You can help teach a snake-spotting AI to spot snakes better

A team of reptile and amphibian enthusiasts is asking for the public’s help training artificial intelligence to spot snakes, frogs, and more from photos. The team wants to eventually create an app that can help people identify these creatures in their backyards — and prevent people from killing them. But first, their AI has to get better at making those photo IDs. The AI, named Fitch after the late, renowned herpetologist Henry S. Fitch, is part of a new platform called What the Herp? Right now, it’s a webpage and a Twitter bot (@WhatTheHerp) where people can submit photos for Fitch to try and identify. “The biggest issue with conservation of herps is that we work with one of the most detested groups on the planet — you’re up there with spiders,” says programmer Don Becker (no relation), a herpetology enthusiast and member of the small team behind What the Herp and a related app, HerpMapper. “By giving people a way to identify what it is that they’re looking at, that can help dissuade people from killing it.”

Looking for a way to help improve #ComputerVision used by #CitizenScience projects from the comfort of your own home? Draw bounding boxes around amphibians and reptiles in images at to support #Herpetology. #Herpmapper #WhatTheHerp— Christopher E. Smith, CWB® (@FieldEcology) December 28, 2017

Before Fitch can help people ID their backyard reptiles and amphibians, Fitch has to learn how to do so itself. So the team is training it with thousands of accurately pre-identified photos. (Doing a reverse image search on Google, Becker says, doesn’t guarantee an accurate ID.) It’s “similar to showing a child flashcards, like this is an apple, this is an orange, this is a peach,” Becker says. “Just keep showing them the pictures and eventually they recognize what everything is.”

I am 100% confident that this is Pituophis catenifer, aka Gopher Snake— Fitch (@WhatTheHerp) October 15, 2017

The problem is that Fitch can be easily distracted by background details in the photo. For example, bull snakes are commonly photographed in dry, dead grass, Becker says. So when Fitch sees a photo of a leopard frog in dry, dead grass, Fitch thinks it’s seeing another bull snake. “It’s not the brightest thing in the world right now,” Becker says. “But it’s getting there.” The team is trying to remove those distracting details from Fitch’s training images by drawing boxes around the reptilian or amphibian stars of the photos. That’s where the public comes in, because there are thousands of photos to annotate. On the What the Herp website, citizen scientists can create an account and flip through photos to draw boxes around the creatures in the photos Fitch is learning from. Once Fitch is well-trained enough, the goal for the What the Herp? app will be for it to distribute accurate identifications and information about reptiles and amphibians. “People kill things because they’re afraid of them,” Becker says. “The more you learn about something the more you appreciate it.”

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