[Paleopsych] Guardian: Daisy has all the digital answers to life on Earth

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Sun Aug 28 00:14:54 UTC 2005

Daisy has all the digital answers to life on Earth

Scientists have unveiled plans to create a digital library of all life on 
Earth. They say that the Digital Automated Identification System (Daisy), which 
harnesses the latest advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision, 
will have an enormous impact on research into biodiversity and evolution.

Daisy will also give Britain's army of amateur naturalists unprecedented access 
to the world's taxonomic expertise: send Daisy a camera-phone picture of a 
plant or animal and, within seconds, you will get detailed information about 
what you are looking at. Norman MacLeod, the Natural History Museum's keeper of 
palaeontology, has spent several years developing the new technology.

He said that Daisy will make the identification of plants and animals more 
objective and directly comparable. "Right now, taxonomy is as much of an art 
form as it is a science," Prof MacLeod said. He will present his vision for 
Daisy to an international meeting of taxonomists at the museum today.

Taxonomists normally identify specimens through a painstaking process in which 
the features of an unknown plant or animal are compared with identified 
specimens in the museum's collections. If it is sufficiently different, the 
unknown specimen is confirmed as a new species.

However, there is plenty of room for error - the museum's collection might be 
incomplete or the person making the identification could make a mistake.

If scientists did not have to make routine identifications and teach others how 
to do it, argues Prof MacLeod, they could get on with the business of learning 
more about biodiversity and evolution.

"Say you saw a butterfly, you might take a digital image of it, connect up to 
the world wide web and access a Daisy internet portal," said Prof MacLeod. "The 
portal would accept the picture and farm it out to the servers in individual 
institutions, such as the Natural History Museum."

Using pattern-recognition software, Daisy would try to match the picture with 
images in its archives. "The portal would route the answer back as a web page 
that had the confidence level of the identification and the institution that 
made the identification," said Prof MacLeod.

Daisy can also identify sounds and scans of DNA barcodes.

For something so useful, it is perhaps a surprise that no one has thought of 
such a system before. According to Prof MacLeod , the hold-up has been the lack 
of neural network software - programmes that learn - required by Daisy.

"New developments in artificial intelligence and computer algorithms have taken 
neural nets to where they act more like human intelligence," he said. "When we 
see something new, we don't have to re-compute our understanding of everything 
else we've ever seen, we just add it to the mix. That's pretty much what we're 
doing with Daisy."

The other limitation with Daisy is that the system will only be as good as the 
quality and quantity of its reference images.

"Museums are only just starting to get into that type of work," said Prof 
MacLeod. "That has its own technological and storage and manpower barriers.

"Now there's a tool that we can use to justify making the investment in getting 
these collections of images together and building the software structures that 
are necessary to make the neural net able to access the images, then there's a 
reason to do it."

There is also a role for Britain's army of amateur naturalists in improving the 
library. "One of the neat things about Daisy is that, if you submit an image 
and it's identified with a high level of certainty, that can then be added to 
the library of images, which makes Daisy more powerful," said Prof MacLeod. 
"That information can keep growing. The more people that use [the system], the 
better it gets."

He said that the first images and sounds have already been used to test that 
everything works. But filling Daisy with data from all the museums will take 
several years. The Natural History Museum has 70 million specimens that would 
need to be entered into the database.

Daisy is part of a series of projects set up by the museum to identify and 
catalogue life on Earth. In February, the museum announced plans to record the 
genetic fingerprints for the species, to begin the process of providing a kind 
of biometric identity card for millions of species by 2010.

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