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A synergistic future for AI and ecology

September 11, 2023

Research in both ecology and AI strives for predictive understanding of complex systems, where nonlinearities arise from multidimensional interactions and feedbacks across multiple scales. After a century of independent, asynchronous advances in computational and ecological research, we foresee a critical need for intentional synergy to meet current societal challenges against the backdrop of global change. These challenges include understanding the unpredictability of systems-level phenomena and resilience dynamics on a rapidly changing planet. Here, we spotlight both the promise and the urgency of a convergence research paradigm between ecology and AI. Ecological systems are a challenge to fully and holistically model, even using the most prominent AI technique today: deep neural networks. Moreover, ecological systems have emergent and resilient behaviors that may inspire new, robust AI architectures and methodologies. We share examples of how challenges in ecological systems modeling would benefit from advances in AI techniques that are themselves inspired by the systems they seek to model. Both fields have inspired each other, albeit indirectly, in an evolution toward this convergence. We emphasize the need for more purposeful synergy to accelerate the understanding of ecological resilience whilst building the resilience currently lacking in modern AI systems, which have been shown to fail at times because of poor generalization in different contexts. Persistent epistemic barriers would benefit from attention in both disciplines. The implications of a successful convergence go beyond advancing ecological disciplines or achieving an artificial general intelligence—they are critical for both persisting and thriving in an uncertain future.

Publication Year 2023
Title A synergistic future for AI and ecology
DOI 10.1073/pnas.2220283120
Authors Barbara A. Han, Kush R. Varshney, Shannon L. LaDeau, Ajit Subramaniam, Kathleen C. Weathers, Jacob Aaron Zwart
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Index ID 70248680
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Integrated Information Dissemination Division