The rainforest has been at the heart of environmental conservation efforts for decades. As technology has grown more advanced, scientists have begun experimenting with new ways to not only understand how the rainforest functions, but to give it a voice all its own. In May 2018, they managed to do just that, when Existential Jungle Bot (@BotJungle) made its Twitter debut. The creation of Imperial College London PhD researcher Sarab Sethi, the bot — which tweets fairly regularly — listens to rainforest sounds and uses AI to act as a “speech to text” service for the ecosystem.
“What happened was that mostly question words rolled out, because bird sounds normally sound like ‘who’ or ‘why’ or ‘where,'" Sethi told The Next Web of forming the Twitter account's messages. “So I just stuck a question mark at the end to make it more existential.”
According to the researcher's GitHub page, “(the) autonomous ecosystem monitoring device...records data from the field and automatically uploads it to a central server continuously and robustly over long time-periods.” The sound recordings that the unit captures enable researchers to establish an “audio fingerprint” of various systems within the rainforest, and hopefully detect whether they are under threat.
The bot (or acoustic monitoring unit, to use the technical term) is part of a greater collaborative effort based in Borneo called the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project. Operating out of Borneo, the project is a partnership between the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), Imperial College London, and in-country collaborators. To date, SAFE encompasses 211 projects of which Sethi’s AI bot is one.
While the goal of the Existential Jungle Bot’s feed is to raise awareness around rainforest conservation issues, Sethi’s solar-powered monitoring unit is also an impressive design and technology breakthrough. Traditionally, tech like this has been difficult and expensive to deploy in harsh jungle environments. Sethi and his team, however, ingeniously designed their device to be cheap, waterproof, ant-proof, and versatile enough to survive, and their work recently won them the UNESCO NETEXPLO Innovation Forum Award. You can even learn how to build a similar device yourself using Sethi’s tutorial and open source code.
Even after these innovations and three years of work, though, the entire (SAFE) project is still in its early stages. “At the moment it’s a research study,” Sethi said during the interview with The Next Web. “We’re talking a good 10 years down the line here, but hopefully researchers will be able to look at the data and say ‘this bit of forest is acting weird’ and do something about it.”
Rainforest ecosystems are particularly threatened as a result of human intervention and climate change, and as the environment changes, researchers are increasingly concerned about the ability of rare plant and animal species to adapt going forward. With technology like Sethi's enabling scientists to learn more than ever about the impact of these threats, there is still hope that local wildlife can be protected — and that we can all enjoy some good existential tweets in the process.