Australian Scientists Have Made a ‘Shazam’ for Snakes and Spiders

Upload a photo of a spider to Critterpedia and the app will tell you whether or not you should run.
August 5, 2020, 4:11am
critterpedia
Image supplied by CSIRO / Data61

There are at least 2,000 species of spider in Australia, and 170 species of snake. Some of those happen to be deadly. While more than 90 percent are unlikely to pose any serious threat to humans, there are a few others— including two types of spider and 12 types of snake—that possess the requisite venom to kill people. And it can be handy to know which specimens those are.

Blessedly, Australia’s National Science Agency, CSIRO, has collaborated with a pair of local entrepreneurs to create Critterpedia: a Shazam for spiders and snakes, essentially, that helps the everyday user identify different species by way of a simple photo.

Users upload an image of a specimen to the app, which then uses an AI-powered, machine-learning algorithm to identify, classify and provide information on the family, genus or species—including its threat level. In doing so, the developers hope to provide better education and awareness of different wildlife species in order to potentially save human and animal lives.

“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,” explained Dr Matt Adcock, project lead and researcher at Data61, CSIRO’s data research arm. “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.”

Critterpedia’s AI platform analyses not only the images of different species, but also information such as GPS location. Users submitting their own photos will further train the machine learning engine, with the identification system becoming more robust and accurate as more variables are entered in.

“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,” said Nic Scarce who, along with partner Murray, came up with the idea for the app following an Australian visit from British relatives.

Having faced a deluge of questions regarding native Australian snakes and spiders, Nic and Murray quickly realised that there was a lack of readily available information—online or otherwise—allowing everyday people to quickly and comprehensively identify certain species.

Now Murray hopes the program can be used to help cultivate awareness, curiosity and consideration for some of Australia’s more maligned native fauna.

“Educating people on our wildlife in a fun and interactive way, especially focussing 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,” they said. “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.”

The program is yet to be released.

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