SciTech Now Episode 331

In this episode of SciTech Now, one preschool class is reconnecting with the natural world in a nontraditional setting; using data to track illegal wildlife trade; robots walking in the shoes of humans; and author E.O Wilson’s recent book details his plan to help save the planet from extinction.



Coming up... A forest classroom.

Learning outdoors was one of the best ways to create a positive and intimate bond with the natural world.

Using data to protect wildlife.

So that's a job of the tool -- looking at ad, trying to identify whether it comes from a species which you cannot trade legally.

Robots walking in the shoes of humans.

You're teaching the robot how to walk through your understanding the mathematics of walking.

A plan to save the planet.

If we knew how much land, how much sea was needed to save most of the species, and then we just ask the world to donate that amount, we might solve most of the problem in one giant step.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

While some kindergarten and preschool teachers have turned to iPads in the classroom, others advocate for a different kind of immersive learning -- outdoor classrooms.

On an island outside of Seattle, Washington, one preschool class is reconnecting with the natural world in a nontraditional setting.

Our environmental reporting partner, EarthFix, takes us outside to the first forest kindergarten in the United States.

Hi, Victoria.

So good to see you this morning.

[ Chuckles ]

Love you.

Are you kids ready to walk in?

You look ready to walk in.

Squirrel Camp?

♪ Squirrel Camp ♪ Squirrel Camp ♪ Heading up to Squirrel Camp ♪ Do-do-do-do-do

This might seem like a day at camp, but, actually, this is a school.

It is held completely outdoors.

There's no indoor time for the children.

I'm noticing the color.


Yeah, it's orange.

Erin Kenny is the lead teacher and founder of Cedarsong Nature School...

Lillian noticed it's a different color.

It's orange.

...a preschool with no walls, no desks, and no computers...

I'm flying in a jet!

...where the tree canopy is the ceiling and climbing barefoot is not just allowed, but encouraged.


Hey, look at you, Phoenix.

These kids aren't diving into reading, writing, and arithmetic.

But that doesn't mean they aren't acquiring knowledge.

Anybody else?

These are all great ideas.

Does anybody else have another idea?

Or maybe a decompo-- Maybe the mushrooms can decompose into the ground and then -- and then turned into soil.

There's great learning taking place with young children.

That's exactly right, Dana.

That's how soil is formed.

You're right.

When they're just allowed to explore nature, they're learning all kinds of valuable principles about gravity and texture and shapes and colors and all the things that you might expect to see in a preschool curriculum.

They're just doing it outdoors and naturally at their own pace.

Cedarsong opened in 2006 on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle.

Does anybody have a story they'd like to tell?

I do.


It was the first forest kindergarten in the United States.

Kenny built the school in response to the alarming trend she was seeing -- American children spending less time playing outside.

Elizabeth, you want to get on?

They're stopping the bus for you.

And when kids stay indoors, Kenny says their connection to the natural world withers.

[ Whispering ] See up there?

[ Whispering ] I see it.

Do you see way up there?

[ Whispering ] Yeah.

[ Whispering ] Does anybody want to lie on the ground?

[ Normal voice ] Learning outdoors was one of the best ways to create a positive and intimate bond with the natural world.

But what happens when the weather turns cold and rainy?

Well, we put on a coat if it rains, and we put a -- a fleece if we get cold.

My lips are turning blue, right?

[ Laughs ] The children have no problem with the weather no matter what the weather is.

Once children are appropriately dressed, they can spend many hours in nature with no cares.

Cedarsong parent Tania Zimmer agrees.

I've never really had an issue with them with the weather.

They've never complained about it once.

I think it builds a certain amount of resilience and grit.

Zimmer says her two daughters love going to school outside.

There hasn't been a day where they have not wanted to come to the school or they've left in a bad mood.

Now, a decade after Cedarsong started, the outdoor-school idea is growing.

Similar schools have sprouted across the nation.

In the Greater Seattle metropolitan area alone, there are now more than two dozen outdoor schools.


Hi, hi, hi!

One is the Fiddleheads Forest School nestled among the towering cedar trees of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

Does anyone else want to run around the classroom before lunch?

Mena, you want to go, too?

Aria, you want to go, too?

Okay, let's get out some of our energy.

Come on!

[ Speaking indistinctly ]

Teacher Joanna Wright says she noticed an inherent benefit to outdoor preschool.

Yes. You got it.


You got it.

If a child has a lot of energy and needs to run, that's not inherently a problem.

So they're able to get that energy out and come back to a more focused and ready-to-learn state.

♪ Well, I...

Kit Harrington cofounded the school.

