Sunday, July 24, 2016

Digital Elk

It's good to be an elk. At least, it is if you happen to live and forage near the town of Sequim, in northwestern  Washington state. Or for that matter in Clam Lake, Wisconsin or in certain areas of Minnesota.

A bull elk. Image in the public domain.
Sequim (pronounced "squim") has a population of a bit fewer than 7000 people and 100 or so Olympic or Roosevelt elk. In the late 1990s, as more and more people moved into Washington's Dungeness Valley, collisions between the elk (weighing up to 1000 lbs.) and vehicles (averaging 4000 lbs.) were becoming more and more common. The contest was a lopsided one, with the elk almost always on the losing end. The herd was being decimated by the encroachment of people (many of them retirees) seeking a peaceful, quiet place to settle, but who tended to ignore the "ELK CROSSING" warning signs on the highway. As is often the case, the clash between man and nature was being decided in favor of man, but at the expense of the beauty of nature and possibly with unanticipated effects on the local ecology. Things were not going well for either Cervidae or human residents.

But in 2001, a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had an interesting idea. Shelly Ament came up with what amounts to an interactive elk crossing: Thanks to a project she designed and spearheaded, about 10% of the elk–mainly the herd leaders–were equipped with radio collars similar to those used to track wolves, bears, and other wildlife. But these collars were different. When the elk come within about 400 yards of the highway, the collars emit a laser signal that causes roadside warning signs to flash "ELK X-ING."

The idea worked. Many fewer animals were killed (in fact, only one elk was killed during that first year), and the herd is now healthy and reproducing well. With the help of this technology, the people and the herd have been able to get along.

Ament's idea caught on, and now several other areas of the country are also employing radio-activated warning signs to reduce the likelihood of collisions.

That's the thing about innovation: When a technology is created, no one knows where it will lead, the uses to which it will be put, or the other technologies with which it will be combined. When the first laser was built in 1960, one assumes that the inventors had absolutely no idea that their invention would be used to protect elk herds. (Or that lasers would turn up in optical disc drives, 3D printers, and scanners, none of which had themselves yet been invented.)

We simply have no way of knowing what "feedback loops" (to use a term popular with anthropologists) might result from an invention. While researching Leveling the Playing Field, I read Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now, an enthralling and entertaining book that lays out some of these loops, tracing some of the ways in which early technologies have had far-reaching effects that no one could possibly have foreseen.

Here's a brief extract from Leveling the Playing Field that discusses this phenomenon:
…Johnson lays out a fascinating series of those [feedback] loops, some of them so extended and seemingly so disconnected that one would never see the associations among them without Johnson’s expert (and enjoyable) guidance. And yet, they are very connected.
For instance, he traces the development of the printing press and explains how it caused an explosion of inventiveness not only among printers and writers and the like (which was to be expected), but also among glass and spectacle makers who now found themselves seeking optometric solutions for a seriously myopic population that had never realized its eyesight was deficient until, thanks to Gutenberg, so many people found themselves attempting to read the books, journals, and broadsheets that were suddenly available. But the loop doesn’t end there. The explosion of lens crafters and experimenters ultimately resulted in the invention of both the microscope and the telescope; the former then led to germ theory and other medical discoveries, while the latter helped Galileo and others challenge the Aristotelian notion that the heavens revolved around the Earth. In a way, the invention of the printing press may have led to antibiotics and to space travel.
So who knows where digital elk crossings will lead? Is it much of a leap to anticipate traffic signs that will respond to the presence of your phone or watch, freezing traffic if you happen to step (or fall) out onto a busy street? You could end up owing your life to a herd of elk.  (Or, more properly, to a Washington state wildlife biologist named Shelly Ament.)

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