Aiding And Abetting Intelligence

First published in Sanctuary Cub, Vol. 43 No. 11, November 2023

Unlike living beings, AI is not sentient – it cannot feel emotions or sensations. On the other hand, an animal’s intelligence may look different from ours, but it has evolved over millenia to best suit its lifestyle. Text by Bhavya Iyer and Shatakshi Gawade.

“After all, all devices have their dangers. The discovery of speech introduced communication – and lies. The discovery of fire introduced cooking – and arson. The discovery of the compass improved navigation – and destroyed civilisations in Mexico and Peru. The automobile is marvellously useful – and kills Americans by the tens of thousands each year. Medical advances have saved lives by the millions – and intensified the population explosion.”  – Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) from Robot Visions (1990)

Migratory birds navigate using an inner magnetic compass. Photo: Anindita Datta Mahuri/Sanctuary Photolibrary.


How is Artificial Intelligence (AI) different from the Natural Intelligence  (NI) you, I, and millions of living beings on Earth possess? Unlike living beings, AI is (so far) not sentient – it cannot feel emotions or sensations. AI can only process and analyse information fed to it – this includes data, photos, videos, music and more – and repurpose it. Unlike humans and many animals, AI cannot express itself through original art. AI can create art, but this is akin to mixing and matching images it has been fed and copying them to create something based on certain parameters and creativity, and neither can it innovate or think critically for itself.

Despite lacking a brain, slime moulds can navigate mazes and make decisions. Photo: Public domain/Wikipedia.

The Natural Kind

We are used to thinking of ourselves as the most intelligent creatures on Earth. But intelligence takes many forms among the different species on the planet. Other animals’ intelligence may look different from ours, but it certainly makes them more efficient. For example, honeybees make mental maps to the best flower patches near their hives, and ‘dance’ to communicate the way to other bees! Migratory birds navigate using an inner magnetic compass, which is based on the position of stars. Despite lacking a brain, slime moulds can navigate mazes and make decisions. Crows and elephants mourn when one of their own dies, even having a kind of ‘funeral’ for the departed. Everyday, as we learn more about the natural world, we must redefine what we think of as intelligence.

Sea otters commonly use rocks or other hard objects to break open their meals. Photo: Public domain/Jessia Fujii.

The Artificial Kind

Where does AI come in? AI is a technological tool created by humans, that has great capacity to help – or to harm. Artificial Intelligence is basically a computer programme, which executes tasks that a human or intelligent animal would do. For instance, AI can solve the maze that slime moulds, or you and I, could! Another example of AI is ChatGPT, which was released for the public as recently as December 1, 2022. AI is also being used to generate all kinds of art and media – but there are major concerns of plagiarism, as most of this art is created by ‘feeding’ the programme existing art, and letting it spit out a mix. However, there are also many ways in which AI can be put to good use from conservation to medicine.

Like human beings, elephants have been recorded mourning their dead. Photo: Rajkumar Narayanasamy/Sanctuary Photolibrary.

AI In Conservation

Technology, such as animal ID tags to track migrations and remote sensing to track changes in forest areas, has long been used to support conservation efforts all over the world. AI is an additional tool at the disposal of conservationists to protect the environment. For instance, AI has been used to track elephant poachers, which helps protect the endangered pachyderms and also keeps frontline staff of Protected Areas safe. Another popular example is the use of smartphone applications to identify different species! AI tools are also being developed to use more complex information about species, such as the different sounds they make, to understand their behaviour, so that conservation strategies are better informed. It is also being used to help identify animal species in photographs. This will be very valuable in quickly recording species in large quantities of camera trap data, aiding in wildlife research. In addition, AI is also being used to analyse vast amounts of data and in field research, such as habitat monitoring through satellite imagery tracking.

AI is being used to track and identify different species of animals. Photo Courtesy:

What's Next?

Instead of using artificial intelligence to replace humans in what they do best – think, create, and innovate – why not use AI to enhance our capabilities, or for tasks that are difficult or dangerous for humans to do? Using AI to augment research by scientists could pave new pathways in how conservation takes place, by handling drudgery and menial tasks, allowing researchers to expend their energy on innovation!

Dark Side of AI
~ AI has been compared with nuclear weapons for its destructive potential.
~ Can be misused to create ‘deep fake’ photos and videos, and mimic real people.
~ Can be used to fake wildlife images by plagiarising photos found online.
~ This poses a threat to the integrity of wildlife research and citizen science.

Bhavya and Shatakshi are Assistant Editors at Sanctuary Asia. Bhavya is a wildlife biologist and nature writer, and a member of RewildEd. Shatakshi works on environmental issues as a journalist, campaigner and researcher.


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