In an increasingly digitalized world, we have become disconnected from nature and diminished our intention to seek connection with it. However, it is possible to harness technology itself to disseminate and share the stories of the natural world and reconnect with it from a perhaps unconventional perspective: sound.
“The Guardians of Mashpi Forest” is a project by Fundación Futuro that utilizes strategically placed sound recorders within their reserves. It was born with the aim of safeguarding the integrity of these protected areas by detecting sounds that represent a threat. They then harnessed the power of this tool to gain further advantages, transforming the guardians of the forest into allies for associating non-human sounds and transcending the connection with nature to a higher level of listening.
We are used to reacting more strongly to visual stimuli such as photos or videos, so using technology to listen to the forest may not seem like an obvious activity. In nature, we pause to observe, identify colors and shapes, but we often interpret sounds as mere background melodies without considering the stories hidden behind them. The paradox is that sound carries as much, if not more, information than what we perceive through sight. Animals that can easily hide within the dense foliage of a pristine jungle emit vocalizations that reveal their presence. In fact, deep listening is still an art practiced to unveil the truths of nature.
Bioacoustics studies the sounds produced by animals and enables us to digitize the conversations hidden within a forest. It is a science that has taken advantage of technological advancements by using increasingly sophisticated sensors that automatically record sound without the need for constant supervision. While this responds to the recurring demand for achieving more with less effort, there is no doubt that these sensors are powerful tools for studying species ecology and applying them to conservation and biodiversity research. These assembled sensor microphones can be placed in remote areas and remain active for entire days, providing information without requiring extensive fieldwork.
In this way, Fundación Futuro partnered with Rainforest Connection in an ambitious project to utilize audio sensors and artificial intelligence to identify the diversity of bird species present in their reserve and determine the relevance of these species as indicators of forest quality. To accomplish this correctly, they first needed to create an acoustic library based on the songs of known species. These recordings are treated as images that detail sound patterns difficult for the human ear to detect. This information feeds the library, which then serves as a guide for identifying other individuals.
The challenge of this methodology lies in correctly identifying vocalizations. Sounds in nature are variable, and there are species with similar songs, necessitating hundreds of recordings for the system to identify successes and errors and increase the library’s effectiveness. Though complex, it is not necessary to comprehend the mathematics behind this process. Instead, it is about not overestimating the capacity of these recorders and detection programs to identify species.
Despite their powerful information and response capabilities, manual verification is not an alternative. The human experience becomes essential, both to provide accurate information to the artificial intelligence system and to confirm the correctness of automatic identifications. In this project, Manuel Sánchez Nivicela served as the expert listener, working with thousands of recordings to indirectly guide the identification process through the artificial intelligence system. Furthermore, he was able to determine strategic areas within the reserve where key species interact, providing information about the forest’s health.
Although there has been recent discussion about the scope of artificial intelligence to surpass human capabilities, the truth is that, at least for now, we can consider it as assistance and not discard the human experience, which truly has the capacity to demonstrate the accuracy of the information we obtain.
It is like the interaction between technology and our senses in a process where we gain access to new ways of listening to the vibrant sonic landscape. However, only we can open our ears to the resonant and mysterious non-human sound.
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