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  • Writer's pictureEmma Kay Bleakley

The Ethics of AI in Wildlife Conservation

How does Big Brother effect nonhumans?

In 1942, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called ‘Runaround’, which appeared in the anthology, ‘I, Robot’. Within that short story he created some of the best-known tropes in the AI and literary worlds, the Laws of Robotics.

There is a glaring omission in his ethical standpoint though; where do animals (nonhumans) come into the equation?

AI is increasingly being used in nonhuman research, particularly in wildlife conservation. Something that Asimov and his peers probably never even considered. Countries such as France, Brussels, Australia, Spain, and New Zealand have all recently passed laws to declare animals’ sentient and given them enhanced legal rights and protection. The UK passed its own Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act in April 2022. This means that in an AI world, both humans and nonhumans must now be given the same ethical considerations. This could and does generate quite the ethical dilemma when conducting wildlife research and conservation.

Firstly, GPS tracking of protected species like, elephant, elusive animals like snow leopards or heavily trafficked species like pangolin and sea turtles is usually done using AI.

This information informs conservationists of their location and their wellbeing but is also extremely vulnerable to hacking for illegal activities. Data hacking not only puts the animals lives in danger, but also endangers the lives of the humans out in the field, researching or protecting these species.

Secondly, the usage of AI enabled drones may either visually indicate the locations of conservationists or researchers and, subsequently, of interesting nonhuman species. The transfer of data from the drones is also vulnerable to interception and being accessed by dishonest parties.

A further ethical issue with AI is the trading of the data obtained from GPS location hacking or drone location information. Where does that data end up if it isn’t directly utilised by the hackers? Concerns have been raised that the data could find it’s way onto social media, driving the illegal wildlife trade. Social media’s AI bots have even had their own ethical programming called into question regarding being able to spot, track and alert to illegal activities on their own platforms.

Finally, the AI equipment itself can be called into question. The collar tags used mainly on mammals and birds have their own ethical disadvantages. Most tags are quite heavy and cumbersome. Tagged birds were found less likely to nest, while smaller mammals exhibited impaired movement, reducing their overall survival rate.

AI in wildlife conservation has its place, but the ethical concerns need to be addressed as standard procedure.

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