Paul Allen enlists machine-learning tools for monitoring wildlife and ecosystems

Elephant image recognition
Machine-learning technology can contribute to image recognition programs that could identify elephants in aerial imagery on their own. (Vulcan Photo)

Paul Allen has made a name for himself as a co-founder of Microsoft, a supporter of artificial intelligence research and a contributor to causes such as wildlife conservation — so it only makes sense that the Seattle-area billionaire wants to use machine learning to further his philanthropic goals.

His latest contribution comes through the Seattle-based Vulcan Machine Learning Center for Impact, or VMLCI. “Its mission will be to apply the tools of machine learning and AI for good,” Bill Hilf, CEO of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., said today in a tweet.

VMLCI’s strategy meshes with the mission of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, whose motto is “AI for the Common Good.” The center aims to forge collaborative partnerships with corporations, academic institutions and other organizations to help connect folks working on social and environmental causes with the machine-learning resources they need.

Machine learning is a rapidly growing subfield in artificial intelligence that focuses on training computer models to take on complex tasks by providing huge numbers of examples from the real world. The applications of the technology range from computer vision to voice recognition to autonomous navigation.

Vulcan says VMLCI will start by plugging into its own projects, such as Skylight, which aims to improve maritime monitoring to stop illegal fishing; the Allen Coral Atlas, which will survey the state of coral reefs worldwide; and EarthRanger, an anti-poaching program associated with the Domain Awareness System.

In all those cases, machine learning can accelerate the process of picking out patterns in satellite imagery and other sensor data for further attention.

VMLCI will also begin a new initiative to modernize wildlife surveys to gain deeper insights into the status of key species and ecosystems. And Vulcan says the team will evaluate additional projects, such as monitoring sea temperatures or surveying global fish populations.

As is the case with Allen’s other philanthropic science projects, the results generated by VMLCI will be open for use by the organizations and individuals working in the areas under study.

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