Impressive machine learning for plant identification

The “singularity” is that hypothetical moment in the future history when artificial intelligence explodes — exponential improvement, leading to what will appear to be our virtually instantaneous replacement as the smartest entities on Earth. Looking at the state of artificial intelligence, the singularity is an easy target for mockery, like this:

“Hey Siri, should we be worried about the singularity?”

I’m sorry, I don’t understand ‘Should we be worried about the socks hilarity.’

We’ve been making fun of lame artificial intelligence for as long as computers have existed. It hit the mainstream when Apple Newton’s handwriting recognition was mocked by The Simpsons and Doonesbury (which eventually got pretty darn good), but much earlier than that Bloom County showed The Banana Junior 9000 (which was obviously a Mac) triumphantly waking up — “I think. There… I am!” — only to haplessly unplug itself seconds later.

That said, machine learning is sure improving fast.

Picture This nails plant identification

In the last couple years I have tried out three plant recognition apps, and I was thoroughly disappointed by each in turn. I enjoyed my snarky thoughts, thought: “AI is really going to have to learn to recognize a dandelion before it can enslave me.”

But this past weekend wife and I tried another one of these apps, Picture This, and wowsers, it was good. Spooky good! I was testing it out in VanDusen Garden, a huge botanical garden in Vancouver, which is a particularly terrific location for such testing: lots of unusual identified plants.

The app was almost perfect over a couple dozen tests. It did confuse some young comfrey with burdock, but anyone could make that mistake. And one attempt failed because of particularly poor visibility, which I can also forgive. All other challenges were handled beautifully, like seperating the intended target from confusing backgrounds full of other plants. It also correctly corrected us on a plant we thought we knew. I didn’t realize catnip looked so much like mint!

If you need to identify plants with your phone, look no further: take Picture This out for a spin… while you still can. Apparently AI has taken care of dandelion recognition, and sometime next month we will all be converted into batteries to power the Matrix. But look on the bright side: the COVID-19 pandemic will seem like the least of our worries!