It's hard for the average person to tell Dani, Lenore, and Bella apart: They all sport fashionably fuzzy brown coats and enjoy a lot of the same activities, like playing in icy-cold water and, occasionally, ripping apart a freshly caught fish.
Melanie Clapham is not the average person. As a bear biologist, she has spent over a decade studying these grizzly bears, who live in Knight Inlet in British Columbia, Canada, and developed a sense for who is who by paying attention to little things that make them different. "I use individual characteristics — say, one bear has a nick in its ear or a scar on the nose," she said.
But Clapham knows most people don't have her eye for detail, and the bears' appearances change dramatically over the course of a year — such as when they get winter coats and fatten up before denning — which makes it even harder to distinguish between, say, Toffee and Blonde Teddy.
Tracking individual bears is important, she explained, because it can help with research and conservation of the species; knowing which bear is which could even help with problems like figuring out if a certain grizzly is getting into garbage cans or attacking a farmer's livestock.
Several years ago Clapham began wondering whether a technology typically used to identify humans might be able to help: facial recognition software, which compares measurements between different facial features in one image to those in another.
Clapham teamed up with two Silicon Valley-based tech workers and together they created BearID, which uses facial-recognition software to monitor grizzly bears. So far, the project has used AI to recognize 132 of the animals individually.
For Clapham, who's also a postdoctoral fellow at the Unversity of Victoria, this interest in combining bears and AI has been in the works for years. In 2017 she joined Wildlabs.net, which connects conservationists with those in the tech community. There, she quickly met Ed Miller and Mary Nguyen — two tech workers in San Jose, California (who happen to be married) who were interested in machine learning and watching grizzlies via live webcam at another popular bear hangout, Brooks Falls in Alaska's Katmai National Park.
The trio has since gathered thousands of bear photos from Knight Inlet and Brooks River to create data sets, and adapted existing artificial intelligence software called Dog Hipsterizer (used, naturally, to add silly mustaches and hats to pictures of dogs) to spot bear faces in their images. Once the faces are detected, they can also use AI to recognize specific bears.
"It does way better than we do," said Miller.
So far, BearID has collected 4,674 images of grizzly bears; 80% of the images were used for training the facial-recognition system, Clapham said, and the remaining 20% for testing it. According to recently-published research from her and her collaborators, the system is 84% accurate. The bear you're trying to recognize must already be in the group's relatively small dataset, though.