There Is a Good Use of A.I. And Its Name Is Merlin

Technology Artificial Intelligence
There Is a Good Use of A.I. And Its Name Is Merlin

On a recent early afternoon here in Maryland, the following birds were singing as I walked the dog: an American goldfinch, some house finches and house sparrows, a Carolina wren, a Carolina chickadee, and — less singing and more honking — a Canada goose or two. Over the previous few weeks at various points, a tufted titmouse joined in, along with gray catbirds, hordes of European starlings, red-winged blackbirds, and white-breasted nuthatches, among others. The northern cardinals simply never shut up.

I know this because of the best app ever created: Merlin, the bird identification app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Merlin can pick out the birds in your vicinity simply by recording them singing. The recording generates a visual representation of the sound called a spectrogram, which the app can recognize as belonging to one species or another. It was built using machine learning — in other words, somebody used A.I for good.

Most new stories about A.I. — or the tech that aspires to be A.I., that tech overlords and evangelists want us to call A.I., regardless of how far from actual “intelligence” it might be — read like someone is actively trying to mess with people. The New York City chatbot that tells businesses to explicitly break the law, the OpenAI tool that can recreate a human voice from only 15 seconds of recording and might as well be called CrimeSounds, the $100-billion A.I. supercomputer plan that will presumably use more energy than Costa Rica. There are A.I.-generated porn scandals, A.I.-based attacks on democracy and elections, threats that generative A.I. is coming to ruin your laundry, dark statistics on Plagiarism Bot usage among college students.

As Osita Nwanevu articulated well on BlueSky: “Why is any of this happening?” Who actually asked for any of this, at least beyond the C-suites of some of the worst companies in the country? It is often a crazy-making barrage of news and updates on what seems to be a technology rife with the potential for abuse and also a drastically overstated effectiveness and utility. And it all makes it easy to forget about things like Merlin.

Merlin is a small, free, non-essential tool that makes my day a little bit better. It doesn’t replace anyone’s job, and there’s no way to twist its use toward nefarious purposes. It just lets the sounds fluttering in through my window or over my head as I walk through the neighborhood mean a little bit more to me. I find that I have started to have a sort of mental map of who is out there in the trees at a given moment, like standing in the corner of a party and even with my back turned knowing which of my friends are chatting behind me. I am no bird expert, and while I can now reliably recognize maybe a dozen or so songs, one main effect of using the app is that I quickly perk up when I hear a bird I don’t yet know, like recognizing an off note in a familiar tune.

Yesterday, a northern flicker’s call peeked in from behind some always-angry blue jays. Crows appeared to harass screaming red-shouldered hawks. On another recent walk, I swear the app managed to recognize a downy woodpecker not from its call but from the sound of it hammering at a tree.

There are other good use cases for machine learning and A.I., of course, from various corners of healthcare to better weather forecasting. But I never feel better about the tech than when I pull the supercomputer from my pocket to determine that it is indeed a barred owl calling out into the night. Merlin is undeniably a net-positive on the world, and as companies continue rolling out flawed or downright malevolent A.I. tools, it is nice to remember that at least one tool is out there that just wants to help us hear the birds sing.

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