27 September 2023

Boarder control: How AI can be put to use keeping Australia pest free

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Gian De Poloni* says Australian scientists are trialling the use of AI to digitally identify plants, vertebrates and insects that could pose a biosecurity threat.

Scientists are trialling the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to protect Australia from some of the world’s most severe pests and diseases.

Maintaining the health of the country’s unique ecosystem is an expensive exercise — the Federal Government plans to spend more than $300 million on biosecurity measures over the next five years.

A trial under way at Western Australia’s Murdoch University is tipped to save time and money by using artificial intelligence to digitally identify plants, vertebrates and insects suspected to pose a biosecurity threat.

Professor Simon McKirdy, Director of the University’s Harry Butler Institute, said AI software could save thousands of man hours by identifying biosecurity risks in seconds.

“Artificial intelligence has now got to a point where it is very quick and it’s very accurate,” he said.

“It could prove to be a very effective triage tool for us in screening samples in the field and in the laboratory.”

Professor McKirdy said AI could identify things not visible to the naked eye.

“We’re taking the process of facial recognition and applying it to other organisms, whether they be a rat, gecko or insect.”

“It starts to identify particular features of different animals and plants that we as humans wouldn’t necessarily pick up as being a distinguishing point.”

Learning like a young child

Professor McKirdy said his team had been impressed with how quickly the software learned new information.

“They’re challenging the system with new images of these organisms, and just like a young child, each new step we put in front of it, the system learns and gets better at being able to identify if it’s a rat, a gecko, or a particular insect.”

While discussion rages globally about the prospect of AI threatening human employment, Professor McKirdy said the technology was designed to assist biosecurity specialists rather than replace them.

“It’s not about removing humans from the process,” he said.

“It’s about giving them a more powerful tool that can speed up and add to their accuracy.”

“For example, if it screens 100 images, it will do the triage and come back and say, ‘We actually think there’s four images here that need to be looked at by the human expert’.”

“Then the human expert can spend a lot more time making sure they get the right answer on the diagnosis.”

Bringing AI to the field

The test site for the AI technology is Barrow Island, a class A nature reserve 1,200 km north of Perth.

The island is also home to the multi-billion-dollar Gorgon gas plant operated by energy giant Chevron, which is funding the AI trial.

Professor McKirdy said he could see AI being used by biosecurity experts at airport checkpoints and State border crossings.

“Our aim is to get this to the point where we could see biosecurity officers at borders, in the field, or even farmers being in a position where it could be an app on a phone that allows them to take a good image,” he said.

“Then in close to real time they can get a response from the system that there’s either a good chance this is a pest of concern or not.”

“It will remove a lot of the time spent on things that are not an issue.”

* Gian De Poloni is a multi-platform journalist with ABC News. He tweets at @GianDePoloni.

This article first appeared at www.abc.net.au.

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