She says while interest in outdoor schools has grown, the larger educational system isn't evolving as quickly.

Many states say a school without walls is not a school, and that's why neither Cedarsong nor Fiddleheads are licensed.

There are elements that pertain to building codes, for example, and we don't have any building.

You can't have climbing structures that are more than 6 inches off the ground.

You can't have standing water that's more than 2 inches.

Keep the area free of rodents and other insects, for example, which is a very important part of our curriculum.

It's a very important part of our classroom.

Look at my praying mantis.

Let's see if we can catch some more insects.

A growing body of research shows that outdoor play leads to better behavior and academic performance.

Harrington says they plan to participate in formal research to help build a case for the academic rigor of outdoor schools.

It's the whole ocean of Puget Sound.

For parent Ashley Sampson, it's not about the academics.

For me, I feel like it's more important that my 4-year-old gets the most opportunities to play.

Once they get into school, they don't have as much playtime, and that's sort of gone forever for the rest of their academic lives.

For now, formal academic learning still happens indoors at desks and in front of computers.

But as more students attend school outdoors, who knows how far the idea will spread?


Big-data companies are analyzing it and scientists are mining it, and now Sunandan Chakraborty is part of a team at New York University that's using data to track illegal wildlife trade online.

He joins us to tell us more.

So, first let's get a basic definition of big data for people who are watching, especially in the category that you're working in.

Okay, yeah.

So, as the name suggests, big data involves a lot of data, so now we are at the stage where we have access, thanks to the Web, huge amount of data in different form -- text, image, other-structure data, like weather data, transport data, et cetera.

So now we are at the place where we can use these different sources and different formats of data and can think of, can imagine doing things which was not possible before.

So, in terms of wildlife protection, what are data sets that you're able to access?

So, this project is mostly about detecting wildlife trade, and so we need to have data through which is about trade data.

So we are looking into places in the Web where things are bought and sold, like online marketplaces.

It can be online auction sites, or retailers having their own websites to sell stuff online.

So it's a collection of this type of site.

In addition, the modern trend is about using social media to trade.

So what's the E.G.I. Project, the Enforcement Gaps Interface?

What is that?

So it's a tool, a protected tool, whose job is to mine the Web as much as possible to collect all kinds of ads and postings from across the world in many different languages to identify all types of wildlife perhaps being sold online in different forms, and the main purpose of this tool is to find the subset of those which are not legal.

Okay, so give me an example of a product that you can find using this tool that you didn't know you were able to see before.

You find an ad, you try to understand what type of product it is, or whether it's ivory.

Sometimes sellers use code words.

So the job of the tool is to -- and the code word can be, say, ox bone or bovine bone.

So the job of the tool is to analyze the information element of the ad and match it with the larger set of data we already analyzed, or already have processed, and try to figure out, based on the price, based on the image, based on the text available, based on the item location, whether this particular ad or the product, which is being advertised, is ivory or not.


Or, similarly, if we can identify the species.

There are many species which you cannot trade internationally, that item cannot cross international border.

So we have a set of focus, a set of species, and we are trying to identify whether an ad, whether it's a taxidermy object or some item, which can be like boots, belts, coats, are coming from a species which you cannot trade legally.

And this would take a human millions of years to try to do what this algorithm can try to...

At this scale, absolutely.


Because there are, like, hundreds of sites, and for a human, most of the existing works have been done manually, and we are trying to make it better, make it like to work at large scale so that, ideally, we don't miss anything out there which is being sold.

What's the ripple effect?

What sort of an impact do you think that this can have, say, in the ivory trade?


So, first of all, let me start saying that this is only one piece of the puzzle.

We are only looking into what we call the Open Web, and then there is something called the Closed Web, which is like hidden behind password-protected sites or like WhatsApp accounts or e-mail accounts, which we don't have access to, and then there is the Dark Web.

So the thing is, what we have observed, this trade is so rampant in the Open Web, and so we are trying to make awareness, as well as detect these things in the Open Web.

So the one ripple effect which might happen is, people might -- Because it was so easy to do things in the Open Web, things might move a bit more into the Closed or the Dark Web.

All right.

Sunandan Chakraborty from NYU.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me here.

Engineers at the AMBER Lab at Caltech in California are using data to help robots walk more like humans.

This research is led by Professor Aaron Ames in the Department of Mechanical and Civil Engineering, who joins us now via Google Hangout.

So, why is it important for a robot to walk like a human?

Well, if we can understand how the dynamics of walking can be translated to robots, we can understand how to take those same basic concepts and put it on helping people.

So, we can translate robotic technologies to things like robotic-assisted devices -- prosthetics, exoskeletons.

