SINGAPORE - If a tree in a protected forest is felled with a chainsaw, does it make a sound? It depends on who - or what - is listening.
Rangers patrolling a different part of the forest would have missed the crash, while those a few kilometres away from the logging site may not have heard the grind of metal against wood if the forest cacophony was too loud.
But if there are "ears" in the trees pricked for the sounds of incursion, then any illegal activity can be registered and then quickly acted upon.
Mr Topher White, the brainchild behind an acoustic monitoring technology, said the aim is to use technology to fill gaps in nature conservation.
"Previously, there was no real technology available to listen to large amounts of audio for 24 hours a day and get the data out of the forest," he said.
Mr White, 40, is the founder of Rainforest Connection, a non-profit organisation that deploys this technology in various settings, from forest conservation efforts to marine life monitoring programmes in 22 countries.
The American will be a speaker at a forum organised by the Singapore University of Technology and Design in partnership with The Straits Times on March 15. The event aims to spotlight how design can help to achieve a more sustainable, happier world.
When Rainforest Connection's acoustic monitoring systems are deployed in forest conservation, solar-powered sensors are mounted high on treetops, where they eavesdrop on the rainforest.
Artificial intelligence trained to identify certain sound frequencies, such as animal noises or gunshots, scans the audio files from these networks of acoustic sensors.
When a desired species or threat is detected, the system sends real-time alerts via a mobile application to rangers and researchers.
Across a growing expanse of tropical forests worldwide, from the Philippines to Peru, these sensors are helping rangers monitor forest health and stop poaching or illegal logging activity more effectively.
But Mr White believes this technology can be scaled up, and rolled out to many more different settings - including in backyards around the world.
"Biodiversity loss is one of those things where there really is only one shot," he said. By putting the technology in people's hands, Mr White hopes to help people pay attention to nature in their backyards and appreciate the need to protect it. "We can do our best to reforest the planet. But once biodiversity is lost, it's lost forever, and by recording its interactions in sound, we can figure out its behaviour," he said.
Q. What sparked the idea of using acoustics sensor technology for wildlife conservation?
A: In 2011, I was visiting a gibbon reserve in Borneo as a tourist when I heard the gibbons sing. I remember walking through the rainforest with a man who ran the gibbon reserve. We heard some chainsaws going off but by the time we got there, the loggers managed to get away.
For the next couple of hours, I started to think about how you can't really pick out the sound of chainsaws amid the noise of the forest. But computers are pretty good at it. Just by detecting the sound of a lorry rumbling down a road or chainsaws going off, we can pinpoint within a few hundred metres of the logger.
High precision in these huge vast spaces is not necessary because as long as you get within a few hundred metres, you can catch these loggers.
When I first floated the idea, people were saying that we cannot process that much data. Others said that without processing the information in raw format, we would not be able to pick out different things.
But I was pretty stubborn about real-time transmission, which turned out to be a necessity because our sensors deployed in forests transmit data over cellular networks with a small bandwidth. When you send audio out in real time, hundreds of megabytes of audio data can be transferred bit by bit.
Q. How has the technology used by Rainforest Connection changed since 2013?
A: My first sensor was built from a recycled smartphone, solar panels and a microphone.
At the start, people said we were building this wrong because smartphones are built to do something else. But these devices are amazing things that can connect to cellular networks and are easy to write software for.
Only after several generations of using discarded smartphones, did we build our sensors.
One of our decisions early on was to heavily compress audio and send it over a cloud. But this required a lot of power so we developed a very robust system using solar panels that can do so much more.
While energy intensive, our choice to send audio up to the cloud has enabled us to revisit audio to hear what we missed.
Still, our number one issue is how to generate enough power to send that much audio.
There are many factors to consider when deploying our devices worldwide. In the rainforest, there are going to be leaves, branches and moss that grow on top of solar panels. One time, termites built a nest around one of the devices.
In places like South America, we have to account for snow and not much sun.
Since 2020, our technology has focused more on bio-acoustic monitoring to create an "audio ark" of rainforest sounds that allows scientists to understand and track the health of forests worldwide
For instance, our science team analysing the audio picked up a cat-sized squirrel that lives in the trees of West Sumatra. There are very few recordings of its call in literature but now that our team has labelled the data, people can detect the species automatically anywhere in the world.
Q. Your undergraduate degree from Kenyon College is in physics. How did this help in your work at Rainforest Connection?
A: I have always been fascinated with astrophysics and cosmology, as well as the interpretation of data. That's kind of what acoustics is, which is processing a cacophony of noise and trying to make patterns out of it.
Q. Your technology aims to empower local communities with the means to protect their lands. Are there challenges with its deployment in different countries with different cultural contexts?
A: One of the hardest parts for us was to learn that even though people had information on where the logging was, it took a lot more to get them to stop it.
Logging is very profitable in some areas. So rangers have been assassinated, threatened and kidnapped. This has been especially bad over the last few years and, with Covid-19, some organisations have stopped paying rangers salaries, which has made things harder.
Immediately, we started installing a team from our non-profit, who will receive the alerts and talk to the rangers. Such collaboration and interaction made a huge difference in triggering responses to logging. Our team helps coordinate response from our partners, which include indigenous tribes and non-governmental organisations.
Q. What's next for Rainforest Connection in 2022 and beyond?
A: This year, we plan to make these sensors available for people to be able to put in their backyard to capture the sounds of the forest.
We plan to do this under a new company called Squibbon - an arboreal squid speculated to live 200 million years in the future - that looks into inter-species infrastructure.
We hope people can take our devices to the farthest reaches of the earth and capture sounds there. Because this is not something that can be done by one organisation. It has to be done by everyone.
Pokemon Go brought people to places to capture virtual creatures, so we should be able to gamify the capture of earth's living history. By making these sensors accessible to people, we hope to record a million years of continuous audio by the end of 2032.
Q. What advice would you give to students looking to make a difference for people and for the planet?
A: Build something that people and the planet need. For me, these are the rangers who are at the forefront of wildlife conservation by protecting just a few hectares of forest. So we should be building tools that enable the people who can make a dent in climate change do just that.
Register for the forum
To find out more, you can register to attend the virtual Design Innovation Forum by SUTD in partnership with The Straits Times. Registration is free.
SUTD Design Innovation Forum
March 15, 3pm to 5pm
Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment
Professor Chong Tow Chong, SUTD president
Mr Patrik Schumacher, Principal of Zaha Hadid Architects
Mr Topher White, Founder and CEO of Rainforest Connection
Professor Tai Lee Siang, SUTD's head of the architecture and sustainable design pillar and centre director of DesignZ
To find out more, you can register to attend the forum here or scan the QR code