Just after sundown on Halloween night, a hardy, fleece-clad group of brave souls led by electrical engineer Dale Joachim ventures forth into the pitch-dark woods of central Connecticut. To the uninitiated, the setting brings to mind scenes from any number of horror films, along with the fleeting thought that no rational person would have picked such a night to stray so far from the beaten track. But Joachim is completely focused on the task at hand: placing a call to any nearby screech owls from his cellphone and seeing whether they will answer.
No, he’s not crazy. Joachim is out to prove that cellular telephones can be used to remotely monitor and communicate with birds and other animals. When he and his group finally reach their woodland destination, at the edge of a dirt road between two stands of trees, they quickly set up several tripods, some with cellphones attached to loudspeakers, others with cellphones attached to receivers and recording equipment. Joachim then takes out a handset not much different from the one you’d use to call a friend or client, and he dials into a Web site housed on a server in his Cambridge, Mass., office. The site lets Joachim plan the evening’s investigation: which of the dozen cellphones with loudspeakers will emit the series of whistles and chirps that faithfully replicate the birds’ calls, how long the digital bird calls will last, and when the receivers, which will listen for any responding bird calls, will switch on.
The technology isn’t limited to screech owls, Joachim explains as the group waits. He simply started the experiment with them ”because they are nocturnal, and at night, cellular calling time is free.” He believes his innovation will help researchers and conservationists track and keep a fairly accurate count of animals—and without repeatedly disturbing their habitats. ”If my equipment were already set up [in the field], I could have done this from my office in Cambridge, or really anywhere in the world,” says Joachim.
At present, the old way to track birds is still the best way—sending a trained person to the critters’ habitat to actually count them. Joachim says his technology will make the process cheaper and less taxing, because conservationists won’t need to make as many trips to remote areas or stay as long. In fact, the state of Maine plans to deploy some of Joachim’s networks on a trial basis next spring when it conducts its annual owl count.
What’s more, Joachim says, ”the animals become sensors in a sense, telling us things about the world around us that we would not otherwise notice.” For example, he says, anecdotes have surfaced that some species of birds left southern Louisiana and Mississippi in August 2005, perhaps because they sensed the devastation that was about to be visited upon the area by Hurricane Katrina. A system that can remotely monitor animals in their habitats could help confirm or refute such stories.
Joachim himself could have used such a heads-up. When Katrina struck, he was an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Tulane University, in New Orleans, teaching computer architecture, digital logic, and speech processing. In the aftermath of the storm, he and his graduate students scattered to schools across the United States, and the bulk of their work on the bird-monitoring project was destroyed. Joachim, who last March landed a two-year appointment at the MIT Media Lab as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor, has since regenerated the lost data, and he is now philosophical about the turn of events. ”I look back on Katrina as an opportunity,” he says. ”How often in life do you come to a point where you can ask yourself ’What would I really like to do?’ and have the ability to dive right into it?”
It stands to reason that although Joachim was uprooted, he wasn’t toppled. The son of teachers who shared a passion for educating the less fortunate, he spent his childhood zigzagging across North America, Africa, and Europe—wherever his parents’ calling took the family. One result is that the Brooklyn, N.Y.born Joachim is fluent in English, French, and Spanish.
Formative years spent in remote villages also touched off his enduring interest in wildlife. ”There were always lots of animals around,” he recalls. ”At first, like most little boys, I was drawn by the instinct to hunt them. But as I got older, I started taking care of them.” Many of the animals were injured raptors, such as owls, hawks, and eagles, which he would care for and feed; when they were well enough, the birds would simply fly away.
The bird-monitoring project allows him to combine his love of nature with his curiosity about how things work. ”Technology is not an end in itself, but a set of tools to be used for getting a better understanding of the world and helping to improve it,” he says.
Joachim sees his career path as part of a natural progression. ”My father was often the headmaster at these schools, so we had access to labs.” By the time he was 12, he was building motors from discarded electric devices that he had taken apart. His parents’ support for his tinkering—buying him books on electronics and often turning a blind eye to his handiwork—was a real boost, he says. One day, he decided to convert a pedal-powered toy car into a helicopter: ”My parents bought all the stuff I asked for, although I had only a dim concept of aerodynamics.” That became clear when heavy rains destroyed the helicopter’s papier-mâché fuselage. ”Still, it was an earnest effort,” Joachim says. And he still wanted to be an engineer, eventually earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Michigan State University, in East Lansing.
At MIT, he’s been combining his technical acumen with another of his longtime loves: music. Joachim, an accomplished keyboardist who got involved in New Orleans’s vibrant jazz scene, is using signalâ''processing techniques derived from speech-recognition algorithms to model, analyze, and eventually automatically label jazz chords. These chords are known for being ambiguous, in order to allow for the improvisation that is one of jazz’s defining elements. But Joachim is confident that by applying a contextual understanding of what a musician is playing to signal-processing techniques, he can get computers to correctly identify the chords.
Back in the Connecticut woods, a steady conversation soon gets under way between Joachim’s chirping cellphones and a couple of nearby screech owls. The back-and-forth continues until another bird’s call causes one of the screech owls to clam up and take flight. The distinctive cry, which consists of a rapid series of low-pitched hoots that could almost be mistaken for an aggressive barking dog, is that of a great horned owl, Joachim explains. It’s a predator twice the screech owl’s size—and a good reason for the smaller bird to maintain radio silence.