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This Australian App Is Like ‘Shazam’ for Spiders and Snakes

New AI tool will help users identify venomous species

Critterpedia allows users to identify Australian spider and snake species with the snap of a photo. (Courtesy of CSIRO/Data61)
smithsonianmag.com

Imagine you’re on a trip to Australia, hoping to explore everything urban and outback. On a hike, you notice a massive spider crawling up your leg. Or you avoid stepping on a snake curled up in your winter boot. You quickly snap a photo on your smart phone and immediately learn that spider is a nearly harmless huntsman. Better stay away from the snake, though—it appears to be an eastern brown snake, one of the most deadly on the continent.

This scene is the vision for Critterpedia, a new AI-driven app that allows smartphone users to identify snakes and spiders, learn which species live in their area and how to take precautions to minimize risk. Like the music-identification app, Shazam, users will be able to learn about unfamiliar species immediately.

Australia boasts more than 2,000 species of spider and 170 species of snake. While more than 90 percent are likely harmless, at least two types of spider and 12 species of snake are venomous enough to kill humans, reports Gavin Butler of Vice.

Still, only 100 snake bite cases in Australia each year require antivenom, with an average of two human deaths, according to Critterpedia.

“We realise that many people don’t understand some of our beautiful wildlife and so react with fear,” co-foundary Murray Scarce tells Harry Thomson at 7News.

Murray and his partner, Nic, came up with the idea in 2004. When relatives came from London for a visit, they realized the lack of easily accessible information to help visitors and everyday people identify species.

They returned to the idea in 2018 and secured support from Australia’s National Science Agency, CSIRO, to get it off the ground, they tell 7News. They also partner with various spider and snake experts, nature conservationists and wildlife photographers to build a knowledge base for the app. Data61, the data research and engineering arm of CSIRO, is building the app’s technical functionality.

“The visual differences between two species can sometimes be quite subtle, and so a great deal of training data is needed to adequately identify critters,” Matt Adcock, project lead and senior scientist at Data61, tells Vice. “We’ve started off with an enormous amount of images sourced from zoological experts collaborating with Critterpedia, and have developed a suite of tools to help semi-automatically label these images, verify the information, and cross check with other data sources.”

So far, 32 Australian experts have contributed more than 200,000 images, according to 7News. As more users contribute photos, the machine learning engine will be able to more accurately identify species. Additionally, user-uploaded photos will contain GPS location and other information that makes it possible to pinpoint where certain species live.

“The intent is to form (consensual) user generated images into datasets of all animals and to extend our AI training with the team to eventually include many more species,” Nic Scarce tells Vice.

According to the website, the company plans to release augmented and virtual reality features. The app will provide safety information like precautionary and first aid advice, and location details for emergency response. There will also be a community component providing opportunities for users to interact with each other.

“Educating people on our wildlife in a fun and interactive way, especially focusing on our venomous friends and delving into the reasons as to why people harbour so many fears, is the key to delivering a platform that can really make a difference to peoples’ lives,” Murray tells Vice. “Critterpedia can create a world where people of all ages, backgrounds and status can appreciate and respect our environment, and where we and animals can peacefully coexist.”

Users can sign up to be a phase one tester of the beta version.

About Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos

Claire Bugos is a journalist and former print intern at Smithsonian magazine. She is a recent graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and history.

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