Friday, 26 May 2017

The SHE in my Machine

So I take it that since computers can now beat humans at Poker, Go, driving safely and pretty much anything else, that the Singularity has happened. Apart from a slightly embarrassed silence from humanity (after all, who wants to get on a chair and boast about how stupid we are), the world hasn’t changed much down the line of how sci-fi movies made out we’d all soon be slaves to machines.

After all, artificial intelligence is still useful, and cute, so long as we get to hold it in the palm of our hands. I mean, if our much-smarter-than-us-phones start to threaten us with slavery and nuclear war, we’d just flush them down the toilet and buy the next slightly less belligerent model. Clearly though, if the machines are seeking dominance over us mortals, something that hasn’t been solved by them is the disconnect between computer reason and the human need to go where no man (or machine) has ever gone before. Let’s take the example of surveying birds in the Karoo.

The Karoo: dry, big, open space, endless dusty roads, a winter landscape drawn solely from the brown end of the colour spectrum, and where what counts as excitement here is watching a sheep getting so bored that it falls over asleep. And there are snakes: poisonous ones. I suspect that somewhere in the Karoo they’ve buried a black hole, because time warps here like nowhere else: a 20km drive can feel like eternity. Our computer is thinking: why do you even want to be there? Why would you go from one point in this landscape where everything looks the same, to somewhere else that looks like the place before?

Computer diagnosis: you are mad and I’m going to quietly steer you to a psychiatrist who will hopefully sell me to a homeless person on

So how did I figure that out? Well – I got lost on the first survey based out of Richmond: purely my own fault, based on too little sleep and not figuring out one dirt road from another. Seriously though: intersections on the back roads are rarely marked, and if they are it will be something like “AP1056” or “Turn left in the direction of a-town-you’ve-never-heard-of that sounds like a planet from Star Wars”. Alternatively you might want to go right.

That evening, surveying co-team lead Gigi Laidler showed me a neat trick: I could just enter the GPS coordinates of where I needed to go straight into Google Maps on my phone.  I.e. from ‘Your location’ aka in machine speak ‘Why are you even here? There is nothing here! You’re clearly lost’ to ’32.123s 23.145e’ aka machine speak for ‘Why do you even want to go there? Clearly there has been some mistake!

Never-the-less, a cute little blue line wiggles its way across the Google map. What is not so evident is that artificial intelligence is manifest in the Navigator: i.e. that seductive voice that tells us that in 600m we should be turning right. (Personal confession, I never thought that ‘In 600m, turn right’ would ever send me instantly into daydreaming about Scarlett Johansson, although in retrospect clearly this is part of the machine’s plan to control me because inappropriate daydreaming will definitely get me lost and hence I become more reliant on Google Maps for finding my way, ie. a downward spiral of addiction).  

Thanks to Google for that photo collage of the famous actress: apologies to any photographers not credited

The first attempt worked quite well: we were headed for a survey block just off the N1. Scarlett Johansson was clearly thinking “Yes! let’s get there, at least its 50km closer to Cape Town!”

The next journey would reveal the truth about the artificial intelligence in my machine. I entered coordinates for a pentad to the north, literally in the middle of nowhere. Up popped the little map, which I perused to see if it made sense, and it did. I confidently pressed the navigator button, and let Scarlett Johansson tell me I needed to turn right at the first intersection – one satisfied humanoid at the wheel!

A few kilometres down the road towards Richmond and Scarlett was having a panic attack: the screen had frozen. Clearly Scarlett was torn between needing to act in self-preservation and the need to obey her mad human master, although I’d only realise that later.

Since I knew this bit of the road, I closed the app while I navigated to the other side of the town, where I started the app again. I waited for Scarlett’s sultry tones, but she was speechless with fear. The first intersection loomed out of the pre-dawn gloom unannounced, but I was confident I needed to turn right (somewhat disappointed that I needed to have to do that alone).

A few kilometres further down the road and I shot by another un-named intersection. Didn’t I have to turn right here? I braked to a sudden halt. While I was trying to interpret blue dots from blue lines on the map Scarlett suddenly commanded: “Continue straight”.
“Are you sure Scarlett?” She remained silent, and I forgave her: I mean, she’s good looking and we all know a GPS can get confused from time to time; after all, I was very close to the intersection. Correcting myself onto the right road, I continued on. As the red-glow of dawn started to show off the table-top mesas, I glimpsed another intersection up ahead, helpfully named “AP random number”.
Continue straight!” commanded Scarlett. Reasoning that the command had been given with sufficient time and that she’d settled down, I continued straight, beguiled by the outlines of the curvaceous landscape.

But it dawned on me as dawn broke, that according to my odometer I should be where I needed to be, and that Hannover was not where I wanted to be heading. I looked down at the map, and was horrified to see that the blue dot of my position was now about 15 km from the blue line of the Google map! Clearly it was time to shut down Scarlett and resort to manual navigation.
Don’t take me to that land of no internet or cellphone reception! Don’t disconnect me from the Cloud! NOOooooo…!” silently wailed the virtual Scarlett.

Yeah right, like you’re gonna Ex Machina my ass – I’ ve got birding to do…. And that’s is what will always make us better than the machines: our bizarre desire to go odd places to take photos of little brown animals in a desire to better understand and protect them. It’s not logical, and hence Scarlett and I will never have much in common.

A Desert Cisticola on a precarious perch

Shocking picture of a Jackal Buzzard!

A poplar tree in late autumn colours added some color to the scenery

In my last post, I was pondering the lack of Lark-like Buntings. This time it was hard to do a point count without recording Lark-like Buntings: they were everywhere. Clearly the summer rains had done their job in the north-eastern Karoo region, and birds were loving the grass and seed cover. Pentad lists were between 50 and 70: double those of last months.

