Artificial Intelligence and the Health of Killer Whales

For the past few years, SeaDoc has led an effort to compile individual health records for killer whales, with an eye toward better understanding threats across entire populations. Great strides have been made on that front, but the power of those records as a tool for research is about to go up a notch thanks to a grant from Microsoft as part of their AI for Earth program.

AI for Earth aims to amplify human ingenuity and advance sustainability with the goal of empowering organizations to thrive amid limited resources. SeaDoc will receive a seed grant that provides access to Microsoft Azure’s cloud-computing platform and assistance with artificial intelligence computing tools for data analysis.

"It is exciting to have Microsoft investing in recovery of southern resident killer whales but I'm even more fired up about what this is going to do for improving killer whale health," said SeaDoc Chief Scientist Joe Gaydos.

Multiple organizations including Center for Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA Fisheries, SeaWorld, SR3 - Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, and marine mammal stranding networks all over the West Coast have been entering killer whale health data into a shared database being built by Lisa Clowers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. This allows us to look at individual animal health, but the database also permits evaluation of trends, comparisons between populations, and evaluation of factors that contribute to disease, which can be extremely valuable in understanding threats at the population level. Currently the process is slow and definitely not real-time. But this latest grant from Microsoft has the potential to change that for the good of conservation.

The grant from Microsoft will permit us to do real-time data entry and evaluation, which will enable us to more quickly and effectively respond to threats. This is particularly important with a species like killer whales, where the added computing power and Microsoft's help in analyzing multiple complex factors will help us understand what causes disease and hopefully help prevent it too. Individual animal immune status, the disease agent itself, and a huge suite of environmental factors influence diseases so we have to address all of those simultaneously to know where we can improve things for the whales.

"We believe that artificial intelligence has incredible potential to accelerate efforts to conserve our planet,” said Bonnie Lei, project manager of Microsoft’s AI for Earth program. “We started AI for Earth to get AI tools and training into the hands of people around the world tackling environmental challenges. The SeaDoc Society has long worked to protect the health of marine wildlife and ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest, and we are pleased to award them a grant to use AI tools to better track and protect endangered whale populations."

We’re excited about this opportunity to further our killer whale health work, and we thank Microsoft for making these powerful tools available to us.