How AI can give endangered elephants a fighting chance

At present, more African elephants are dying than being born. Over the last century, the world’s elephant population has declined 97% from trophy hunters, ruthless ivory mercenaries, and even terrorist groups. The Wildlife Conservation Society has pointed out that the global ivory trade leads to the death of up to 35,000 elephants a year in Africa. It’s easy to point a finger at China as the biggest market for poached ivory in the world, yet only five years ago more than a ton of confiscated ivory was crushed in New York’s Times Square by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

To make matters worst, in 2017 the Trump administration rolled back the ban on hunting elephants’, allowing elephants remains to be imported into the United States . Last week, PETA released a new undercover investigation that revealed video footage of a California man gunning down a curious young elephant just outside Kruger National Park in South Africa, where no hunting is allowed. And if that wasn’t enough, United Parcel Service, a company we all use and trust, makes itself available to ship elephant body parts to America for wall decoration.

No matter the carnage and loss, there are still significant illegal markets for ivory in Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, often funneling into China and now with the economic hardship facing society due to the pandemic, the availability of ivory could increase. The impact of renewed illegal trade in elephant ivory may be far more grave than predicted by economic models alone and the long-term impact of poaching elephants will be catastrophic to the species. We’re talking extinction in less than 20 years – it’s war.

What we do next matters

Many organizations like Save The Elephants, The World Wildlife Fund, Vulcan’s Park Ranger, and PETA are doing epic work to raise awareness, fund park rangers, and do everything they can to save one animal at a time.

We are reaching a point where every action counts and these organizations need more support. One of the most notable updates to the fight for saving wildlife has been led by a small organization called Smart Parks . This Dutch-based team, led by Tim Van Dam and Laurens de Groot, launched the initiative, which aims to deliver an open-source repository for animal trackers. OpenCollar shares the design, support, and deployment of open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects for free.

By doing so, they are creating a new cooperative online community for conservation experts, researchers, and developers that can help to develop tracking systems that are more customizable and a better fit for use on different animals, like elephants. This means that anyone can inexpensively build collars, generate more data, create more actionable intelligence, and share as much as possible to benefit the conservation of our natural world.  You can learn more about their work by visiting , their GitHub repository, and the WildLabet open collar forum .

Hackster, Smart Parks & OpenCollar, are giving elephants new hope

As a giant developer community, spanning 1.5 million members and 24,000 open-source projects, Hackster is turning its attention to partnering with wildlife advocates in an effort to help protect the elephants.

Project ElephantEdge is an open and collaborative sustainability challenge that will result in the design and shipping of the world’s most advanced elephant tracker, powered by machine learning. ElephantEdge will focus on building the software that will run on the newly built hardware that Hackster and its partners are funding, including never before seen machine learning models by Edge Impulse telemetry dashboards by Avnet which will provide useful tracking, animal acoustics, motion, environmental anomalies, and more. The new collar will also sport better battery life, longer range, and better accuracy than any existing solution.

Challenge participants will receive free access to modeling software and datasets to aid in the creation of new, never before seen solutions. The software and hardware produced by ElephantEdge will be open-sourced on to enable future scaling and innovation. And by the end of 2020, ten next-generation elephant collars will be produced for Smart Parks to deploy in selected African parks, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology that is vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. Better sensors allow us to get more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,”  according to Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.

Getting involved in even the smallest way can make a huge difference

“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar , “particularly because the economies of Asian countries, especially China, have grown exponentially. Ivory is part of Chinese culture and history and it’s a commodity that indicates a certain status. If we’re serious about saving a species as important and as symbolic as the elephant, then we’ve got to bite the bullet and say, ‘We don’t need ivory.’ It’s complete and utter nonsense to say, ‘We need it.’”

Hackster is inviting anyone who can join this project which will help park rangers reduce animal loss from illegal ivory poaching, trophy hunting, human conflict, and environmental degradation. Visit to join the fight to safeguard this keystone species and restore the hope for a better tomorrow.

UFO conspiracy theory fun time: Did AI come from ET?

What if artificial intelligence technology and extraterrestrials are inextricably linked?

Some experts believe aliens are waiting for us to develop more advanced AI before they reveal themselves . Others think aliens gave us our current AI technology . And still others theorize that space aliens are AIs .

Let’s see how these ideas hold up to some very light scrutiny.

Happy UFO Day

The US government will be issuing an official report on 25 June covering declassified data on 120 UFO sightings from the past two decades.

The report was ordered by Congress after a bipartisan session determined the government should come clean concerning a shadow investigation on UFOs that’d been in operation since at least 2007.

Much of Congress’ concern relates to US Navy videos taken by pilots stationed aboard the USS Nimitz in 2004 and later which were leaked to the public. These short video clips appear to show unidentified aerial phenomena – the government’s official term for UFOs – in the form of small, dexterous aircraft.

TNW’s own Alexander Griffioen, a recognized UFO expert, recently gave an interview with my boss, Anouk Vleugels, to discuss the event.

During the interview, Alexander spoke about some of the things researchers have identified going on in the videos that might point towards UFO activity:

If these are indeed extraterrestrial objects operating under the control of an alien force, it stands to reason they wouldn’t be biological. As Alexander points out, sustained flight in near physics-breaking paradigms would likely be fatal to anything built like us.

Also, we do have some experience with making contact with other planets. We’ve landed machines on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Since that’s the only data we have, it’s at least a little useful to imagine an alien species might go the same route and send AI first too.

