Facial recognition tech for bears aims to keep humans safe

If bears could talk, they might voice privacy concerns. But their current inability to articulate thoughts means there isn’t much they can do about plans in Japan to use facial recognition to identify so-called “troublemakers” among its community.

With bears increasingly venturing into urban areas across Japan, and the number of bear attacks on the rise, the town of Shibetsu in the country’s northern prefecture of Hokkaido is hoping that artificial intelligence will help it to better manage the situation and keep people safe, the Mainichi Shimbun reported.

Bear faces may look very similar, but small differences in appearance, such as the distance between the eyes and nose, allow facial recognition technology to tell them apart.

For the system to work, the technology requires a minimum of 30 photos of each bear’s face, taken from the front. Workers at the South Shiretoko Brown Bear Information Center have placed automatic cameras along known bear trails to capture the required data, but so far they’ve failed to gather enough imagery to launch their facial recognition plan.

While bears are considered by many experts to be highly intelligent creatures, it’s not thought that Hokkaido’s bears have rumbled Shibetsu’s facial recognition initiative, prompting them to steer clear of the cameras. Rather, the chances of a bear looking straight down the lens of a camera along the trail simply appear slim. But the team is persevering and hopes that it will soon have the necessary imagery to launch its plan.

The hope is that workers at the center will be able to use the facial recognition system to learn more about the specific behavior traits of each bear and capture ones considered likely to cause problems in a nearby town or village.

This isn’t the first time such technology has been used on bears, as researchers in the U.S. and Canada deployed a similar system several years ago in a bid to gauge population numbers in national parks.

Earlier this month, Japan’s ongoing difficulties with bear attacks hit the headlines again when one of the creatures injured four people in Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo before it was shot dead. Dramatic news footage showed the bear striking a pedestrian, the victim oblivious as the animal bounded up behind it.

In 2019, Japan recorded around 150 bear attacks, marking the biggest increase in such incidents in a decade, while around 6,000 were captured after causing incidents of varying severity. Experts say the increase could be down to a shortage of food in the bears’ natural habitat, prompting them to venture further afield in search of sustenance.

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