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February 27, 2024

Saving the Wild with Artificial Intelligence

Yolanda Eisenstein

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic — in business, law, philosophy, medicine, and more. From its projected impact on economic productivity to the existential threat to humanity, AI is front and center on the world stage.

Artificial intelligence is not new, dating back to the 1950s. But the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022 introduced a new realm of advanced technology – generative artificial intelligence. As the name implies, computers can now evaluate massive, complex datasets and generate content in the form of images, text, and sound, and do it more rapidly than humans. So, there is good reason to pay attention as AI has the potential to alter the planet and its inhabitants, a power previously only accorded to the human species. The practical, legal, and ethical implications of this technology are considerable.

Amidst the worrying and handwringing about humanity’s future, less attention is being paid to AI’s positive impact, specifically that related to nonhuman species and the environment. The good news is that wildlife is already benefiting from AI. Because of generative AI’s enhanced image and language capabilities, scientists are gaining access to greater quantities of information at a higher quality, enhancing our understanding and knowledge of wildlife and their habits. Currently, there are two notable areas of AI research: animal communication and identification.

In communication, scientists are using AI’s ability to capture vast amounts of data to listen to and translate the sounds of whales. It is an ambitious project in which scientists envision a level of understanding that leads to communicating. In addition, researchers are decoding and studying other species' sounds, such as those of birds and primates, by applying natural language processing technology. Computer scientists are training AI models to generate vocalizations and map new ones, exploring whether machine learning can categorize unlabeled calls of certain beluga whales, an endangered species. AI’s technology has solved what is known as the ‘cocktail party problem,’ which prevents researchers from determining the sources of vocalizations in recordings when more than one animal is ‘speaking’ at the same time. It’s early, but these groundbreaking projects may provide new insights into animal cognition and challenge long-held opinions of how language operates in nonhuman animals and human ones.

In the area of identification, AI’s pattern recognition capabilities are being used to visually identify individual animals through their natural markings and genetic identifiers, which makes tracking them in the wild easier. Rather than following, sedating, and tagging wild animals, they can be identified without touching them. This approach is less stressful on the animals and allows scientists to spend more time on research. In addition, these machine learning experts and software professionals are collaborating with citizens who travel and photograph wildlife to build even bigger image datasets for the research community.

AI offers the potential to help reverse biodiversity loss and extinction as never before through the collaboration between technology experts and animal scientists. In Britain, for example, various AI-controlled devices such as cameras and microphones are being used to identify and track animals in the wild, helping to address Britain’s biodiversity loss. One of the key advantages of using AI is scale; its ability to capture “thousands of data files and thousands of hours of audio.” Furthermore, with the increasing incidence of human-wildlife conflicts, scientists are exploring ways that AI can be used to enhance the effectiveness of mitigation efforts. One example is the use of machine vision to prevent collisions between wildlife and various types of equipment, such as wind turbines. Plus, AI technology is making these efforts more reliable, effective, and cheaper.

So, what are AI’s benefits to lawyers? One way is that AI is helping the lawyers who help animals. Nonprofit organizations are often stretched for resources and are exploring ways their lawyers can use AI to become more efficient and effective. With some simple, and often free, tools of artificial intelligence, nonprofits can cost-effectively save time on administrative and fundraising duties, allowing them to focus on their legal cases and animal advocacy programs.

All of these innovations require the involvement of many stakeholders, including lawyers, policymakers, and ethicists. Reassessing privacy and intellectual property laws is critical, and the various laws that govern our treatment of animals have taken on new legal dimensions with AI. Policies must be reevaluated, incorporating new and rapidly changing knowledge and supporting the beneficial uses of AI, while at the same time deterring the spread of misinformation and deception. Governments must act to create a roadmap for the future. And all of this must happen quickly, as technology continues to advance. Underlying all these issues are the ethical implications, now and in the future.

These wildlife projects are only two examples of how AI is being used in conservation and sustainability efforts. They offer a snapshot of the promising work in artificial intelligence. But much remains to be done. The illegal wildlife trade in endangered species and demand for wildlife products has become so profitable that it has risen to the level of a transnational organized crime, robbing countries of their culture and biodiversity, destabilizing local communities, and adding to the already devastating costs associated with other transnational crimes such as human and arms trafficking. There is hope that AI can address these challenges as well.

The dangers of AI are real, but the promises for animal protection are as well, and lawyers can play a key role in supporting those promises with policies and laws that benefit all.

    Yolanda Eisenstein

    International Law Section Animal Law Committee

    Yolanda Eisenstein is a lawyer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a vice chair of the International Law Section Animal Law Committee. She is president of the Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA) Animal Law Commission Working Group and represents the UIA at the United Nations in New York. She is the author of several books on animals and the law, and most recently co-edited, with Daina Bray, Representing Animal Protection Organizations (American Bar Association).

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