Basically, it makes sense that aliens would send drones instead of pilots. I’d call this theory at least somewhat feasible, as long as you’re willing to assume there’s intelligent life out there. That’s a big assumption, but we’re still within the realm of scientific theory here.

However, once you start adding in extra assumptions involving giant coverups, as some scientists have, it becomes a conspiracy theory. We can’t get around a scientific mystery by obscuring it in further mystery.

A pyramid scheme

People have imagined hyper-advanced civilizations visiting Earth to share technology since we first gazed up at the night sky.

There are still those who believe the pyramids of Egypt were built with the aid of aliens. The modern day version of this belief is that aliens gave us our current artificial intelligence technology in order to set us on the path to becoming an interplanetary species.

I like this theory because it means Elon Musk is probably an alien. It’s also fun because, if you believe it, it’s impossible for anyone to convince you you’re wrong. It requires you to always assume the government knows something any expert or science-minded person doesn’t. You’re either in on it, a patsy, or one of the few elite people smart enough to “figure it out.”

But it doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s no mystery behind Earth’s AI technology.

Despite the incredible advances and increased usefulness we’ve seen from deep learning technologies in the past decade, AI isn’t all that much more complicated today than it was in the 1920s when it first rose to prominence.

People who don’t have an intimate understanding of exactly how so-called “advanced” technologies work often think technology springs forth from a void like a magical spell.

But the truth is that science and technology are seldom defined by eureka moments that come in game-changing leaps. But, instead, by a slow, never-ending slog for truth that allows our collective knowledge to endure from one generation to the next.

If aliens gave us AI, the question is when? There are no inexplicable leaps in the history of artificial intelligence technology.

Today’s modern algorithms and the computers they run on can be reverse-engineered with mathematical precision all the way back to the ideas of philosophers such as Pythagoras and inventions such as the Antikythera mechanism – both of which existed more than 2,000 years ago.

It’s tripe to think we’d need aliens to give us something we’ve obviously been working on for thousands of years. The same goes with the pyramids. They didn’t spring up in the abstract, they were built piece by piece.

It’s a popular myth that we can’t explain how they were built. We can . We’re just not sure exactly which of many possible methods were actually deployed, which makes it more of a records-keeping problem on behalf of the ancient Egyptians than a mysterious puzzle.

The final form

And that just brings us to my favorite of all the trending AI and aliens tropes: the idea that aliens are AIs .

What if those UFOs the US Navy saw weren’t drones, but were actual sentient machines from another planet? Or what if aliens could visit Earth as ghosts in the machine without anyone knowing. Maybe that’s where computer glitches come from and why resetting our devices always seems to work like magic.

This would mean that the aliens we’re scanning the cosmos for are already here. They could even be hiding in plain sight – like robots in disguise .

But here’s the rub: We already struggle to demonstrate any evidence for organic life. Taking that a step further and assuming that not only is there organic life elsewhere in the universe, but that it either created or evolved into sentient machine life as well, is doubling down on the things we don’t know.

That’s not evidence. It’s a science fiction double feature.

We do not know that our own artificial intelligence technology will ever lead to general AI, sentient machines, living robots, thinking computers, or any other life-adjacent technological paradigm. We can only guess this will happen and continue working towards it.

Today’s experts predict these advances could be “right around the corner,” but they also predicted AI would win World War II when the Russian, British, US, and German military forces scrambled to develop and deploy it in the early 1940s.

We might be on the verge of proving AI is capable of true intelligence. And we might not.

For example, we’re no closer to time travel today than when the Manhattan Project ended in 1946. But quantum computing , once thought a parallel technology to time travel, is moving along nicely with functional (albeit not quite useful yet) examples from both Google and IBM in operation today.

There are no guarantees in science

If the truth is out there, we’re more likely to find it by focusing our efforts on advancing the tools we have and applying them to the search for ET.

Conjuring fantasies where aliens come to Barack Obama or Ian Goodfellow in a dream, and gift one of them the master algorithm, doesn’t push the field forward. Even though it is a lot of fun.

The problem is that the hunt for extraterrestrial life is actually quite serious.

We need UFO enthusiasts and people who believe. They’re important to our society.

But there are dangers to confusing the mainstream public and we’re at a point in time when a significant percent of the global population does not understand AI.

When the mainstream public stops understanding the lines between legitimate research and conspiracy theory, it can make it hard for real scientists to do real science.

And we need AI researchers and other scientists focused on building better algorithms so astrophysicists can develop stronger simulations, engineers can make useful quantum computers, and, with any luck, someone will finally figure out warp drives .

All of these things are firmly based in reality, should help us find any ETs out there, and, arguably, they’ll be necessary for our future whether aliens exist or not .

This AI generates music from silent piano performances

Scientists have developed an AI that can generate music from silent piano performances, just by watching the movements of the player’s hands.

The system, called Audeo, analyzes top-down videos of someone tickling the ivories to predict which keys are being pressed in each frame. It then produces a transcript of the music, which a synthesizer translates into sound.

The researchers trained and tested the AI on footage of pianist Paul Barton playing tunes by famous composers.

They then evaluated the accuracy of the Audeo’s compositions by playing them to music-recognition apps, such as Shazam and SoundHound.

The apps identified the tune 86% of the time  — just 7% less than they recognized the source videos.

Senior study author Eli Shlizerman, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, said he was surprised by the quality of the AI’s output:

You can judge its performances for yourself in the video below:

The researchers have also explored using Audeo to change the style of music. Shlizerman said the system could show how music produced by a piano sounds when played through a trumpet.

He hopes the research will enable new ways for people to interact with music:

You can read the full study paper here .

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