UPDATED 20:50 EST / OCTOBER 16 2020


AI helps raise awareness of the conservation crisis

Sound is all around us, every minute of our lives. Our first experience of the world comes from listening while inside the womb, and hearing is the last sense to fail when we die. Sound never ceases, not in the darkest night or the furthest reaches of the ocean deep.

All these sounds are data, and (as we know) data is a resource that can be mined for insights — in this case, insights that could help halt the mass extinction that scientific studies show is underway on planet Earth.

“Our mission is to use sound as a lens to study the Earth, to capture it in ways that are meaningful, and to bring that back to the public to tell them a story about how the Earth exists,” said Bryan Pijanowski (pictured), professor at Purdue University and director of the Human and Environment Modeling and Analysis Laboratory.

Pijanowski spoke with Jeff Frick, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio, during Exascale Day 2020. They discussed the importance of soundscapes in assessing biodiversity and monitoring the changing ecosystems of Earth.  (* Disclosure below.)

Assembling an audio snapshot of Earth

Purdue University’s Center for Global Soundscapes is gathering sounds from around the globe as part of a project to develop an electronic record of every bird song, mosquito buzz, forest rustle, and ocean wave.

It’s a massive job. The center already has over 4 million recordings, and new files are added constantly. “We’re collecting 48,000 data points per second, so that’s 48 kilohertz,” Pijanowski said. “Multiply everything, and then you have a sense of how many data points you actually have.”

With hundreds of multilayered sounds contained in each sound file, humans can’t possibly manage the job of listening, analyzing, identifying and collating them. But an exascale computer could.

“What we are going to need in the future is a lot of information that allows us to train these neural networks and help us identify what is in the sound files,” Pijanowski said. “As you can imagine, the computational infrastructure needed to do that … is going to be truly amazing.”

One example of the intensity of data involved comes from a study cataloging the individual sounds of mosquitos.

“Our estimates are that we need about maybe 900 to 1,200 specific recordings per species to be able to put it into something like a convolutional neural network to be able to extract out the information, look at the patterns and data, and be able to say indeed this is the species that we’re interested in,” Pijanowski said.

Identifying mosquitoes by their buzz is one small part of the center’s larger goal to establish an audio baseline for biodiversity and monitor how it changes over time.

“I want to know what does a grassland sound like? What does a coral reef sound like? A kelp forest, and the oceans, a desert … how are these sounds different? And what is a grassland really supposed to sound like without humans around?” Pijanowski said.

By analyzing those sounds, scientists can monitor the biological diversity and understand how things like climate change are altering our spaces.

While cities have nurtured the growth of human civilization, the comforts of modern life come at a cost, according to Pijanowski. “There is a need for us to experience nature, and we don’t do that,” he said. “We’re not aware of these crises that are happening all over the planet.”

Identifying the eco-diversity gaps

Gaps are occurring on the soundscapes; silences that shouldn’t be there. “You think what should be there and then why isn’t it there?” Pijanowski said. “And that’s where I really want to be able to dig deep into my sound files and start to explore that more fully.”

Citizen scientists are encouraged to join the project by uploading their own sound recordings to the database. The Record the Earth app is available for Android and iPhone, and you can hear recordings on the Center for Global Soundscapes webpage. Just as important as recording the sound is putting away your phone and taking time to listen to the natural soundscape around you.

“Getting out there and truly listening and feeling this emotional feeling, psychological feeling that wraps around you. It’s a solitude,” Pijanowski said. “It’s just you and nature, and there’s just no one around. And that’s when it really truly sinks in, that you’re a part of this place, this marvelous place called Earth.”

Here’s the complete video interview, part of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of Exascale Day 2020. (* Disclosure: TheCUBE is a paid media partner for Exascale Day 2020. Neither Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the sponsor for theCUBE’s event coverage, nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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