Microsoft develops AI to detect illegal wildlife trafficking

Microsoft develops AI to detect illegal wildlife trafficking

Project SEEKER can scan luggage and cargo, and alert agencies of trafficked goods

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Microsoft has developed a new artificial intelligence (AI) model – Project SEEKER – to help address the $23 billion illegal wildlife trafficking industry, by scanning luggage and cargo at borders and alerting agencies of trafficked goods. 

Project SEEKER was trialled at Heathrow Airport, where it scanned up to 250,000 bags each day and recorded a successful detection rate of more than 70 per cent, with particular efficacy in detecting ivory items such as tusks and horns. 

“The untapped potential of AI and machine learning can help solve some of the world’s most complex environmental challenges,” said Clare Barclay, CEO at Microsoft UK. “Our first-of-its-kind multispecies AI model Project SEEKER can help tackle the wildlife trafficking trade, while protecting animal ecosystems. The importance of collaboration and partnership with more organisations couldn’t be greater as we look to protect the environment and the world’s most endangered species.”

The tool has been developed with research trial partners, UK Border Force CITES team, Heathrow Airport and UK security firm Smiths Detection, by uploading images of animals and their body parts. According to Microsoft, it can be trained on any species in two months. As it is still being trialled, Microsoft is asking conservation organisations, law enforcement and major transport hubs to deploy it and share data of rarer subspecies to improve the AI model’s capabilities. 

“Illegal wildlife trafficking has a devastating effect for the decline of species and earth’s natural environments,” said Daniel Haines, Project SEEKER lead at Microsoft. “It is a complex illicit trade but with the right AI intervention deployed in the right places, we have a real possibility of dismantling it. Project SEEKER shows the potential for data and AI to enable enforcement teams to crack down on wildlife trafficking like never before.

“Improved rates of detecting illegal wildlife trafficking at transit hot spots is just the start. The data captured by authorities will allow them to create a clear picture of where smuggling starts, its routes and destinations, leading to a more effective and collaborative approach to stamping out these criminal networks.” 

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