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AI is rapidly identifying new species. Can we trust the results?




Scientists are using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify new animal species. But can we trust the results?

For now, scientists are using AI just to flag potentially new species; highly specialized biologists still need to formally describe those species and decide where they fit on the evolutionary tree. AI is also only as good as the data we train it on, and at the moment, there are massive gaps in our understanding of Earth's wildlife.

But AI is helping researchers understand complex ecosystems as it makes sense of large data sets gleaned via smartphones, camera traps and automated monitoring systems.  

"We're accelerating the pace of research to be able to get at some bigger questions, and that's exciting," Christine Picard, a biology professor at Indiana University, told Live Science. 

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In a 2023 study published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, Picard and colleagues trained an AI model to classify more than 1,000 insect species. Live Science spoke with Picard and lead author Sarkhan Badirli, who completed the study as part of his doctorate in computer science at Purdue University in Indiana. 

The model learned to recognize species from images and DNA data, Badirli said. During training, the researchers withheld the identities of some known species, so they were unknown to the model.