Imagine opening your favorite breakfast cereal, only to find half a dozen feasting weevils inside the box. Panicked, you call an exterminator — but what if instead of a dime-store ghostbuster, the person who shows up at your house is a smartphone-wielding, AI-using, Google-powered, bug-destroying 21st-century pest technician?
If you live in the general vicinity of Reading, Pennsylvania, that scenario could become a reality sooner than you might think.
Using an app called PestID, exterminators who are part of the pilot program can take photos of bugs, upload them, and — using Google’s Vision API — instantly get information about what kind of insect it is and how to kill it.
Google’s Vision API tells you in words what an image depicts. PestID is trained on proprietary visual data owned by an extermination company called Rentokil, which is currently testing the technology in the field in Pennsylvania. The app, which is the result of a partnership between Google and Accenture, uses machine learning to constantly improve its accuracy.
“If I took a picture of a confused flour beetle, Google’s out of the box capability would be able to tell me it was a beetle,” said Nisha Sharma, an Accenture Mobility executive who worked on PestID. “But with Rentokil, it can actually tell you it’s a confused flour beetle.”
Pest extermination doesn’t exactly scream out as the obvious first workplace use case for advanced artificial intelligence. But apparently, it’s not as easy as you’d think. While most exterminators have plenty of experience and most extermination jobs are fairly routine, says Rentokil’s Keith Chisholm, a hard to recognize pest can really slow a pest technician down.
“If you do come across something that's particularly unusual, what would typically happen is they'd get in touch with a more experienced technician, or ask one of the support team to come and meet them on site,” he said. “ [PestID] helps them to deal with it themselves, and not have to lean on technical teams.”
Chisholm, who first had the idea of using AI to identify bugs when he saw that Facebook was automatically identifying people in photos, said exterminators who have used the app are blown away by how quickly it can identify a bug.
PestID can help Rentokil technicians with the more banal parts of pest extermination, too, like prompting the technician with the right treatment, and auto-populating paperwork; it can even use GPS to guess whether the pests are located inside or outside a facility. “There's a lot of stuff that these guys have to do manually,” said Accenture’s Sharma. “Using this app, we can automate it, and make it quicker.”
Employing faster technicians who can do more jobs in a single day is obviously attractive to a company like Rentokil, but it’s not the only perk of partnering with Accenture and Google. While the big companies own the underlying technology, Rentokil owns the database, which means as the system continues to learn about new bugs, Rentokil will own the most accurate and easy-to-use pest identification system on the market, which it can market directly to consumers.
“If you found an insect in your house, in the larder, munching away on your cereals, and you wanted to know, what is it? Do I need to be worried? What do I do about it? You could use the Rentokil app to identify the pest, we could give you advice, link you to a local pest controller, who could come and help you with that problem,” said Chisholm.
Even in a world where homeowners and companies pay for an app that identifies pests, Chisholm says a professional would still have to come by and actually kill the things. And that may be true, for now — but pest-killing drones and termite-destroying robots already exist.
“Could you replace that with a robot?” Chisholm asked. “I guess you could.”
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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