Can technology save us from the climate crisis?

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By Laura Ullman

Published: Sep. 24, 2023 at 12:42 PM EDT

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – The UVM Art and AI Research Group has created a project that director Jennifer Karson says begs the question: Can technology save us from the climate crisis?

Spongy moths are an invasive species introduced into the U.S. in the late 1800s. Most years, a fungus which is their natural predator prevents their outbreaks. But in 2021 and 2022, a drought allowed their population to flourish, and the caterpillars snacked on their favorite treat: foliage. Jennifer Karson and her students started collecting leaves, and out of it, came the damaged leaf data set.

“I’ve had people who find beauty in these leaves, and essentially what we’re looking at is a conflict between the caterpillars and the trees that human behavior played a big role in creating that conflict,” said Jennifer Karson

The data set is made up of what Karson called “three generations.” The first generation is the leaves the caterpillars munched through. The second generation is the leaves the trees produced later that season, a last chance to collect the light they were deprived of. Each of the more than 5,000 leaves Karson and her students collected were cleaned, pressed, photographed, cropped, processed, labeled and then run through an artificial intelligence model to make Karson’s brand new third generation.

The AI model predicts an outline on the leaves, foliage influenced by invasive caterpillars, drought, consumption and the will to survive.

“After being trained on this dataset, another machine has sort of taken over and tried to determine how to fill in the leaf,” said Karson.

Karson says the oak tree in her backyard grew two rounds of leaves the two years the spongy moth caterpillars broke out through the region. But this year, her favorite tree is dying. She says this project is to honor the trees of the Champlain Valley. She hopes Vermonters see the loss of leaves in their backyards and think globally about the depletion of earth’s forests through humanity’s consumption and if artificial intelligence is salvation.

“It helps us with predictions, but ultimately what we do with those predictions is going to be up to what we humans decide to do, and if we’re willing to change our behavior,” said Karson.

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