When a Tree Calls for Help: Topher White at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

(Forest noises) In the summer of 2011, as a tourist, I visited the rainforests of Borneo for the very first time, and as you might imagine, it was the overwhelming sounds of the forest that struck me the most. There’s this constant cacophony of noise.

Some things actually do stick out. For example, this here is a big bird, a rhinoceros hornbill. This buzzing is a cicada. (Forest sounds) This is a family of gibbons. It’s actually singing to each other over a great distance.

The place where this was recorded was in fact a gibbon reserve, which is why you can hear so many of them, but in fact the most important noise that was coming out of the forest that time was one that I didn’t notice, and in fact nobody there had actually noticed it. So, as I said, this was a gibbon reserve. They spend most of their time rehabilitating gibbons, these cute apes that you also just heard a few minutes ago. But in fact, what I didn’t realize when I got there, was that they also have to spend a lot of their time protecting their area from illegal logging that takes place on the side. And so if we take the sound of the forest and we actually turn down the gibbons, the insects, and the rest, as you’re hearing now, in the background, the entire time, in recordings you heard, was the sound of a chainsaw at great distance.

And in fact, as I said, these guards were there – They had three full-time guards who were posted around this sanctuary whose job was in fact to guard against illegal logging, and one day, we went walking, again as tourists, out into the forest, and within five minutes’ walk, we stumbled upon somebody who was just sawing a tree down, five minutes’ walk, a few hundred meters from the ranger station. They hadn’t been able to hear the chainsaws, because as you heard, the forest is very, very loud. It struck me as quite unacceptable that in this modern time, just a few hundred meters away from a ranger station in a sanctuary, that in fact nobody could hear it when someone who has a chainsaw gets fired up. It sounds impossible, but in fact, it was quite true. However, I did want to set out and try and find a way to work on helping them, because again, they were there, they wanted to protect the reserve.

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It was just a matter of being able to hear the chainsaws. So how do we stop illegal logging? It’s really tempting, as an engineer, always to come up with a high-tech, super-crazy high-tech solution – I’m from San Francisco, that’s what we like to do there – but in fact, you’re in the rainforest. It has to be simple, it has to be scalable, and so what we also noticed while were there was that everything we needed was already there. We could build a system that would allow us to stop this using what’s already there. So, in fact, who was there? What was already in the forest? Well, we had people.

We had this group there that was dedicated, three full-time guards, dedicated to go and stop it, but they just needed to know what was happening out in the forest. In fact, the real surprise, this is the big one, was that there was connectivity out in the forest. There was cell phone service way out in the middle of nowhere. We’re talking hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road, there’s certainly no electricity, but they had very good cell phone service, these people in the towns were on Facebook all the time, they’re surfing the web on their phones, and in fact they just charge their phones once a day. And this sort of got me thinking that in fact it would be possible to use the sounds of the forest, pick up the sounds of chainsaws programmatically, because people can’t hear them, and send an alert.

But you have to have a device to go up in the trees. So if we can use some device to listen to the sounds of the forest, connect to the cell phone network that’s there, and send an alert to people on the ground, perhaps we could have a solution to this issue for them. But let’s take a moment to talk about saving the rainforest, because it’s something that we’ve definitely all heard about forever. People in my generation have heard about saving the rainforest since we were kids, and it seems that the message has never changed: We’ve got to save the rainforest, it’s super urgent, this many football fields have been destroyed yesterday and yet here we are today, about half of the rainforest remains, and we have potentially more urgent problems like climate change.

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But in fact, this is the little-known fact that I didn’t realize at the time: Deforestation accounts for more greenhouse gas than all of the world’s planes, trains, cars, trucks and ships combined. It’s the second highest contributor to climate change. I was pretty amazed by that. Also, according to Interpol, as much as 90 percent of the logging that takes place in the rainforest is illegal logging, like the illegal logging that we saw. So if we can help people in the forest enforce the rules that are there, in fact, there’s a mandate to do so, because it is illegal, then in fact we could eat heavily into this 17 percent and potentially have a major impact in the short term.

It might just be the cheapest, fastest way to fight climate change – would be to stop illegal logging. And so here’s the system that we imagine. It looks super high tech. The moment a sound of a chainsaw is heard in the forest, the device picks up the sound of the chainsaw, it sends an alert through the standard GSM network that’s already there to a ranger in the field who can in fact show up in real time and stop the logging. It’s no more about going out and finding a tree that’s been cut.

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