An AI Tale of Google’s Kangaroo Paws

Kangaroo Paws, Anigozanthos flavidus CC via Flickr Linda De Volder

Translators enjoy Google Translate’s howlers. I suppose it gives a certain smug satisfaction that professional translators are still far better than Artificial Intelligence (AI). I recently came across the botanical equivalent. I like the convenience of storing my botanical photos on Google Photos. It is easy to pick up photos between devices. Every now and again, I check how well or badly Google Lens identifies a particular plant. I came across a botanical howler.

Google Lens identified the plant below as Kangaroo Paws.

Oops! Wrong continent, Google. Wrong hemisphere, Google.

Unopened flowers of Lonicera periclymenum, Honeysuckle. © Karen Andrews

Seeing beyond Shape

A trained botanist sees more than shape or morphology. A trained translator sees more than words. Google Lens is as plant blind as Google Translate is word blind.

All novices make mistakes, Google, that why we have professional trainers in translation, botany and many other fields.

Professional translators see cultural nuances beneath the surface of the words.

Trained botanists notice the leaves, hairs, etc. They learn to recognise a flower that is not fully open, a fruit, or a plant that is simply a mass of leaves.

I give you below open Honeysuckle flowers surrounded by a mass of leaves.

Open flowers of Lonicera periclymenum, Honeysuckle. © Karen Andrews

Just as translators are familiar the countries of their languages, so botanists familiarise themselves with plant habitats. I give you below Kangaroo Paws from Australia.

Kangaroo Paws at the Eden Project, Cornwall
Kangaroo Paws growing under cover at the Eden Project, Cornwall. © Karen Andrews

Ah, actually these Kangaroo Paws are growing under cover in the Mediterranean Biome at the Eden Project in Cornwall. The point is that they don’t grow in the open in Somerset. The climate hasn’t changed that much yet.

Artificial Intelligence grasps the photo content alone. This photo might suggest that Kangaroo Paws are growing out of a trunk.

Kangaroo Paws, Anigozanthos peeping out behind a Grass Tree, Xanthorrhoea johnsonii at Eden Project
© Karen Andrews

Maybe we should congratulate Google on being able to tell the difference between the Plant and Animal Kingdoms? As a botanist straying into zoology, I give you below kangaroo paws connected to an assumed Red Kangaroo, Macropus rufus.

Kangaroo stretches out his paws. Photo Credit: CC davidarich via Pixaby

Professional Training

Plant identification is trickier. DNA is needed to identify some plants. Google Lens and Google Translate are too superficial. Google Images is littered with photos of incorrect plant identifications. This online muddle is confusing for learner botanists. There is so much to learn with plants. I may have an MSc now, but I’m still working my way up the botanical skills pyramid (see below for link). As in any field the more you learn, the more you realise that there is still to learn. It’s reassuring to have professionally printed guides and expert trainers to refer to on that journey.

Plant Identification via Multiple Choice?

Generally, Google Lens presents around 3 options. The first option is not always the correct choice. AI regularly proposes American species for British plant species. Check a good plant distribution map.

I accept that my Google Lens usage is sporadic. It is motivated by curiosity rather than measured scientific analysis. I can nevertheless offer a few other examples.

Sedum mistaken for grapes. Enough to make even a novice suspicious?

Dangerous AI

The latest example is serious. Lycium barbarum mistaken for Atropa belladonna. Goji Berries or Wolfberries muddled with Deadly Nightshade. One edible, the other poisonous.

AI is not a laughing matter now, it’s dangerous.


There are 7 Professional Levels in The Botanical Field Skills Pyramid. Follow the link for full details.

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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