Lily Xu uses artificial intelligence to stop poaching around the world


Laila Shaw. Credit: Elisa Grenell/Harvard SEAS

Lily Shaw knew from a young age how important the environment and conservation were to her.

At the age of nine, she had already decided to eat vegan because, in her words, “I didn’t want to harm animals.”

Shaw grew up believing that her passion would always be separate from her professional interest in computer science. Then I became a graduate student in Milind Tambi’s Teamcore lab, and everything changed.

Xu is now conducting award-winning research into using machine learning and artificial intelligence to aid conservation and anti-poaching efforts around the world. Her latest research paper, Learning, Improvement, and Planning Under the Uncertainty of Wildlife Conservation, won the 2021 INFORMS Doing Good with Good OR Student Paper Competition.

“From our first conversations, it was quite clear that Lilly was very passionate about sustainability, conservation and the environment,” said Tambi, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “This was also why our wavelengths matched and I went out of my way to recruit her and make sure she joined my group.”

In the Teamcore lab, Xu helped develop the Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), an artificial intelligence system that interacts with a database that park rangers use to record poaching observations and predict areas likely to be poaching hotspots. The system makes it easier for guards to choose the best locations to patrol.

Lily Shaw Sripok Wildlife Sanctuary

Lily Shaw stands at the entrance to Sripok Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia. credit: Lily Chou

in 2019And Xu and Teamcore Lab collaborated with Sripok Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia to test the effectiveness of PAWS. At the time, the refuge only had 72 guards patrolling an area slightly larger than Rhode Island.

“Our work with Cambodia has been the most intense collaboration with our park,” Xu said. “We’ve had several months of meetings, our interactions with them and the feedback they gave us about the process really shaped the design of our algorithms.”

Xu played a leading role in implementing PAWS field testing. Through Tambe, Xu, and her lab mates, Srepok’s rangers have greatly increased the number of Hunter traps they cleared throughout the sanctuary.

“Lily has led and taken PAWS from a small research concept into a globally impactful research effort that has removed thousands of deadly animal traps, saving endangered wildlife globally,” said Tambi. “Lily has led a global effort to make PAWS available worldwide to hundreds of national parks. This is a truly global impact, aimed at saving endangered wildlife around the world.”

Lily Show Patrols Serebok Wildlife Sanctuary

Lily Shaw patrols the Serebok Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia. credit: Lily Chou

Xu has always loved nature, but she didn’t get much of it while growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Once she entered Dartmouth College as an undergraduate in 2014, she was finally able to immerse herself in the outdoors.

“I went hiking and camping for the first time as part of my orientation trip as a freshman, I absolutely fell in love with it and then spent as much time outdoors as possible,” she said. “It has brought me more into line with how valuable the natural environment is, and how much I care about doing my part to preserve it.”

She eventually started helping organize the first year Dartmouth cruise and took on leadership roles in the school’s sophomore trip and canoe club. Xu not only wanted to experience nature, she wanted others to take care of her as well.

This has continued at Harvard, where she has mentored four students since the summer of 2020, and has been part of several mentoring teams.

“I care a lot about mentorship in all abilities, whether it’s getting people out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to explore the outdoors and realizing this is their place,” Shaw said. “The outdoor community is traditionally rich and traditionally white. I’m not one of those two things, and I really want to encourage others and show them that this can be their space too. Likewise, from a computer science point of view, this is a traditionally male-dominated field, especially in AI research, He is traditionally the people of the Western world.”

Show Awards

Shaw has published several award-winning publications through her work on PAWS. A paper presented at the 35th session of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, “Dual Mandate Patrols: Multi-armed Bandits for Green Security,” won the runner-up title for best research paper out of nearly 1,700 papers accepted, while another publication titled “ Improving Poaching Prospects for Low-Resource Wildlife Conservation Parks Using Remote Sensing Images” was awarded with the Best Thunderbolt Paper Award at the Machine Learning for Development Workshop at the 34th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems in 2020.

Xu is working to address these inequalities as a member of the Design for Social Good (MD4SG), a multi-school, interdisciplinary research initiative that organizes working groups and seminar series to address the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized communities worldwide. Xu joined MD4SG in 2020 as a co-organizer of the group’s Environmental Working Group, and last March became a co-organizer for the entire organization.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this sounds like an extraordinary opportunity,’ because I don’t really know there is a strong community of computational researchers working on environmental challenges, and I’d like to help strengthen the community,” Shaw said. It attracts people from all over the world.”

“She’s fantastic to work with in all of these areas,” said Brian Wilder, a 21-year-old Ph. “She’s incredibly engaging and lively and really making things happen, while also being just a nice person to work with.”

For Xu, research is about more than just publishing — it’s all about building relationships and promoting community engagement.

“We researchers are not just trying to get your data sets, publish a paper and then walk away,” Shaw said. “We are here for the long term. We are committed. We want to achieve preservation outcomes as much as we want to achieve academic publishing.”

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