So we can use that knowledge to make people walk better.

You had a heel-to-toe breakthrough.

Explain that.

I mean, we're told that we should walk in heel to toe, but it's actually a lot harder to program a robot to do exactly that?

That's right. Yeah.

I mean, it's a deceptively simple thing what we do when we walk.

You know, we come in, and we land with our heel, and then we roll on our foot, and we push off on our toe, and for the longest time, most robots walked with these very flat-footed gaits.

So that's basically a limitation of the current way that people think about walking in the robotics community -- not everyone, but a large collection of people, and what we were able to do was take a different approach that allowed us to really exploit the dynamics of the robot, and, as a result, get these very dynamic behaviors with heel-toe.

So what that meant was much more natural walking, much more efficient walking, much more humanlike walking.

But does this work give you an appreciation for how efficient over evolutionary scale time we have become as humans in this one act, which is to walk forward?


I mean, walking is this, again, deceptively simple thing.

I always say the solution to the problem that I study mocks me every day.

It walks right outside of my window.

You know, I mean, humans, the way we're able to walk in such a natural and elegant way that we take for granted, we don't even have to think about.

We can sit there and text on our phone while we're walking around, and yet it's so hard to capture that kind of simplicity and elegance in motion on robotic systems.

To do that requires us to use all of this dynamics, mathematics, algorithms, mechanical design, and have it all come together in concert for the simple moment of seeing this elegant behavior on the back side.

So it's a wonderfully complex, but rich phenomenon that has this beautifully elegant solution that we're always trying to determine and find.

And a toddler uses all that to figure the same thing out in a matter of months, right?

Yeah, exactly.

But a toddler is also modeling the humans around it.

Is there any kind of learning that you can put into a robot to say, 'Behave more like this'?

And the toddler, when you watch it walk, when you watch a child learn how to walk, you sometimes see the phases that we go through with our robots, right?

It starts out as this very clumsy thing, and you have to kind of hold the robot and guide it and sort of teach it how to go, but what you're doing is you're not really teaching it, right?

It's not actually learning from your guidance, but you're learning what the robot does.

You're starting to understand its behavior and how to change its programming.

Can a robot now reach a perfect stride, what is sort of mathematically defined as a perfect walk?

Not yet.

We're getting closer, though.

I mean, there's lots of things I would argue go into that perfect stride 'cause there is a notion of a perfect stride, and, again, it's what people do every day without thinking about it.

But to get that perfect stride, we have to understand what that means from a mathematical and quantifiable point of view, and so one metric would be efficiency.

Can we make a robot walk so it looks humanlike and also is as efficient as a human when it walks?

And we have metrics of that -- how efficient humans are when they walk, and we're not there yet on humanoid robots.

We're getting closer, though.

I mean, we've come a long way.

Right now our walking that we had on our robot, that multi-contact walking, was about five times less efficient than a human.

Let's say you reach this perfect stride, or even in between, how does the research that you're doing help you design better prosthetics for people who need limbs?

Well, I mean, we can get that natural and efficient walking on the prosthetic device, the way that we can naturally translate this understanding, because it's a mathematical understanding.

We don't really care what the platform is in some sense, right?

We can understand its dynamics and take those ones and zeros of the algorithms and put it on a prosthetic.

So the more we understand locomotion, the more we understand how to control that prosthetic.

So we build prosthetics from scratch in my lab, as well, with the same technologies that we use to build bipedal robots and humanoids, and by understanding how to make them walk better, we continually make our prosthetic function better, and what does that mean in terms of function better?

Again, in the end, it means the person wearing it feels like a more natural movement when they walk.

You know, let's say I needed a new left leg, but my right leg had a tendency to pronate or supinate, right?

Here robot leg coming in is in this sort of almost perfect way, my body would have a tough time putting the two together, saying this still doesn't feel like me.

You raise two important points.

Can we just look at the good behavior of a leg and just map it over?

And what else is involved in doing that?

And, again, it's a deceptively complex thing to do that, right?

And so to really map it, you can't just look at those basic movements, but you'll have to look at the mathematics and that interaction.

So you have to understand both how to make the prosthetic work with its dynamics, which are different from a human, right?

It doesn't have tendons and muscles like the human, and it has to synergize with the human to create that natural gait on the back end.

So what are the use cases that are driving this kind of research forward?

I mean, I've seen some places where there are these sort of kind of robot dogs that could be carrying a lot of gear for the military, and I've seen, certainly, the prosthetic use case, but what do you see this technology enabling people to do 10 or 20 years from now?

Yeah, this is often the question I get -- What will this be fundamentally good for?

