Shutterstock Distinguished Lecture Series - Dan Rubenstein - AI Conservation: AI and Humans Combating Extinction Together


The state of our planet is not good. We have lost more than 60% of the world's wildlife. Stopping the decline remains a challenge, especially since acquiring appropriate knowledge is expensive, time consuming and risky. Visual observations following the fates of a few individuals was the currency of the realm. But GPS technology and now machine learning provide a non-invasive scalable alternative. Photographs, taken by field scientists, tourists, automated cameras and incidental photographers, are the most abundant source of data on wildlife today. Wildbook, a project of tech for conservation coordinated by a non-profit Wild Me, is an autonomous computational system that starts from massive collections of images and, by detecting various species of animals and identifying individuals, combined with sophisticated data management, turns them into high-resolution information databases, enabling scientific inquiry, conservation and citizen science.

Wildbooks have been built for more than 20 species of animals, including whales (, sharks (, giraffes (, and soon elephants. Wildbook provided data for the most comprehensive understanding of the biology of whaleshark and enabled the first-ever full species (the endangered Grevy's zebra) census using photographs taken by ordinary citizens in Kenya. The 2016 estimates became central to the IUCN Red List and after the followup citizen science census in 2018, became the first certified census from an outside organization accepted by the Kenyan government. Based on these numbers, government officials and policy makers are adopting actions that are helping sustain this endangered species. Images, algorithms and their autonomous intelligent agents are becoming the data foundation for wildlife science, conservation and environmental good. AI can also be used for social and environmental bad, which will require vigilance by both the biological and computer science communities.



Dan Rubenstein is a behavioral ecologist who studies how environmental variation and individual differences shape social behavior, social structure, sex roles and the dynamics of populations. He has special interests in all species of wild horses, zebras and asses, and has done field work on them throughout the world; identifying rules governing decision-making, the emergence of complex behavioral patterns and how these understandings influence their management and conservation. In Kenya, he also works with pastoral communities to develop and assess impacts of various grazing strategies on rangeland quality, wildlife use and livelihoods. He has also developed a scout program for gathering data on Grevy’s zebras and created curricular modules for local schools to raise awareness about the plight of this endangered species. He engages people as “Citizen Scientists” and has recently extended his work to measuring the effects of environmental change, including issues pertaining to the global commons and changes wrought by management and by global warming, on behavior.

Rubenstein is the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology. He is currently Director of Princeton's Environmental Studies Program and is former Chair of Princeton University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of Princeton’s Program in African Studies. He received his Bachelors degree from the University of Michigan in 1972 and his PhD from Duke University in 1977 before receiving NSF-NATO and King's College Junior Research Fellowships for post-doctoral studies at Cambridge University. As the Eastman Professor, he spent a year in Oxford as a Fellow of Balliol College. He is an elected Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has received Princeton University's President's Award for Distinguished Teaching. He has just completed his term as president of the Animal Behavior Society and was most recently a Visiting Research Scholar at Merton College, Oxford and a Visiting Fellow at King's College, Cambridge. He just received the Animal Behavior Society's “Exemplar Award” for a major long-term contribution to animal behavior and Sigma Xi's John P. McGovern Award for Science and Society.

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