In his best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari makes the point that while today the human kind, collectively, has a lot more knowledge than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, “at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” For example, they had much wider and varied knowledge of their environment. After all, it was crucial for their survival to differentiate between the thousands of species of plants and animals and know which ones are edible, which ones could be used as medicine, and which ones could be harmful.
This knowledge is not something the average modern Homo sapiens carries around with us, but thanks to a group of French botanists and researchers we could, because now there is an app for that.
Pl@nt Net was launched in 2013 and according to Google Play statistics has been downloaded more than 1 million times. It works similarly to the popular song-recognition service Shazam. The user snaps a photo of a part of a plant—leaf, flower, fruit or stem/bark—uploads it, and then the app gives suggestions as to what the plant may be by showing additional photos. The database grows thanks to the users; they submit the photos, quality check them, and confirm the identification of the plants.
The creators of the app—scientists from four French research organizations, including Cirad, IRA, Inria/IRD, and the Tela Botanica Network—point out that there are more and more jobs that require expertise related to plants, like custom officers who may need to recognize rare species or identify invasive plants, farmers and foresters who need professional tools, and of course enthusiasts who would like to know what’s in their backyard.
In addition, the data collected by the app could help researchers draw conclusions based on the geographical distribution of plants and their evolution in time and space. This could be particularly helpful in identifying invasive species.
The creators of the iNaturalist app (currently owned by the California Academy of Sciences), touts similar benefits for its service.
“It’s a rare win-win,” says Scott Loarie from the California Academy of Sciences. “We’re engaging people but also producing this stream of high-quality data for science. And we’re sitting on the biggest pile of accurately labeled images for living things that’s out there.”
iNaturalist is also a “crowdsourced species identification system” that includes everything from plants and fungi to birds, insects, and mammals. It is powered by AI that learns from scientists who help identify each species.
Both Pl@nt Net and iNaturalist make sure to provide lists of suggestions rather than firm identifications of what’s in the picture. With the incredible biodiversity that exists on our planet (almost 400,000 plant species for example), it is inevitable that the apps will misidentify some. With poisonous species this could be particularly dangerous, so the creators of both apps want you to keep in mind that AI and crowdsourcing are not substitutes for the professional eye and judgement of a real-life botanist or zoologist.