Anika Puri
2023

Anika Puri

Computer Scientist

CATCHING WILDLIFE TRAFFICKERS FROM MY BEDROOM

meet anika

A student in the computer science and electrical engineering departments at MIT, Anika Puri has focused her research on the nexus of AI and Environmental Conservation. Among her inventions: VFly, which has helped prevent large-scale avian fatalities due to human obstacles such as windows and skyscrapers, and ELSa (“Elephant Savior”), a low-cost machine-learning software used in the prevention of wildlife poaching. Elsa significantly improves poacher detection by using thermal-infrared drone videos, leveraging the disparity in the movement patterns of animals and humans over time. Puri, who is also an artist and a harpist, founded mozAIrt (mozairt.org), a nonprofit that works to inspire young women and underrepresented minorities to learn about AI and its humanistic and artistic applications.

CATCHING WILDLIFE TRAFFICKERS FROM MY BEDROOM
Nominated by: Richard Wiese FN'89
Class of 2023 Location USA

In response to the poaching of elephants and other endangered species in Africa, which has reached crisis proportions, wildlife conservation organizations have turned to technology in order combat the problem. Among the tools in use: UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) equipped with heat-sensing infrared cameras (coupled with computer-vision software) that have been deployed to help park rangers monitor protected areas at night when illegal wildlife poaching often occurs. Unfortunately, the current systems have poor accuracy for detecting potential poaching activity in real-time and none have eliminated the need for costly high-resolution thermal cameras. In response, I have developed ELSA (Elephant Savior), a high-accuracy, real-time wildlife poacher-detection solution that leverages machine-learning to drive spatio-temporal analysis, utilizing the disparity in animal and human movement patterns. When tested on thermal infrared video data in Africa, my work detected poachers with more than 90 percent accuracy. Furthermore, the low cost of my system—just $300 USD—which is designed and built with commodity components, mitigates the need for high-resolution thermal cameras, easing the burden on resource-constrained parks in Africa and Asia. I am now working to scale up the impact of ELSA in order to apply this methodology toward the protection of a broad array of endangered species. 

“Technology has played a role in empowering people all around the world to take change into their own hands, and I hope to be a leader at its forefront, leaving behind a safer, more diverse world.”

- Anika Puri

There are so many possible applications of AI to the environment, and I’m fascinated by its foundations, implications, and ethics. Although I am still in my teens, I have immersed myself in several opportunities that solidified my desire to pursue AI. I have built algorithms and programmed drones (as a certified drone pilot!) to prevent elephant poaching, as noted, and received grants to build AI-hardware devices to detect ticks.

There are so many possible applications of AI to the environment, and I’m fascinated by its foundations, implications, and ethics. Although I am still in my teens, I have immersed myself in several opportunities that solidified my desire to pursue AI. I have built algorithms and programmed drones (as a certified drone pilot!) to prevent elephant poaching, as noted, and received grants to build AI-hardware devices to detect ticks.

Technology has played a role in empowering people all around the world to take change into their own hands, and I hope to be a leader at its forefront, leaving behind a safer, more diverse world. My hope is that one day my work will harness technology to make a positive impact on the environment.

My hope is that one day my work will harness technology to make a positive impact on the environment.

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