On the Microsoft blog, the company has posted about a new project which is being supported by Microsoft Tove, a Microsoft Garage project.

BeachBot is a robot created by TechTics, a consultancy based in The Hague, designed to pick up discharged cigarette butts from the beach.

Every year, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts end up in the environment each year, where the fibrous fragments, which can take 14 years to disintegrate, have become “the most frequent form of personal item found on beaches,” according to a 2019 study by Brazilian scientists. Along coastlines, they slowly poison sea turtles, birds, fish, snails and other creatures.

When water touches discarded cigarette butts, the filters leach more than 30 chemicals that are “very toxic” to aquatic organisms and pose “a major … hazardous waste problem,” according to a February study by U.S. government scientists. Some of those chemicals also are linked to cancers, asthma, obesity, autism and lower IQ in humans.

Beachbit, created by Edwin Bos and Martijn Lukaart, is a mobile, beach-cleaning machine that can spot cigarette butts, pluck them out and dispose of them in a safe bin.

To teach the bot how to find butts TechTics must show the beach rover (and, specifically, the AI system) thousands of photos of cigarette butts, all lying about in various states, such as partially hidden, so it can recognize and remember them.

To help amass those photos, Bos and team turned to Microsoft Trove, an app that connects AI developers with photo takers through a transparent data marketplace. Trove establishes a direct photo exchange for fair market value. In this case, people can submit their photos, and TechTics directly pays contributors 25 cents per accepted image.

“The system learns how to see pictures like a child recognizing an object for the first time,” says Christian Liensberger, lead principal program manager of Trove, a Microsoft Garage project.

TechTics is seeking to eventually collect 2,000 photos via Trove. To date, it has obtained about 200 useful images.

Microsoft says Trove is built on that idea that people should be paid for their data – like their posted photos – rather than just giving it away on social media or communication platforms, Liensberger says. And there should be control and transparency within that process, allowing people to view how their data gets used.

“With this transparency, a lot of (Trove contributors) feel like they’re part of a team, that they’re doing it together, that they’re actually helping,” Liensberger says. “It’s important for people to contribute to something lasting.”

Trove users can choose when to participate. Trove can collect all kinds of data and is currently helping support a wide array of AI projects.

“We start with cigarette butts. That’s the world’s most littered item,” Bos says. “In the future, we want the robots to detect a range of other litter.” He envisions the bots working autonomously, powered by solar energy.

Check out Beachbot in action in Microsoft’s video below: