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Topher White: What can save the rainforest? Your used cell phone

Topher White: What can save the rainforest? Your used cell phone


(Rainforest noises) In the summer of 2011,
as a tourist, I visited the rainforests of Borneo
for the very first time, and as you might imagine, it was the overwhelming sounds
of the forest that struck me the most. There’s this constant cacophony of noise. Some things actually do stick out. For example, this here is a big bird,
a rhinoceros hornbill. This buzzing is a cicada. This is a family of gibbons. It’s actually singing to each other
over a great distance. The place where this was recorded
was in fact a gibbon reserve, which is why you can hear so many of them, but in fact the most important noise that
was coming out of the forest that time was one that I didn’t notice, and in fact nobody there
had actually noticed it. So, as I said, this was a gibbon reserve. They spend most of their time
rehabilitating gibbons, but they also have
to spend a lot of their time protecting their area from illegal logging
that takes place on the side. And so if we take the sound of the forest and we actually turn down the gibbons,
the insects, and the rest, in the background, the entire time,
in recordings you heard, was the sound of a chainsaw
at great distance. They had three full-time guards
who were posted around this sanctuary whose job was in fact
to guard against illegal logging, and one day, we went walking,
again as tourists, out into the forest, and within five minutes’ walk, we stumbled upon somebody
who was just sawing a tree down, five minutes’ walk, a few hundred meters
from the ranger station. They hadn’t been able
to hear the chainsaws, because as you heard,
the forest is very, very loud. It struck me as quite unacceptable
that in this modern time, just a few hundred meters away
from a ranger station in a sanctuary, that in fact nobody could hear it when
someone who has a chainsaw gets fired up. It sounds impossible,
but in fact, it was quite true. So how do we stop illegal logging? It’s really tempting, as an engineer,
always to come up with a high-tech, super-crazy high-tech solution, but in fact, you’re in the rainforest. It has to be simple,
it has to be scalable, and so what we also noticed
while were there was that everything we needed was already there. We could build a system
that would allow us to stop this using what’s already there. Who was there? What was
already in the forest? Well, we had people. We had this group there that was
dedicated, three full-time guards, that was dedicated to go and stop it, but they just needed to know
what was happening out in the forest. The real surprise, this is the big one, was that there was connectivity
out in the forest. There was cell phone service
way out in the middle of nowhere. We’re talking hundreds of kilometers
from the nearest road, there’s certainly no electricity,
but they had very good cell phone service, these people in the towns
were on Facebook all the time, they’re surfing the web on their phones, and this sort of got me thinking
that in fact it would be possible to use the sounds of the forest, pick up the sounds
of chainsaws programmatically, because people can’t hear them, and send an alert. But you have to have a device
to go up in the trees. So if we can use some device
to listen to the sounds of the forest, connect to the cell phone
network that’s there, and send an alert to people on the ground, perhaps we could have a solution
to this issue for them. But let’s take a moment
to talk about saving the rainforest, because it’s something that we’ve
definitely all heard about forever. People in my generation
have heard about saving the rainforest since we were kids, and it seems that the message
has never changed: We’ve got to save the rainforest,
it’s super urgent, this many football fields
have been destroyed yesterday. and yet here we are today,
about half of the rainforest remains, and we have potentially more urgent
problems like climate change. But in fact, this is the little-known fact
that I didn’t realize at the time: Deforestation accounts
for more greenhouse gas than all of the world’s planes,
trains, cars, trucks and ships combined. It’s the second highest contributor
to climate change. Also, according to Interpol, as much as 90 percent of the logging
that takes place in the rainforest is illegal logging,
like the illegal logging that we saw. So if we can help people in the forest
enforce the rules that are there, then in fact we could eat heavily
into this 17 percent and potentially have a major impact
in the short term. It might just be the cheapest,
fastest way to fight climate change. And so here’s the system that we imagine. It looks super high tech. The moment a sound of a chainsaw
is heard in the forest, the device picks up the sound
of the chainsaw, it sends an alert through the standard
GSM network that’s already there to a ranger in the field who can in fact show up in real time
and stop the logging. It’s no more about going out
and finding a tree that’s been cut. It’s not about seeing
a tree from a satellite in an area that’s been clear cut, it’s about real-time intervention. So I said it was the cheapest
and fastest way to do it, but in fact, actually, as you saw,
they weren’t able to do it, so it may not be so cheap and fast. But if the devices in the trees
were actually cell phones, it could be pretty cheap. Cell phones are thrown away
by the hundreds of millions every year, hundreds of millions in the U.S. alone, not counting the rest of the world,
which of course we should do, but in fact, cell phones are great. They’re full of sensors. They can listen
to the sounds of the forest. We do have to protect them. We have to put them in this box
that you see here, and we do have to power them. Powering them is one of the greater
engineering challenges that we had to deal with, because powering a cell phone
under a tree canopy, any sort of solar power
under a tree canopy, was an as-yet-unsolved problem, and that’s this unique
solar panel design that you see here, which in fact is built also from recycled
byproducts of an industrial process. These are strips that are cut down. So this is me putting it all together in my parents’ garage, actually. Thanks very much to them
for allowing me to do that. As you can see,
this is a device up in a tree. What you can see from here, perhaps,
is that they are pretty well obscured up in the tree canopy at a distance. That’s important, because although
they are able to hear chainsaw noises up to a kilometer in the distance, allowing them to cover
about three square kilometers, if someone were to take them,
it would make the area unprotected. So does it actually work? Well, to test it,
we took it back to Indonesia, not the same place, but another place, to another gibbon reserve that was threatened daily
by illegal logging. On the very second day, it picked up
illegal chainsaw noises. We were able to get a real-time alert. I got an email on my phone. Actually, we had just climbed the tree.
Everyone had just gotten back down. All these guys are smoking cigarettes, and then I get an email,
and they all quiet down, and in fact you can hear the chainsaw really, really faint in the background, but no one had noticed it
until that moment. And so then we took off
to actually stop these loggers. I was pretty nervous. This is the moment where we’ve actually
arrived close to where the loggers are. This is the moment where you can see
where I’m actually regretting perhaps the entire endeavor. I’m not really sure what’s on
the other side of this hill. That guy’s much braver than I am. But he went, so I had to go, walking up, and in fact, he made it over the hill, and interrupted the loggers in the act. For them, it was such a surprise — they had never, ever
been interrupted before — that it was such an impressive
event for them, that we’ve heard from our partners
they have not been back since. They were, in fact, great guys. They showed us how
the entire operation works, and what they really convinced us
on the spot was that if you can show up
in real time and stop people, it’s enough of a deterrent
they won’t come back. So — Thank you. (Applause) Word of this spread, possibly
because we told a lot of people, and in fact, then some really
amazing stuff started to happen. People from around the world
started to send us emails, phone calls. What we saw was that people
throughout Asia, people throughout Africa,
people throughout South America, they told us that they could use it too, and what’s most important, what we’d found that
we thought might be exceptional, in the forest there was
pretty good cell phone service. That was not exceptional, we were told, and that particularly is on the periphery
of the forests that are most under threat. And then something
really amazing happened, which was that people started sending us
their own old cell phones. So in fact what we have now is a system where we can use people on the ground,
people who are already there, who can both improve
and use the existing connectivity, and we’re using old cell phones
that are being sent to us by people from around the world that want their phones to be doing
something else in their afterlife, so to speak. And if the rest of the device
can be completely recycled, then we believe it’s
an entirely upcycled device. So again, this didn’t come
because of any sort of high-tech solution. It just came from using
what’s already there, and I’m thoroughly convinced
that if it’s not phones, that there’s always
going to be enough there that you can build similar solutions that can be very effective
in new contexts. Thank you very much. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Topher White: What can save the rainforest? Your used cell phone”

  1. If a random tourist can easily find illegal loggers, there's no way the local authorities don't know about it.
    The issue at hand is not they don't hear it. The issue is either corruption or bureaucracy.
    At the macro level, it has to do with the economics of the location.
    If the local economy is poor, they may steal your cell phones and solar panels first.

  2. hey what if the people doing the illegal logging have a devise to interfere with the signal, what would be done? 

  3. Misleading. The forest is current-carbon-cycle; the trains, trucks, and airplanes reintroduce ancient sequestered carbon into the system.

  4. Could you use multiple of the 'mobile detectors' to triangulate the origin of the sound based on the signals amplitude? Or is hearing it from one location good enough? Good idea, rainforests are rather important.

  5. Brilliant!! very inspiring!
    Please tell us how we (the viewers) can participate in this important cause.

  6. Why is cell phone service so good in the rainforest? So the local authority can inform the loggers when someone is out to get them.

  7. If you want to solve the issue of illegal logging then you need to remove the symptoms that make it lucrative and in many places, the only way to make any real money.

  8. When talking about the amounts of emissions you forgot green house gasses produced by livestock (cows) which are statistically higher than both of your stats.

  9. Those ideas change the world. He must feel incredibly fulfilled, knowing that he contributed siginificantly to the greater good of humanity and nature. Hats off.
     I just fear that it won't be a long lasting solution. There are easy ways around it.

  10. The solution is to help the impoverished people, who need the money they earn by selling the logs. This isn't difficult to understand, working in the rainforest is kind of exhausting and… you know… doodoo. Instead of having this very basic insight, he only promotes the idea of better law enforcement by utilizing a better way to observe the people. There is no interest in their faith at all, I guess he wants to satisfy merely his own conscience. Awesome. Safe the environment, forget about the poor. Of course protection is important, but there isn't this one dimensional approach to achieve that goal. Also I doubt that it would be too hard to locate the sensors he is promoting and it doesn't take a genius to simply destroy them – there is going to be enough time to do some logging until a replacement arrives. Actually I suppose that one would only need a receiver, a cross shaped antenna and a device that makes a peeping sound depending on the strength of the received signal. So the investment to build such a rather primitive instrument would range at about 20$.

  11. Hopefully the tree the device is attached to isn't cut down and that illegal loggers begin tracking these devices and eliminating them before any good can be done.

  12. I'm glad he's saving the forest and protecting what resources we have on this planet. I'm also glad that he's promoting the law as well. But having seen the poor parts of Indonesia, I really hope those loggers are able to find another way to make a living.

  13. They wont show up THERE again, doesn't mean they wont do it again they will just move elsewhere. It's a good plan when put into full effect but its not the answer.

  14. Great idea, I like it. I always kinda felt like the other way of recycling your phone is actually just you donating a box full of precious metals and rare earth elements to some company to up their profits. This is useful.

  15. Its a very good idea however it needs three improvments.

    1) the phones need to be able to be air dropped. How else are you going to cover the amazon jungle. Theres cases of people trying to walk out taking years to do it.
    2) the system must allow for intergration of gps with sound so that triangulation can be used effectivly.
    3) allowing the phones to transmit alerts to each other in a chain so that connection with exsisting networks can be used whilst allowing each phone to act as repeaters for thoughs which are deeper in the forest and thus out of range.

    Solve these issues. Which i admit arnt hard. And the system will work…

  16. This is absolute gibberish non-sense. 90% of logging is illegal? 121,380 km2 of Kalimantan, Borneo has a 'legal' Oil Palm concession attached to it. Lets stop picking on the little guy with the chain saw, and start dealing with the actual problem – massive multi-nationals providing for western consumer wants (and smart phones). 

  17. but why are they cutting trees? because they need paper right? they need to make paper in a easier way damnit!

  18. I like this solution, however it does not address the root cause of illegal logging: there's little other decent-paying work to be done. In many south american countries, central governments are loaded up with debt by the IMF in order to fund industrialization. To pay back these loans, governments are typically pressured into handing over important natural resource rights to powerful outside corporations, resulting in massive profits for corps and crippling debt/distorted economy for population. Ultimately this leads to a shortage of jobs and resources, resulting in people turning to illegal logging to support their families. This is a nice band-aid solution but the real answer lies in reigning-in domestic and international corporate power.

  19. I wonder …

    So how do they know which direction to look at? Phones tend to have a single microphone and I suppose you can use a device on the ground or listen really closely to find the direction. However, would it be possible to integrate more microphones from other recycled devices into the current solution to produce a directional alert? Something like "chainsaw noise detected towards the west." Those can be made into modules that connect through the USB interface making it easier to install them on devices being maintained in the field (say a phone dies for some reason so you get a replacement while you take the dead one out for maintenance)

    Another thing I can see happening is people scouting the protected areas and taking the phones down. I think that it would be worth it to have additional alerts like "lost height" or "unauthorized location change" for when the devices are moved. I reckon a periodic signal that produces an alert when interrupted would also be nice to check if the phone is dead, needs maintenance, or is destroyed.

  20. Who's paying for the trees? This is like most modern medicine, find a way to cure the symptom (loggers), without addressing the root cause, the buyers.

  21. Or stop cutting down the rainforest for animal agriculture!! Lets talk about the real reason why they are cutting down the rainforests!!! Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of the Amazon destruction, 1-2 acres of rainforest are cleared every second, the leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feedcrops, 26 million rainforest acres have been cleared for palm oil production, 136 million rainforest acres cleared for animal agriculture…. This is the real danger…not small town illegal loggers! but huge corporations! Open your eyes people! we're been lied to! 

  22. Props to this kid for at least trying.. Where can I send my phone that this kid will be able to use it I've got like three phones I can send him now

  23. I really wish they would stop showing TEDx's on this TED channel and instead make a TEDx channel for them.

  24. He's a genious! His proposal to solve deforestation seems to be simple and direct 😀 Congratulations! Your success is a motivation for people like me whose dream is to create innovative solutions for the environmental pollution challenge!

  25. This is a great idea, good job Topher, we needed you.
    I had no idea that 90% of all deforestation practice was illegal. Goddamn.

  26. Good idea. The speaker should have practiced more before the presentation. There were too many catch phrases, such as "in fact", which caused the speaker to appear condescending and distracted heavily from the material.

    The speaker has a great idea, his use of media, diction, and tone were good; but catchphrases can kill ya…

  27. oooo, shiny

    you should design those devices to continue working while the gibbons are wearing them as hats

  28. wouldn't be better to place a 360° sound capturing system at the ranger station that searches for chainsaw sound. should be possible to pinpoint general direction of the source of the chainsaw sound.

  29. Wow smash these bad boys up all over the worlds rainforests! and we should at the same time try to presuade and help the illigal wood cutters to make something else for a living!

  30. You think this little device can stop a multi-billion dollar company with the power of lobbyism and the future prosperity vision from cutting trees? I am very unfortunate to say no 

  31. Watching this young man and his presentation makes me feel proud of humanity. Seems like we as people are taking a good turn for the future.

  32. He said that there was no technological improvement, however i see a lot of it !
    He crafted a new system with solar panel an all; when i heard him say that he was forcing himself to use what was already there, i thought they would come up with some sort of new patrolling way for the guards or something like that.
    So i think it's kind of a fail on that level but only in the speech he made, because the method is in fact very good and saves a lot of effort (nobody has to move around searching stuff or climbing trees to set up the phones) all they have to do is to install it
    on the tree !!

  33. Yes, deforestation is a problem. But this is not the solution we are looking for. Keep those frequencies OUT of the forest. Watch the documentary Resonance Beings of Frequency. TedX is FULL of false enlightenment

  34. Hmm… abolut great idea! BUT, i cant' imagine that in the deep rainforest you get a mobile signal! AND because of that, wouldn't be it easy to take 1 or 2 mobiles into the forest to check out if there is a signal or not, if not -> the assholes start cutting trees.?!?!? Im sure this is not the first time that this question were asked…

  35. Yo creo que los gobiernos de los países mas industrializados y poderosos tienen la tecnología para salvar los bosques, el agua dulce,el planeta en general. ¿La pregunta es por que no lo están haciendo?

  36. Sabes que seria una buena idea que se afilien con facebook ya que ellos quieren mandar señal esto seria una buena idea ya que los globos que se esta aciendo a lo mejor es muy caro con este dispositivo se le podria un dispositivo para mandar wi-fi a eso lugares y ayudaria aun mas cuando una persona desaparece ya que si carga un teléfono se sabe que en el bosque no hay señar con esto searia mas rapido la busqueda

  37. It is really fascinating. I appreciated him. Because he is very young in order to make this invention. Shortly I recommend to watch all of you.

  38. Someone should just slap everyone, hard, who even thinks about taking down a tree in a rainforest – this is really criminal

  39. Innovation #1000006! Another Idiot with the latest innovation technology crap, who just don't have a clue how the world works! Uni grads these days are really useless 😅

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