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How Engineers Can Actually Help Save Elephants

I received a call from a veterinary school asking me if I could help them with elephant conservation. Now, I adore elephants and understand the plight they are facing due to poaching and deforestation, but I was perplexed.

How could an electrical and computer engineer help elephants?

I thought about it and realized there are actually many ways to help. Engineers can make a huge impact on conservation efforts by applying technology and innovation skills, if we take the time to understand the problem and appreciate the many different perspectives surrounding the problem.

I proceeded to present and brainstorm elephant conservation ideas with anthropologists, veterinarians, a primatologist, and an Africology expert. I discussed using drones, imaging, sensors, tagging and tracking and using artificial intelligence to help veterinarians diagnose and track animal health. I also listened to their concerns, learned about their needs to collect specific types of data and the kind of research questions they were trying to answer. I refined my approaches based on what I learned and came up with guiding principles that promised any technology I developed would not harm, stress or impair the natural behavior of the elephants. Together, we embarked on a wonderful elephant conservation project that spanned several disciplines, institutions and non-profit organizations, which was all bound together by the successful advancements in engineering and technology.

The collaboration didn’t stop there. I was asked to teach a class on the “elephant imperative” with renowned author Dale Peterson, who happens to be the official biographer for Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist researching chimpanzees. I jumped at the opportunity to co-teach with this famous man and found myself, for the first time in all my years as a professor, teaching technology to a class of liberal arts students. Bringing awareness to non-science and engineering students was not as challenging as I first anticipated.

Today’s students are all digital natives, so they are already proficient using the technology, even if they don’t understand the details of how the underlying fundamentals of the technology works. These students used what I taught them and saw many other applications for the technology in their own research fields of interest, such as combating human trafficking, improving women’s health, and developing low-cost educational initiatives. We discussed artificial intelligence (AI) and clarified some of the public perceptions that AI is a magic box that can automatically know everything about everything. Instead, we discussed it as a system that must be intelligently trained, tested and validated. I got students to think about what data they would use to solve problems and explore, and what sources they would use to find the data. All these critical thinking tasks helped students formulate a strategy to help them embark on their own research and discovery journeys. It also helped them understand how to approach a problem as if they were developing their own intelligent system to solve it.

As my students and I developed our elephant health and tracking system, we asked, “Why not use the same kind of AI system architecture for other types of endangered animals too?”

This blew the doors wide open for a plethora of possibilities for AI and animal conservation. My next adventure in animal conservation came after I met Dr. Zarin Machanda. Dr. Machanda grew up with an aspiration to become an astronaut veterinarian. As a little girl, she saw space missions using chimpanzees for flight testing and wondered who was taking care of the special needs for chimpanzees that travel to space. I attended one of her talks and was in awe of her ability to stand up in front of a large audience and perform chimpanzee vocalizations, which she did with confidence and tremendous volume. I don’t know of any engineer that has ever had the opportunity to mimic an animal while presenting a technical talk. It certainly kept the audience’s attention.

Whether it be the dream of becoming an astronaut veterinarian like Dr. Machanda or a “Drone Girl” like Sally French who you can meet on our Nerd Girl Nation show, if you don’t see a job that inspires you, invent your own.

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