And you mentioned these sort of pack animals for the military.

I mean, to me this is less appealing from what I do.

What I'm really interested in is using robots in places where it's dangerous or hard to get humans, and the specific applications that I really find exciting are things like space exploration or disaster response.

So you can imagine Mars.

We're looking for life on Mars.

Right now we have wonderful rovers being built at JPL five miles away from where I'm sitting, but how do we get where the water is?

Well, the water tends to be at places that are hardest to get to, right?

So imagine now legged robots on Mars able to walk around like we do, all right?

We can explore new science.

So, to me, that's one application, and then on the other end of the spectrum is what we were talking about with helping humans, and I think that's an incredibly exciting thing.

I mean, prosthetics is a great application use case, but you can imagine extending much further to helping everybody in their daily life.

So imagine now you put on a pair of pants in the morning, and it's a smart pair of pants, and it helps you walk a little better or helps correct asymmetries in your gait or gives you a workout while you're walking to work.

So you can start imagining robotic technologies spreading out through the population much like smart phones do right now, right?

Starting to become this ubiquitous thing that everybody uses and doesn't even think about they're using, but it makes our lives better.

All right.

Aaron Ames from Caltech.

Thanks so much.

Pleasure being here.

Thanks much.

[ Computer keyboard clacking ]

Edward Wilson, better known as E.O. Wilson, is an author, esteemed biologist, and conservationist.

In his most recent book, 'Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life,' he details his plan to help save the planet from extinction.

Here's the story.

Well, heck, if we knew how much land and how much sea was needed to save, let's say, most of the species, if we knew that, and then we just asked the world to donate that amount to reserves, we might solve most of the problem in one giant step.

In other words, instead of just a process of gradually getting better and better and saving more and more, make it one jump, and then we can all rest.

How much -- If you're saying half the Earth, how much -- how much is saved?

How much is protected?

If you could save half of the natural areas of the world, or the biodiversity wherever the biodiversity is, you'd save 85% of the species -- put them in as sustainable.

So if you save half, you'll save 85%.

Okay, why did I choose the figure half?

Because it's doable, and that's what my book 'Half-Earth' shows.

If that's what we choose to do, we can set aside that amount.

People don't have to leave.

They don't have to give up property rights.

But we would expect in those reserves not to have it converted to agriculture, not have the forest cut down, or the riverheads polluted or industry coming in.

That's not too hard to do.

And so it just happened that if we can do it that way, half is something people can remember.

85 -- it's doable.

85%, and then adding other measures to setting aside that amount of reserve.

Other measures, which I talk about in this book, you can put it on up higher.

And then we save Mother Nature.

I mean, we've saved the world's biodiversity.

So you've saved biodiversity.

Can you make the case -- I think you can -- that we save us?



Okay, we've gotten used to the -- as Mr. Gore calls it -- the 'Inconvenient Truth' that human activity is about to burn up the globe and us with it unless we stop now.

That's pretty solid science.

And I thought that we should have something for the rest of life.

As I said, we know how to reverse global warming and darn well better learn how to stop species extinction because it's getting faster and faster.

It's happening.

It could get to runaway.

It has all sorts of unpleasant consequences for humanity if we let too much of it disappear.

Actually, the whole world would unravel, because we need all those species to hold together the soil, to regenerate the soil, to provide the very atmosphere we breathe, and we need it sustainable.

We need all that diversity it's taken us 3 1/2 million years to create by evolution.

And we're not going to duplicate that with anything we can create ourselves.

We don't even understand how it works.

It took 3 1/2 million years -- years to create.

It's very hard to persuade a political leader, and, you know, in this country, particularly in these turbulent times, of supporting, piece by piece, conservation of species, particularly biological species, by saying to a political leader and the voters, 'Okay, now, we want to save this.

Now, here's what we're gonna do.

We need a park here.

We need a space to take special attention for these endangered species of plants over here.

We want money for this one, we want money for that one, and we want money over here for you folks who like to see the big trees of Oregon saved,' and so on -- that's not gonna work very well.


But if we say -- if we say, 'Help us put together half the land for reserves, and these are gonna be places where you can take your family.

It's gonna be places where you can really enjoy nature saved all around the world.

It can help us, too, in our country to set aside half, and here is exactly how we'll do it.

Here's the areas that we propose,' and so on.

Nobody yet has spoken up against this as not doable or incorrectly reasoned or anything.

I spoke with the United Nations, to environmental leaders and ministers of the environment and so on, they loved it.

So, because it's a goal.

It's not just a process -- you know, things we should be doing and will somehow get there.

Let's go, 'You do this, we get that.'


And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