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Bioacoustics in your backyard: Q&A with conservation technologist Topher White

Bioacoustics in your backyard: Q&A with conservation technologist Topher White

  • Delta, a new eco-device, allows people to record the sounds of wildlife that live in and visit their backyards.
  • Developed by conservation technologist Topher White, Delta combines the tools of bioacoustics and artificial intelligence.
  • Delta is part of White’s larger mission to document the drastically changing state of global biodiversity.

Ever wondered about the furry animal you saw scurrying through your backyard? Or the bird singing outside your window?

A new eco-device developed by conservation technologist Topher White aims to help you answer those questions, and bring conservation closer to home.

Resembling a mini spaceship, Delta can be put up in your backyard or garden. It records and streams the sounds of animals — even those not audible to human ears — that visit your home. Beyond streaming the audio, the device can also be paired with an app that uses artificial intelligence to create stories featuring the same animals as central characters.

In reality, Delta is a device that can be used for scientific research in the depths of the rainforest, much like the popular AudioMoth brand of acoustic loggers that are popular with researchers. But Delta has also been designed to ensure that it can also masquerade as a smart home device that helps people connect better with their surroundings.

“It’s a tech tool that we hope can connect even the Luddites to nature,” White, founder of conservation technology nonprofit Rainforest Connection, told Mongabay in a video interview.

Delta can be put up in your garden to record the sounds of the wildlife that visit you, or in a rainforest to help study the ecosystem through its sounds. Image courtesy of Topher White.

While the premise might sound playful, White has a much more serious mission in mind.

In 2020, he and his team came up with the idea of recording and collecting a million years’ worth of audio by 2030, in a bid to document the state of global biodiversity.

“This is the most interesting ecological moment since humans have existed as a species, not just from a negative standpoint, but also from an adaptation standpoint,” White said. “Biodiversity isn’t going to get better for the rest of our existence. So we have such a responsibility to capture it in a resolution that far exceeds our standards.”

But White realized that the goal would remain far-fetched if he relied only on data collected for science and research purposes. Thus Delta was conceived and developed with the goal of roping in the general public to take part in his mission.

White’s new device is a sleeker and more consumer-friendly version of his previous invention, Guardian, a device repurposed from old phones that records and uploads audio from rainforests around the world and uses artificial intelligence to detect unusual activities that indicate deforestation and logging. Guardian has also helped create a vast library of audio from rainforests around the world, all available on the Rainforest Connection app.

Topher White with Guardian.
Topher White with Guardian, a device repurposed from old phones that records and uploads audio from rainforests. Image courtesy of Topher White.

Mongabay’s Abhishyant Kidangoor spoke with Topher White recently about what he hopes to achieve with Delta, the motivation behind it, and the criticism he anticipates. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What was your motivation behind developing Delta?

Topher White: This came out of a moonshot that we wanted to take on in 2020. Bioacoustics is a fantastic tool that is able to extract behavior, sentiment, and a lot of insights from nature in ways that other technologies aren’t. But we need a massive amount of data. It’s a field that has been largely held back by perceived technical limitations. Our idea in 2020 was, “What if we were to collect a million years’ worth of audio between now and 2030, when we know there’s massive biodiversity change happening?” There are a lot of insights we can get from documenting that transition. It is also the story of adaptation. So the moonshot was about collecting a million years’ worth of audio, which equates to about 8.5 billion hours of audio.

But to do that, there’s no way we were going to accomplish it by putting up every AudioMoth on Earth, as well as Guardians out in the forest. We had to go with a market-based solution to get people involved, and go even beyond citizen science.

Mongabay: How do you think the general public will benefit from Delta?

Topher White: If you download the Rainforest Connection app, you can listen to the sound of rainforests in different parts of the world. But it’s just so foreign to people. In order for us to begin to introduce people to this idea of sound and nature monitoring, it’s best to begin in your backyard. Especially because we can then build on their sense of ownership.

Mongabay: What impact are you hoping Delta will have on conservation?

Topher White: In order for us to get more people into conservation, and ensure that more people are connected to nature, we need to make a case for why it matters in their lives. There are plenty of devices which are focused on citizen science when it comes to acoustics. I wanted to transcend the citizen science element, and wanted to make an experience around it.

I have always wondered whether we were reaching a limited audience. We have had this Rainforest Connection app, which I thought at the beginning was going to be a huge part of our impact — the ability to listen to rainforests around the world. I thought it was pretty cool. But it wasn’t really keeping people engaged all that much. They thought it was really cool but didn’t really know what was going on. So one of the big questions was, “How can we make a connection to nature that appeals to people beyond the conservation space, beyond the scientific space?”

A tree frog in the Peruvian Amazon.
A tree frog in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Could you walk me through Delta’s design and how it could be used?

Topher White: We probably crammed about anywhere from eight to 10 times as much tech into this as is in the Guardian. And we made it smaller at the same time.

