For a digital library of life

It could impact on research into biodiversity and evolution

Alok Jha

LONDON: British scientists are planning a digital library of all life on the earth. They say the Digital Automated Identification System (Daisy), which will harness the latest advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision, will have an enormous impact on research into biodiversity and evolution.

Daisy will also give amateur naturalists unprecedented access to the world's taxonomic expertise: send Daisy a camera-phone picture of a plant or animal and, within seconds, you will get detailed information about what you are looking at.

At the Natural History Museum here, Norman MacLeod, keeper of palaeontology, has spent years developing the technology. He said Daisy would make the identification of plants and animals more objective and directly comparable. "Right now, taxonomy is as much of an art form as it is a science," Prof. MacLeod said. He was presenting his vision for Daisy to an international meeting of taxonomists at the museum on August 19.

Taxonomists normally identify specimens through a painstaking process in which the features of an unknown plant or animal are compared with identified specimens in the museum's collections. If it is sufficiently different, the unknown specimen is confirmed as a new species.

However, there is room for error: the museum's collection might be incomplete or the person making the identification could make a mistake.

If scientists did not have to make routine identifications and teach others how to do it, argues Prof. MacLeod, they could get on with the business of learning more about biodiversity and evolution. "Say you saw a butterfly, you might take a digital image of it, connect up to the world wide web and access a Daisy internet portal," said Prof. MacLeod. "The portal would accept the picture and farm it out to the servers in individual institutions, such as the Natural History Museum."Using pattern-recognition software, Daisy would try to match the picture with images in its archives.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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