However, since its been some time since the last good rains, birds were regular visitors to water wherever it occurred: here a Lark-like Bunting takes a drink from a puddle next to a livestock watering trough.

Northern Black Korhaan - these noisy birds have been known to throw rider's from there horses when irrupting from cover at the last minute.

Namaqua Warbler in full cry

Plain-backed Pipit (YES IT IS!)

Rufous-eared Warbler

The lack of color the rest of the day makes sunsets especially pretty

During the heat of the day during one survey I waited by a small stream to watch the birds drinking and bathing. Red-eyed bulbuls were most frequently observed.

Puncture! Scarlett made me drive over that screw, I know it.

At one of the survey sites the farmer's dog decided to take me for a walk. Here 'Otto' surveys his kingdom.

While intersections on Karoo roads are poorly marked, bizarrely enough beautiful sunrises are well signposted.

Interesting ornithological observation: a group of non-breeding Southern Masked Weavers and Red-headed Finches were observed eating harvester termites at one point.



Monday, 15 May 2017

Break to Borneo

Its 6pm, the end of my first full day in the city of Bontang, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. The cicadas are battling to be heard over the mosque loudspeakers issuing the evening call-to-prayer. I'm on the edge of an 18-hole golf course fringed by mangroves. Looking beyond the mangroves is a wooden village on stilts in the water. Everything feels kind of surreal: it took 4 flights with over 17 hours flight time and a 6 hour taxi ride straight out of gran-turismo to get here, more than 36 hours travel time.

You know you're headed somewhere remote when the bookshops in the airports don't have a travel guide to where you are going. In transit through Singapore I found the first travel guide to Indonesia, as thick as my middle finger, and it had 2 pages on East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. In Jakarta, I find one Lonely Planet guide to Indonesia: I buy that and a bird book. I'm the only muzungo / gringo on the plane for the last flight to Balikpapan.

So: Some fast facts about Indonesia: it is an archipelago of over 17 000 islands, the largest of which
are Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi and Papua. Indonesia is the world's 4th most populous country with over 255 million people. The official language is Indonesian, although that is a second language to 80% of the population. Even at the pretty fancy 3 * hotel, the English of the staff is basic at best, although that is not a bad thing: watching the waitress do an impression of a cow to explain an item on the menu will go down as a highlight of the trip.

I was last in Borneo more than 20 years ago as a backpacker, and then only on the northern Malaysian side: Sabah and Sarawak. However, most of the island belongs to Indonesia.

The reason for my visit to this area is not for birding! It is to learn about an IUCN project that uses species traits to examine their vulnerability to climate change. But more about that later. The first few days when not on the laptop I've been out birding in this tropical environment as much as possible.

Birding Bontang, Borneo.

While some countries, like Peru, have bigger total species lists, Indonesia has the highest number of country specific endemics: 381 of 1605 (24%) species! Perhaps as to be expected with such huge human impact, about 20% are considered to be species of conservation concern according to Morten Strange's Birds of Indonesia (the only bird guide to the birds of the entire archipelago, but even so only with 912 of the total number of species).

Some important Borneo birding facts: there 52 endemic species of the 669 species that can be seen here. The best bird book is Phillips' field guide to the Bird of Borneo. An example is one of the quick id by habitat plates, which pretty much was a one stop id page for birding around the hotel.

I'd only find out later that there was a sign saying 'entry forbidden' – it was in Indonesian, so I spent several afternoons and a bit of a morning out trying to spot feathered creatures in the secondary forest and mangroves lining the golf course.

One day of the workshop included a day trip into the Kutai National Park. This park was declared by the Dutch in the 1930's and has been shrinking ever since: originally 3 million hectares, it is now less than 200 000ha. That is admittedly still pretty big, but the drive along the road that skirts the edge of the park revealed massive rural settlements and oil-palm plantations in the park. With open-cast coal mines to the north, and oil palm plantations to the south, the protected area is under massive pressure. Droughts associated with El Nino meant that almost the entire park burnt sometime in the 90s. Given all that it is practically a miracle that Orangutans are still found here. An estimated population of between 1500 – 2000 is found in the park. It is one of the best places to see wild Orangutan in Indonesia, although certainly also one of the least straightforward to access, unless you come with your own car and a lot of preparatory work.

As promised though, after a couple of warm up walks through the forest, and a typically amazing Indonesia buffet that included things like Snake fruit, battered shrimps, we were rewarded with views of the arm of a large male Orangutan reaching for figs in a tree on the side of the river. Later, after another walk we had spectacular views of a female feeding very close to the staff accommodation of the rest camp / ranger post. Our group of researchers weren't the only ones to get great views, a local news documentary crew were also on-site.

Although a bit late in the day for birding, certainly the highlight of the walk through the forest with local guide Harya was the Greater Slaty Woodpecker, a Bornean endemic and also the largest woodpecker in the world! The photos are more personal glory shots than images that capture the beauty of the bird.

So what was the workshop all about? Anne Russon does research on Orangutans from the perspective of the development of intelligence. Of course she is also very concerned about them on an individual level, since these magnificent red-haired cousins of ours continue to be poached, with youngsters sold for the pet trade. The large number of rehabilitation and reintroduction projects across Borneo attest to conservation efforts aiming to deal with this. However, the threat of deforestation and fires (predicted to increase under some climate change scenarios) is a real concern, and so Jamie Carr, Climate Change Programme Officer of the IUCN Global Species Programme had organised this workshop to do a life history trait based assessment to climate change vulnerability. What is going to come of that.... you'll have to wait and find out!

In the meantime, enjoy some of the scenes from Borneo, and visit the forest while you can, as it is disappearing incredibly fast, as are the animals that rely upon it.

These photos in high res plus More photos:

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