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Learning and listening in Amazonia

Diane Davis

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Talia Khan in the foliage

In the town of Alter do Chão, where my professor lived, traditional Paraense carimbó music dominated everyone’s social lives. As an undergraduate who was double-­majoring in music, I decided to join the town’s major carimbó group, Grupo Cobra Grande. Despite my rudimentary grasp of Portuguese, I knew that I could communicate with the group through music. With the help of offline Google Translate and charades, I managed to learn not only the intricate rhythms and dance moves involved in this traditional musical style, but also the meanings of the lyrics and the associated folklore. We began every rehearsal and performance with a song calling the mythical frog Muiraquitã into the Lago Verde lake to protect the town and the people from evil spirits. The dance moves in carimbó reflect stories about the famous Amazonian pink dolphin coming to land in the evenings to court young women—men wear hats to cover their dolphin spouts and dance in circles around the women like dolphins jumping in and out of the water. 

Talia Khan ’20 in the abandoned city of Velho Airão before she learned that killer ants had driven its people away. Her friend had an allergic reaction when bitten, but luckily, Khan had an EpiPen.

COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

I was lucky enough to return to Brazil two years later as a Fulbright scholar in Manaus, Amazonas, where I got to study natural rainforest materials such as curauá fibers and Marasmius yanomami fungi in the lab, research their traditional uses in artisanal crafts, and explore their potential as sustainable structural materials. I also volunteered at the Nobre Academia de Robótica, an organization that gives children from impoverished backgrounds, including Indigenous youths from the São Sebastião community, free access to education in coding, science, and technology. They learn to use drones for land surveillance and develop sensors to monitor environmental conditions, honoring their cultural legacy and extending it with technological capabilities. 

When I met a local clarinetist named Abner at the Manaus synagogue, he invited me to watch as he recorded music with Eliberto Barroncas, an art professor at a local university who played instruments he crafted from repurposed “found” objects such as cardboard tubes, rubber tires, and marbles. As Abner played the clarinet, Barroncas created a background that immersed the listener in the sounds of Amazonia: croaking frogs, flowing water, shaking leaves. Afterward, we discussed the interconnectedness of nature and music over coffee. Barroncas’s philosophy is that making music should come from the soul, as a tangible expression of one’s natural surroundings. This idea resonated with me, inspiring me to deepen the scope of my extracurricular research on eco-organology—the study of how instruments are connected to the natural world. I shared several of his quotes when I presented my research at the American Musicological Society annual conference in the fall of 2022.

Through my work with the Nobre Academia de Robótica, I also met the local music producer and arranger César Lima, who developed a virtual-reality app called “The Roots VR” to introduce users to over 100 Amazonian instruments. This app allows users to interact with a variety of these instruments in virtual settings, creating an accessible way for people worldwide to engage with and appreciate the rich musical heritage of the Amazon. His work demonstrates how modern technology can be harnessed to preserve and promote musical traditions.

“I told Fred that everyone needed to come to the Amazon. Everyone needed to taste the tingling jambú flower, drink suco de taperebá, and perform in the famous Teatro Amazonas opera house.”

I found myself sharing stories of these incredible people with my music friends at MIT and with Fred Harris, director of the MIT Festival Jazz Band, a group I joined as an undergrad. I told Fred that everyone needed to come to the Amazon. Everyone needed to taste the tingling jambú flower, drink suco de taperebá, and perform in the famous Teatro Amazonas opera house. We had to not just introduce other students to the music of the Amazon, but take them there so they, too, could collaborate with Indigenous performers. In the spring of 2023, Fred brought some 80 MIT student musicians, none of whom spoke Portuguese, to the Rio Negro in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. These students, along with approximately 20 staff, faculty, and guest artists, communicated with the locals through science and music.

The project Fred led, called “Hearing Amazônia,” was a testament to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. Influenced by my experiences in the Amazon, and further inspired by guest artists Luciana Souza, Anat Cohen, and Djuena Tikuna, it culminated in a concert featuring Brazilian and Amazonian music influenced by the natural world. Working together, we created a musical narrative of the Amazon’s beauty and the looming threats it faces. We went on to perform it both at MIT and in the Amazon.

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Fred Harris, senior lecturer in music and director of wind and jazz ensembles at MIT, gets a traditional pattern painted on his face with natural plant dye by a woman in the São Sebastião community.

MIT VIDEO PRODUCTIONS

This project transcended the traditional boundaries between education and activism. Bringing MIT student musicians to the Amazon provided a platform for experiential learning unlike any other. It wasn’t just about playing music; it was about understanding music as a living entity, deeply entwined with the environment where it originates. 

In planning the trip, we knew that engaging with the Indigenous communities was essential. We partnered with the Nobre Academia de Robótica to visit the São Sebastião community so the whole group could learn about their culture, their traditions, and the ways in which science and tech are helping them protect their land and maintain their fishing economy. We also took part in workshops with César Lima and Eliberto Barroncas. The opportunity for students to play Professor Barroncas’s instruments and take part in an impromptu jam session was a powerful demonstration of music as a universal language, transcending barriers and connecting us to the environment and each other. He and Lima influenced us beyond the realm of music, offering insights into the broader implications of cultural sustainability and environmental stewardship. Their work demonstrated that the preservation of cultural practices and natural ecosystems is not only an artistic or environmental issue but also a matter of global responsibility.

