Hearing our planet in the digital age

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Image by Ma_Frank from Pixabay

Around the world, as dawn breaks and we start to awake, one of the first sounds we often hear is the singing of birds. Such tunes tell us the world is alright and many of us revel in these melodies. Except if they’re crows. That’s a rather cranky sound to awake to. Still, that does tell us things are okay outside.

It was thought in the late 18th century that bats used some means other than sight to catch their prey. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that this was determined by zoologist Donald Griffin and Robert Galambos. Most scientists at the time figured this was useless information. Turns out however, that understanding echolocation was key in the development of sonar.

Sound has long played a role in how we understand, relate to and engage with the world around us. From cultural elements that aid us in hunting (mimicking other animal sounds for example), finding certain foods like beehives for honey, impending weather like thunder and so on.

But most of the way we describe our world is through visual references as we are predominantly a visual species. As we’ve learned though, people with visual impairments often develop an enhanced sense of sound and some can use a form of echolocation to navigate the physical world. Another thing we learned from bats and certain cetaceans like dolphins and whales.

Perhaps soon, we may also, somehow, talk to our planet, using sound in innovative new ways. Recent studies have shown too that plants make sounds when they’re in distress. Another interesting project has uncovered a previously unknown sound in our stratosphere.

Today, we are plugging sensors and microphones into just about everything we possibly can at an unprecedented rate. We are mapping our world from space in all ranges of the visual spectrum with satellites. In the background, we are applying Artificial Intelligence to help us interpret sounds and image capture. In a recent article I wrote about how we might soon talk to animals.

We are learning that using ultrasound goes beyond just imaging inside our bodies to helping in the healing process. some hospitals are experimenting with low-level, ambient sound to help soothe patients, as well as white noise for privacy.

We have learned too, that human made sounds can cause significant impacts on marine life, causing cellular damage to some creatures and impacting whales ability to communicate and more.

For many thousands of years, humans had a complex understanding and relationship with nature. As we slowly became agrarian and built cities and more advanced technology, we lost a lot of our understanding of our role within nature. We tended to see ourselves as exceptional to nature. Indigenous populations never forgot this and fortunately, slowly, Western societies are starting to listen to these societies again.

As we become ever more aware that we are not an exceptional species we are also understanding that we must work in harmony with our fellow animals. As we learn about sound and its role in the planets ecosystem and our own health, we may well see a different approach to evolving technologies.

As I’ve written before, humans need technology to survive as a species. By understanding the impact of ships engine and propellor noise on marine life, we will develop new, quieter propellors, such as this toroidal one. Electrification of engines will significantly reduce noise too. Naval submarines are already incredibly quiet.

With the rise of electric vehicles, road engine noise will also be significantly reduced. As urban sounds decline, birds and other animals will adapt as well. We will innovate in healthcare using sound in ways we currently haven’t figured out.

We are collecting vast amounts of data about our world. When we start combining these immense data sets in new and novel ways, perhaps using quantum computing and Artificial Intelligence tools like Machine Learning and Neural Networks, we will understand our world in more meaningful ways.

It would be silly to suggest it will all be fairytales and dancing in the fields with the mice, but humanity has always progressed, if a bit messily. We have long looked inward at ourselves. Perhaps we can look outward a little more and understand better, what is around us? And develop some pretty incredible new technologies?

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | Head of Marketing Innovation | Cymru