Be careful with “apps” to identify plants by photos: their resolution is very low | technology

Plants make up more than 80% of the planet’s biomass, and like other organisms, they are part of a diversity largely unknown to us. The scientific community has identified about 400,000 species of plants and everyone is likely to ask themselves at some point: What tree is in front of me? Applications that use artificial intelligence to identify them from images in the field are becoming popular, bringing the public closer to nature and botany. However, most of them are not accurate. The terms that work best tend to have very technical ones, while the more popular ones fail more often.

A study published in the journal Plus one He states that some popular apps for identifying plants through photos can be as accurate as 4%. Researchers used Google Lens, iNaturalist, Leaf Snap, PlantNet, Plant Snap and Seek to identify 38 species of herbaceous plants in their natural habitats in Ireland. The conclusion was that most applications It gave unreliable results, and even the best performers did not exceed 88% accuracy.

In general, applications identify flowers better than leaves due to the variety of colors and shapes in them. But iNaturalist, for example, which has a global database and is in collaboration with National Geographic SocietyIt was only able to correctly target 3.6% of the flowers in the study. Slicing identified the plant with an accuracy of 35.7% of the flowers and 17.1% of the leaves. In total, Plant Net was the best performer, with an 88.2% success rate in flowers. Despite this, it fails to correctly identify between 12% and 20% of plants, highlighting that even well-functioning apps need improvement.

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Julie Peacock, the study’s researcher, stresses that “the location of plants can influence the results, because some are better known than others. When apps use machine learning and gather information, results are likely to be better in the geographic area where the app is used most frequently.” , explains Associate Professor of Ecology at the University of Leeds (UK). Another problem, says the study, is that applications Packer may not be suitable for some users due to the wide range of botanical information and terminology often unfamiliar to the general public.

It is also a matter of identification methodology. Everything matters: the scoring system used, how the app compares the images provided, and the quality of those images. “In citizen science, there is always a risk that the public will introduce errors into the data. However, it is a great way to get a lot of information. Apps with plant images verified by expert botanists may have fewer errors, but creating such a collection large amounts of data would be very difficult.”

Despite this, the researchers argue that these apps have huge potential to bring the public closer to the great universe of plants and nature and people should continue to use them. But the most important thing is “not just to accept the suggestions, but to consult and find out what the most likely answer is,” Peacock says. Basically, if the plant in question could be toxic or harmful.

Among the dangers of a misidentification could be the situation in which the person encounters it [mejor “encuentra”] with an edible herb and decides to try it, but it is actually a poisonous herb; Or if it is identified as an invasive plant, but it is an endangered species. It is therefore essential to check their health before touching, tearing or eating them. “I encourage people to use them to learn more about the local flora,” Moallem continues.

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Arbolapp, the Spanish version of Trees

Created by members of the Supreme Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the Royal Botanic Garden (RJB), the Arbolapp makes it possible to identify 122 species of wild trees found in Spain, which includes native and non-native trees that grow naturally in the territory. Shrubs and species grown on farmland are excluded from the inventory. Eduardo Actis, project coordinator, explains that they never intended to “cover all the plants in the world,” but to let the Spaniards decide which tree was in front of them. And in a simple way.

The application does not require an internet connection to work, which makes it easier to use it in isolated natural environments. Identification is done through a directed search, in which the user answers questions about the shape, number, or size of leaves. You can also do an open search, depending on the region in which they are found, by common or scientific name, or by characteristics such as whether they have flowers, fruits, or scents. He continues, “Without realizing it, you learn to observe the trees, to distinguish between their personalities and even to use precise terminology to do so.”

Guided search for the Arbolapp application
Guided search for the Arbolapp application

The Director of Communications believes that image recognition applications are very useful and have the advantage of including a large number of plants, which is why they are complementary tools. “If you want to learn something about the Iberian or Canarian trees while getting to know them, Arbolapp is still the best option,” he concludes.

Since plants do not understand borders, in 2017 the team also opened Arbolapp Canarias, since the flora of the archipelago has nothing to do with the flora of the peninsula. Philip Castella, RJB plant biologist and author of text and graphic content for Arbolapp, tells EL PAÍS that each species has a “fairly comprehensive” information sheet, which includes ecology, uses, curiosities, anecdotes and whether they are protected by law. They also specify whether a plant is poisonous or poisonous, unlike many apps that only provide the label.

Of the approximately 400,000 plant species known to science, some are morphologically very similar or have characteristics that are difficult to recognize in a photograph, such as the presence of hairs. “Obviously the applications will improve, but I doubt they will ever be perfect, in the same way that even the best botanists make mistakes and know certain plants better than others,” qualifies the expert from the University of Leeds.

As for failure when determining the type, Castilla agrees that it is impossible to reach perfection, even if it has been reviewed by botanical experts. For example, there are cases when plants can belong to one family or another depending on the characteristics. And species evolve. “There is nothing absolute. And less in nature, ”the biologist concludes.

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