Technology & Innovation

This self-driving startup is using generative AI to predict traffic

Diane Davis

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A diptych view of the same image via camera and LiDAR.

While autonomous driving has long relied on machine learning to plan routes and detect objects, some companies and researchers are now betting that generative AI — models that take in data of their surroundings and generate predictions — will help bring autonomy to the next stage. Wayve, a Waabi competitor, released a comparable model last year that is trained on the video that its vehicles collect. 

Waabi’s model works in a similar way to image or video generators like OpenAI’s DALL-E and Sora. It takes point clouds of lidar data, which visualize a 3D map of the car’s surroundings, and breaks them into chunks, similar to how image generators break photos into pixels. Based on its training data, Copilot4D then predicts how all points of lidar data will move. Doing this continuously allows it to generate predictions 5-10 seconds into the future.

Waabi is one of a handful of autonomous driving companies, including competitors Wayve and Ghost, that describe their approach as “AI-first.” To Urtasun, that means designing a system that learns from data, rather than one that must be taught reactions to specific situations. The cohort is betting their methods might require fewer hours of road-testing self-driving cars, a charged topic following an October 2023 accident where a Cruise robotaxi dragged a pedestrian in San Francisco. 

Waabi is different from its competitors in building a generative model for lidar, rather than cameras. 

“If you want to be a Level 4 player, lidar is a must,” says Urtasun, referring to the automation level where the car does not require the attention of a human to drive safely. Cameras do a good job of showing what the car is seeing, but they’re not as adept at measuring distances or understanding the geometry of the car’s surroundings, she says.

Though Waabi’s model can generate videos showing what a car will see through its lidar sensors, those videos will not be used as training in the company’s driving simulator that it uses to build and test its driving model. That’s to ensure any hallucinations arising from Copilot4D do not get taught in the simulator.

The underlying technology is not new, says Bernard Adam Lange, a PhD student at Stanford who has built and researched similar models, but it’s the first time he’s seen a generative lidar model leave the confines of a research lab and be scaled up for commercial use. A model like this would generally help make the “brain” of any autonomous vehicle able to reason more quickly and accurately, he says.

“It is the scale that is transformative,” he says. “The hope is that these models can be utilized in downstream tasks” like detecting objects and predicting where people or things might move next.

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Technology & Innovation

Methane leaks in the US are worse than we thought

Diane Davis

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Methane leaks in the US are worse than we thought

Methane emissions are responsible for nearly a third of the total warming the planet has experienced so far. While there are natural sources of the greenhouse gas, including wetlands, human activities like agriculture and fossil-fuel production have dumped millions of metric tons of additional methane into the atmosphere. The concentration of methane has more than doubled over the past 200 years. But there are still large uncertainties about where, exactly, emissions are coming from.

Answering these questions is a challenging but crucial first step to cutting emissions and addressing climate change. To do so, researchers are using tools ranging from satellites like the recently launched MethaneSAT to ground and aerial surveys. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly 1% of oil and gas produced winds up leaking into the atmosphere as methane pollution. But survey after survey has suggested that the official numbers underestimate the true extent of the methane problem.  

For the sites examined in the new study, “methane emissions appear to be higher than government estimates, on average,” says Evan Sherwin, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who conducted the analysis as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  

The data Sherwin used comes from one of the largest surveys of US fossil-fuel production sites to date. Starting in 2018, Kairos Aerospace and the Carbon Mapper Project mapped six major oil- and gas-producing regions, which together account for about 50% of onshore oil production and about 30% of gas production. Planes flying overhead gathered nearly 1 million measurements of well sites using spectrometers, which can detect methane using specific wavelengths of light. 

Sherwin et al., Nature

Here’s where things get complicated. Methane sources in oil and gas production come in all shapes and sizes. Some small wells slowly leak the gas at a rate of roughly one kilogram of methane an hour. Other sources are significantly bigger, emitting hundreds or even thousands of kilograms per hour, but these leaks may last for only a short period.

The planes used in these surveys detect mostly the largest leaks, above roughly 100 kilograms per hour (though they catch smaller ones sometimes, down to around one-tenth that size, Sherwin says). Combining measurements of these large leak sites with modeling to estimate smaller sources, researchers estimated that the larger leaks account for an outsize proportion of emissions. In many cases, around 1% of well sites can make up over half the total methane emissions, Sherwin says.

But some scientists say that this and other studies are still limited by the measurement tools available. “This is an indication of the current technology limits,” says Ritesh Gautam, a lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: What social media can teach us about AI

Diane Davis

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The Download: What social media can teach us about AI

June 2023

Astronomy should, in principle, be a welcoming field for blind researchers. But across the board, science is full of charts, graphs, databases, and images that are designed to be seen.

So researcher Sarah Kane, who is legally blind, was thrilled three years ago when she encountered a technology known as sonification, designed to transform information into sound. Since then she’s been working with a project called Astronify, which presents astronomical information in audio form. 

For millions of blind and visually impaired people, sonification could be transformative—opening access to education, to once unimaginable careers, and even to the secrets of the universe. Read the full story.

—Corey S. Powell

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ It’s time to get into metal detecting (no really, it is!)
+ Meanwhile, over on Mars
+ A couple in the UK decided to get married on a moving train, because why not?
+ Even giant manta rays need a little TLC every now and again.


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