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Artificial Intelligence Recognizes Primate Faces in the Wild

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Scientists at the University of Oxford have created a new type of artificial intelligence software that can recognize and track the faces of individual chimpanzees that are living in the wild. This new software will help researchers and scientists to reduce the time and resources that it takes to analyze video footage of wild chimpanzees. It could also have a huge impact in the field of AI and wildlife conservation, an area that doesn’t receive equal attention. The research was published in Science Advances

Dan Schofield, researcher and DPhil student at Oxford University’s Primate Models Lab, School of Anthropology, spoke about the newly developed technology. 

“For species like chimpanzees, which have complex social lives and live for many years, getting snapshots of their behaviour from short-term field research can only tell us so much,” he said. “By harnessing the power of machine learning to unlock large video archives, it makes it feasible to measure behaviour over the long term, for example observing how the social interactions of a group change over several generations.”

The researchers developed the new artificial intelligence by using a computer model that was trained with over 10 million images from Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute (PRI). They have a collection of videos of wild chimpanzees in Guinea, West Africa. No other software has been able to do what this one can. It is able to continuously track and recognize individuals in various different poses. It is highly accurate, even in difficult conditions like low lighting, poor image quality, and motion blur. 

Arsha Nagrani is the co-author of the study and a DPhil student at the Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford. 

“Access to this large video archive has allowed us to use cutting edge deep neural networks to train models at a scale that was previously not possible,” says Nagrani. “Additionally, our method differs from previous primate face recognition software in that it can be applied to raw video footage with limited manual intervention or pre-processing, saving hours of time and resources.”

While the new software is currently being used with chimpanzees, there could be many more areas of benefit. It would be extremely useful in monitoring species for conservation, and it could be applied to species other than chimpanzees. This new technology will help lead to artificial intelligence being used to solve problems within the wild. 

“All our software is available open-source for the research community,” says Nagrani. “We hope that this will help researchers across other parts of the world apply the same cutting-edge techniques to their unique animal data sets. As a computer vision researcher, it is extremely satisfying to see these methods applied to solve real, challenging biodiversity problems.”

“With an increasing biodiversity crisis and many of the world's ecosystems under threat, the ability to closely monitor different species and populations using automated systems will be crucial for conservation efforts, as well as animal behaviour research,” Schofield says. “Interdisciplinary collaborations like this have huge potential to make an impact, by finding novel solutions for old problems, and asking biological questions which were previously not feasible on a large scale.”

This new technology and software is extremely important for a variety of reasons. Not only will it play a huge role in some of society’s most pressing current problems like conservation and environmental protection, but it can also change the way we think of artificial intelligence. As of right now, almost all of the talk surrounding AI is focused on human applications. There are constant developments in the medical field, AI-human interface, consumer technology, war, and much more, but the areas of wildlife protection and animal behavior studies have not received the same amount of attention. These are areas that AI will benefit greatly, and these new developments could help direct some of the attention there.


Alex McFarland is an AI journalist and writer exploring the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has collaborated with numerous AI startups and publications worldwide.