If a tree falls in the forest, and only artificial intelligence is listening, is a data point recorded? Such questions have become pertinent to a collaborative research project by scientists from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The research team is deploying autonomous recording equipment in natural areas—including the Morton Arboretum—to eavesdrop on the animals. Doing so can help answer important scientific questions, such as which species are present and how their abundance changes over time.

Their long-term goal is to characterize natural soundscapes using artificial intelligence, and to use that data as a baseline to measure how ecosystems are responding to climate change and other human-induced changes.

By listening to the animals that are present, the scientists can also make inferences about those that are not present, according to Asst. Prof. Eyal Frank, an environmental economist at the Harris School of Public Policy at UChicago who is also a co-lead on the project.

In a healthy ecosystem, Frank explained, most of the acoustic space is typically occupied by one animal or another.

“Think of radio stations,” Frank said. “We have a regulatory agency that says who can broadcast on what frequency, or channel. Over evolutionary timescales, the same thing happens in nature: Species adapt to one acoustic niche to communicate with each other … and a vibrant, flourishing ecosystem will have no gaps. Every frequency will have someone speaking on it.”

But as soon as we start losing species, Frank said, we start seeing gaps. That means that as habitats change—perhaps because of climate change, the arrival of a new invasive species, or human development—determining which species are going missing and why can contribute insights that are important for reducing biodiversity loss.

“In a selectively logged forest, we might see a really big difference in that index of just how ‘empty’ or ‘full’ the forest is,” Frank added. “What edge computing allows us to do is pare down what would be gigabytes or even petabytes of data to just the metric that we’re interested in: The ‘saturation index.’”

The saturation index is a measure of the extent to which the acoustic space is occupied—essentially, whether silences on some frequencies indicate the absence of certain organisms. Think about a piano on which all the “C” keys were missing. If “Cs” corresponded to chipmunks, that ecosystem wouldn’t have any, and the “scale” would be incomplete.

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Areas of Focus: Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.
Conservation Economics
Conservation Economics
Human society profoundly shapes – and is shaped by – the natural world. EPIC research is helping to identify the costs and benefits of preserving natural ecosystems.