Monday, January 11, 2010

[Mayank] Lessons from the field

There are an amazing number of open computational problems in field biology. The amount of manual effort put into data collection, processing, and analysis is, frankly, quite shocking. Machine learning definitely has its uses here, but I wish I had more of a background in computer vision. Some examples of really cool computational problems:
  1. Maria is studying the spatial arrangement of weaver-bird nests in trees to see if there are preferences or characteristic behaviors within each species. From a computer science point of view, there are a bunch of problems here in vision and machine learning. For example, can the rough 3-D shape of the tree (just the trunk and main branches) be outlined from a series of photographs taken from different angles? Can the branching angles be estimated from photographs? For visualization people, can a 3-D model of the tree be reconstructed from these photographs? For machine learning, can the shape of the tree, the arrangement of the nests, and other ecological variables be used to correctly predict the species that lives in the tree?
  2. Iain, Jenni, Colin, Victor, and possibly some other people are working on ant colonies. They are going to take HD video of the colonies and track ants to study their behavior. Can the motion and interactions of the ants be used to automatically infer simple behavioral models for individual ants? 
 And now for some practical lessons:
  1. Gazelle are not easily frightened away at night, even if you shine a bright flashlight into their eyes.
  2. Bull elephants are very dangerous, especially when you nearly drive into them.
  3. It is best to ignore the scratching, snarling, buzzing, breathing sounds at night. 
  4. (Some) field biologists spend a lot of time poking into and graphically describing animal dung.
  5. (Some) computer scientists spend a lot of time complaining about insects.
  6. Watching a giraffe run is like watching slow-motion video. 
  7. Going out into the field with biologists means that you can climb up and sit on top of the Land Rover as it goes off-road and into lion country.
  8. The local village football team consists of very fast runners, and they can kick a ball with devastating force (I have the tread marks on my thorax to prove this).

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