Alphabet’s R&D subsidiary X has unveiled its next “moonshot project,” as the company strives to improve ocean health through automatically tracking and logging the behavior of fish over time.
The oceans constitute more than 70% of Earth’s surface, and play a pivotal part in regulating the global climate. They also provides billions of people with food, with fish generally having a lower carbon footprint relative to land-based animals. But understanding what’s going on underneath the oceans is key to protecting it, which is what Google’s sister company is now setting out to achieve.
Tidal, as the new project is called, is setting out to help preserve the ocean’s ability to “support life and help feed humanity, sustainably,” noted Tidal project lead Neil Davé, in a blog post. The project’s initial focus will look at how technology can give fish farmers more tools to “run and grow their operations.”
“Humanity is pushing the ocean past its breaking point, but we can’t protect what we don’t understand,” Davé said. “Pollution and unsustainable fishing practices mean that there will soon be more plastic than fish in the sea, while rapid acidification is killing corals and sea creatures. This is driving upheaval in ecosystems all over the world, from coral reefs to the Arctic, leading to chain reactions of damage that are threatening human food and economic security.”
Fish recognition system
Tidal leverages an underwater camera system and machine perception tools to “detect and interpret” fish behavior that may not be obvious to the human eye. The system monitors fish to look at how they eat, for example, while also collecting relevant environmental data such as water temperature and oxygen levels. It’s hoped that this will replace what is largely a manual system that involves tracking a small number of individual fish.
“This kind of information gives farmers the ability to track the health of their fish and make smarter decisions about how to manage the pens — like how much food to put in the pens, which we hope can help reduce both costs and pollution,” Davé added.
X came to fruition as a research unit inside Google back in 2010, and later became an Alphabet subsidiary as part of a company restructure in 2015. A number of projects have emerged from X as standalone companies, including its self-driving vehicle division Waymo, as well as its drone and balloon network offshoots Wing and Loon.
A core tenet of X is that it’s not setting out to make incremental improvements to the world’s biggest issues, it’s more about radical innovation and solving trillion-dollar problems. With climate change front-and-center in the global dialog, this is a key focal point for X, and has led to other projects and subsequent spin-outs such as Malta, which is looking to revolutionize energy storage through a combination of molten salt and antifreeze. And then there is Dandelion, which is touted as an environmentally-friendly heating and cooling system that operates beneath buildings.
Although Tidal is still very much an early-stage project aimed specifically at fish farmers, the longer-term goal is to apply the technology and learnings to other areas of the ocean.
“As we validate our technology and learn more about the ocean environment, we plan to apply what we’ve learned to other fields and problems, with the help of ocean health experts and other organizations eager to find new solutions to protect and preserve this precious resource,” Davé said.