seems to indicate that iNaturalist isn’t just an amazing app, it’s an app that does a good job of capturing the combined ID skills of an amazing and dedicated community of users.
In a lot of ways, the ID skills of iNaturalist are an extension of projects like this one at Zooniverse where participants are asked to identify creatures imaged by trap cameras in a New York forest. Those IDs don’t just go toward answering the immediate question of “What’s in this picture?” They also build up a database that can be used by software to better make these identifications in an automated fashion. And as the first article today reveals, programs are getting very, very good at this game ...