When a teenager wants to solve poaching with machine-learning…

We always need more feel-good stories, but we need those feel-good stories more that withstand closer scrutiny instead of falling apart, and framed the right way.

For example, Smithsonian magazine published an article with the headline ‘This Teenager Invented a Low-Cost Tool to Spot Elephant Poachers in Real Time’ on August 4. It’s a straightforward feel-good story at first glance: Anika Puri is a 17-year-old in New York who created a machine-learning model (based on an existing dataset) “that analyses the movement patterns of humans and elephants”. The visual input for the model comes from a $250 thermal camera attached to an iPhone attached to a drone, which flies over problem areas and collects data, and which the model then sifts through to pick out the presence of humans. One caveat: the machine-learning model can detect people, not poachers.

Nonetheless, this is clearly laudable work by a 17-year-old – but the article is an affront to people working in India because it plainly overlooks everything that makes elephant poaching tenacious enough to have caught Puri’s attention in the first place. A 17-year-old did this and we should celebrate her, you say, and that’s fair. But we can do that without making what she did sound like a bigger deal than it is, which would also provide a better sense of how much work she has left to do, while expressing our belief – this is important – that we look forward to her and others like her applying their minds to really doing something about the problem. This way, we may also be able to salvage two victims of the Smithsonian article.

The first is why elephant poaching persists. The article gives the impression that it does for want of a way to tell when humans walk among elephants in the wild. The first red-flag in the article, to me at least, is related to this issue and turns up in the opening itself:

When Anika Puri visited India with her family four years ago, she was surprised to come across a market in Bombay filled with rows of ivory jewelry and statues. Globally, ivory trade has been illegal for more than 30 years, and elephant hunting has been prohibited in India since the 1970s. “I was quite taken aback,” the 17-year-old from Chappaqua, New York, recalls. “Because I always thought, ‘well, poaching is illegal, how come it really is still such a big issue?’”

I admit I take a cynical view of people who remain ignorant in this day and age of the bigger problems assailing the major realms of human enterprise – but a 17-year-old being surprised by the availability of ivory ornaments in India is pushing it, and more so by being surprised that there’s a difference between the existence of a law and its proper enforcement. Smithsonian also presents Puri’s view as an outsider, which she is in more than the geographical sense, followed by her resolving to do something about it from the outside. That was the bigger issue and a clear sign of the narrative to come.

Poaching and animal-product smuggling persist in India, among other countries, sensu lato because of a lack of money, a lack of personnel, misplaced priorities and malgovernance and incompetence. The first and the third reasons are related: the Indian government’s conception of how the country’s forests ought to be protected regularly exclude the welfare of the people living in and dependent on those forests, and thus socially and financially alienates them. As a result, some of those affected see a strong incentive in animal poaching and smuggling. (There are famous exceptions to this trend, like the black-necked crane of Arunachal Pradesh, the law kyntang forests of Meghalaya or the whale sharks off Gujarat but they’re almost always rooted in spiritual beliefs – something the IUCN wants to press to the cause of conservation.)

Similarly, forest rangers are underpaid, overworked, use dysfunctional or outdated equipment and, importantly, are often caught between angry locals and an insensitive local government. In India, theirs is a dispriting vocation. In this context the use of drones plus infrared cameras that each cost Rs 20,000 is laughable.

The ‘lack of personnel’ is a two-part issue: it helps the cause of animal conservation if the personnel include members of local communities, but they seldom do; second, India is a very large country, so we need more rangers (and more drones!) to patrol all areas, without any blind spots. Anika Puri’s solution has nothing on any of these problems – and I don’t blame her. I blame the Smithsonian for its lazy framing of the story, and in fact for telling us nothing of whether she’s already aware of these issues.

The second problem with the framing has to do with ‘encouraging a smart person to do more’ on the one hand and the type of solution being offered to a problem on the other. This one really gets my goat. When Smithsonian played up Puri’s accomplishment, such as it is, it effectively championed techno-optimism: the belief that technology is a moral good and that technological solutions can solve our principal crises (crises that techno-optimists like to play up so that they seem more pressing, and thus more in need of the sort of fixes that machine-centric governance can provide). In the course of this narrative, however, the sociological and political solutions that poaching desperately requires fall by the wayside, even as the trajectories of the tech and its developer are celebrated as a feel-good story.

In this way, the Smithsonian article has effectively created a false achievement, a red herring that showcases its subject’s technical acumen instead of a meaningful development towards solving poaching. On the other hand, how often do you read profiles of people, young or old, whose insights have been concerned less with ‘hardware’ solutions (technological innovation, infrastructure, etc.) and more with improving and implementing the ‘software’ – that is, changing people’s behaviour, deliberating on society’s aspirations and effecting good governance? How often do you also encounter grants and contests of the sort that Puri won with her idea but which are dedicated to the ‘software’ issues?

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