The final day of Peru’s Inca Trail, the four-day hike through the Andes mountain range, which terminates at the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, is a semi religious experience. Hikers rise at dawn at Wiñay Wayna, their campsite in the clouds, and walk through grassy terraces and past grazing alpacas to Inti Punku, or Sun Gate, which overlooks the 15th-century citadel. They’ve come to witness a special moment: Sunrise over Huayna Picchu, the mountain that looms over the lost city like a giant canine tooth. As the morning light falls on the honey-hued stone-wall ruins, elated backpackers snap away on their cameras and smartphones.
These images are no longer just fleeting memories of a glorious gap year but valuable material for tourism management and anthropological scholars. That’s thanks to AI built by researchers at Facebook and the University of Texas at Austin that analyzes thousands of public photos of various archaeological wonders in and around Cuzco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, to explain how tourists engage with these sites and how that engagement changes over time.
It’s the first time that AI has been used at the intersection of anthropology and heritage tourism in this way, explains Kristen Grauman, a research scientist at Facebook AI Research and professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. “We use a statistical model and computer vision to unlock what’s happening on the ground in terms of how tourists are experiencing a site,” she says. “It tells us how popular the sites are, how people are transitioning between them, and how much time they spend there.”