As climate change continues to present one of the most prominent issues facing humanity, there are other, potentially even more devastating challenges ahead. One such danger is the loss of biodiversity, which threatens Earth’s very foundations and is almost criminally underreported.
According to American biologist E.O. Wilson: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Insects play a critical role in virtually every ecosystem around the world. They are pollinators that ensure the endurance of plant life, food for animals and even plants, recyclers of dead waste, maintainers of soil health, and much more. So, given their incredible importance to our ecosystem, there is an urgent need to ascertain the rate at which insect populations are declining as a result of human activity.
“To this point, we’ve seen much less focus committed to protecting insects than other conservation efforts,” explains Elaine van Ommen Kloeke, Naturalis. “While all of these initiatives are important and worthy, it’s critical that we better understand the changes, either positive or negative, that various insect species have experienced in recent years. That starts with being able to effectively track and identify as many as possible.”
Enter Arise, a collaboration between Naturalis, the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam, the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute, and the University of Twente. This initiative aims to enable recognition of any naturally occurring species in any location based on DNA, sensor and AI technology. Furthermore, it will collect biodiversity information related to all species from across the Netherlands into one place by 2030, after which a vast amount of data will become readily available with only a click. In doing so, the project will make it far easier for conservationists to track insect populations.
“We can’t always see or hear insects and there are so many species out there, so it’s quite difficult to monitor them,” says Dan Stowell, Naturalis. “And without knowing where those populations are and their numbers, they’re incredibly hard to protect. So, we’ve been using machine learning to identify insects based on audio recordings. However, it’s a work in progress. Automatic recognition of human speech took decades to become as good as it is, and for insects we need the accuracy of automatic identification to catch up as much as possible to make it ready for deployment.”
Exploring different machine learning options
With their expertise, available data, and AI knowledge, Naturalis was the perfect candidate for the 2023 Global Data Science Challenge (GDSC), a collaborative hackathon event hosted annually by Capgemini and powered by AWS machine learning (ML) services, such as Amazon Sagemaker, wherein every employee throughout the company is given the opportunity to develop and harness their data and AI expertise to solve a real-world issue.
“As a global leader in data and AI, Capgemini has a responsibility to apply its expertise to real-world scenarios that can help create a more sustainable world and drive tangible benefits for our society,”said Niraj Parihar, CEO of the Insights & Data Global Business Line at Capgemini and Member of the Group Executive Committee. “Through our Global Data Science Challenge, we empower our team members to solve real world challenges of vital importance to us all. Insects play a central role in our ecosystem but are incredibly hard for humans to monitor. Listening to and identifying insect species is critical to preserving them.”
Throughout the event, more than 1500 participants formed over 400 teams, after which they were given the resources to develop and test their own solutions. By learning from five hours of recordings of 66 different insect species, each team attempted to build an AI that can identify which species could be heard.
“Every GDSC is a unique and exciting opportunity to see what different teams can do and the different ways they use the technology,” says Eliza Robinet Duffo, AWS. “This year, we saw such a wide variety of different and successful solutions! Each of the top teams used a different approach and saw a great deal of success. It was one of our closest competitions and the prospects for the future are fantastic!”
Simplifying insect-focused conservation efforts
By the end of the competition, there was an improvement in performance*(macro averaged F1-Score) from 76% to 92%. And while this was a potent step in and of itself, it does not represent the limit of what was accomplished. Following the GDSC’s conclusion, the entirety of the results have been published, enabling other organizations and teams to pick up where the challenge has left off. Meanwhile, Naturalis, Arise, Capgemini, and AWS will continue to develop the winning solution.
“We’re not looking to hoard this technology to ourselves. Preserving biodiversity has to be a widespread effort, so it’s important to keep exploring multiple avenues,” explains Van Ommen Kloeke. “By publicizing the result, we’ll empower others to pick up those incredibly worthy solutions that didn’t ultimately win. All of our top options had incredible potential and we look forward to seeing what others can do with machine learning to protect our insect populations.”
As a result, the event has enabled Naturalis and other organizations to continue improving the effectiveness of machine learning when identifying insect recordings. In the future, this technology will be further developed so that it can be used to analyze naturalistic recordings that include all of the sounds of everyday life. This will empower biodiversity organizations to expand the capabilities of digital technology to support conservation efforts.
“You know, this was the biggest GDSC that we’ve ever had in terms of participation,” describes Parihar. “This just goes to show how much value people put in initiatives such as this. This challenge and its success is the next step towards a better future wherein insects are protected more effectively. That means going beyond the Netherlands and replicating the solution all over the globe!”