It is designed to work out in the rainforest, but mostly we are marketing it for the backyards. There is a big hole in the middle of it, which is there for both aesthetic and engineering purposes.  Here, you will be able to attach cameras, extra batteries, anything, in fact. It serves as an expansion slot for anything new in the future. It’s magnetic. So solar panels can be stuck onto this, as well as any other accessories.

If you want to use a hydrophone or external microphone, there’s an option to add those. You can also add cameras. If you want to get satellite connectivity, you can. We don’t expect that to be a feature people have in their home. But it’s for versions of this that would extend beyond your backyard.

Mongabay: How did you design it with consumer use in mind?

Topher White: At the end of the day, this device, with minimal modifications, is going to go out in the middle of nowhere for scientific research. It’s just that, in order for us to be successful, it has to appeal or at least be supportable for people back home. So that’s a gap that we had to bridge.

For instance, I don’t think scientists care that the device is styled in a certain way. But people would if they put this up in their backyard. So the whole challenge was how do we make something that we would be able to put up in a tree and leave it there for years to do the job but, at the same time, people could hang it up in their backyard, put it in a greenhouse, put in their garden, or take camping with them. So we had to design and build it like laptops and smartphones: rugged, but manages to do the same things.

Mongabay: What kind of data will people get out of Delta after they put it in their backyard?

Topher White: Delta is just something that sits outside, or you can carry with you but it still sits there, and does its own thing in a non-kinetic way.

People can use it in a simple and direct way. They can have a totally new experience around streaming audio from their backyard, identifying species, bird watching, or just general appreciation of nature’s sounds. But that’s still not a major step forward.

We wanted to be more innovative with how people interact with the data. How do we take the real data points from animals in your backyard, and then weave them together through AI to tell stories? These would be stories that depart from explicit interpretations of reality, but are still based upon real data points from your backyard.

European goldfinches on a bird feeder.
European goldfinches on a bird feeder. White says people can use Delta and have a new experience around streaming audio from their backyard, identifying species, bird watching, or just general appreciation of nature’s sounds. Image by Tuomo Lindfors via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: Could you give an example of how that will work?

Topher White: The idea is that the skunk or the fox or the cat that comes to your backyard end up being characters that you and your family are able to continually revisit and see through stories. Every time these animals come through, chapters get written and stories and conversations and relationships get projected by AI, based upon new data points that come in. For example, you can have a kid’s story where the moral of the story is friendship, and the exact same data points that are indicating where the animals are can be used to project a noir mystery novel. It’s highly experimental.

The idea being that maybe at the end of each day, you can be showing your child a story that maps actual creatures that come through your backyard. So maybe it’s a skunk. And we will give that skunk a name and when it returns, it becomes a recurring character in the story. And there will be an alert when there’s a new chapter.

It’s going to be the real animals that come to the backyard that will create the story for you tomorrow. All this is to remind people constantly that it’s just happening in their own space, so that when they see the animal or that species somewhere else, they should think back to their connection to it.

Mongabay: Are you anticipating any criticism from the scientific community that the device might be gimmicky? If so, how are you preparing for that?

Topher White: This is a device for conservationists. It’s a scientific-caliber device that we are pretending is for children’s stories.

It’s fair to say that there might be some conservationists and scientists who think that this is either silly or obscene, that we are re-rendering nature using AI. But that’s not the point. We are trying to reach a new audience, and see whether we can create new connections that don’t currently exist. I also think there’s a fair case to be made for the fact that some of the most enduring relationships between cultures and nature have been highly imaginative.

It’s inherently human. When we have a personal relationship with what’s happening around us, it really hits home.

Red fox cubs in a backyard.
Red fox cubs in a backyard. Image by Rachid H via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Mongabay: Given this is an audio recording device that is meant to be used at home, how have you addressed privacy concerns in the design?

Topher White: One of the most important features of this is privacy. Our goal is not to be a surveillance device for people. We are very aggressively throwing away anything that has human related data in it. So there’s a filter that runs machine learning to look for human voices. If there’s some human voice, it just throws it out and it just becomes a blank spot in the database.

Mongabay: Finally, why do you think the world needs Delta at this point in time?

Topher White: I have always been a big proponent of people not just collecting data, but also making it open in a way that it can help answer the questions people will have in the future — 10, 15 or 100 years in the future. I would say that this is the most interesting ecological moment since humans have existed as a species, not just from a negative standpoint, but also from an adaptation standpoint. Biodiversity isn’t going to get better for the rest of our existence. So we have such a responsibility to capture it in a resolution that far exceeds our standards.

Banner image: A squirrel and a bird share a bird feeder. Image by Corey Seeman via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @AbhishyantPK.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bioacoustics program recently received a $24 million gift to expand its work, and the sector looks set to soar, listen here:

Hear that? Bioacoustics is having its moment, but the technology still needs tuning

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