Inside the experimental world of animal infrastructure
But Banff’s wildlife crossings, like most, suffer from a sort of Horseless Carriage Syndrome, their designs circumscribed by existing infrastructure. Tunnels are often little-adapted culverts, the (usually concrete) tubes that ferry water under roads. And overpasses have generally been borrowed wholesale from roadways—they are built as if they are going to carry the weight of an 18-wheeler and then “top-dressed” with foliage, Lister says.
A scattering of experiments are starting to rethink this model. One is the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, the $90 million wildlife bridge under construction north of Los Angeles. Designed by architect Robert Rock, it avoids the humped arch of older bridges in favor of a vast flat expanse that needs just one column to support it between mountains and across a highway traversed each day by an estimated 300,000 cars. It is the “poster child for innovation,” says Renee Callahan, executive director of ARC Solutions, a group that researches how to build better wildlife bridges. “It’s literally designed for species from mountain lions to mule deer to deer mouse,” Callahan says. “They’re designing it all the way down—to literally the mycorrhizal layer, in terms of the soil, to make sure that the soil itself has the fungal network that can support the native vegetation.”
There are many unknowns as construction starts, not least how different species will react to the sheer volume of vehicles passing beneath. The National Park Service will be monitoring activity on the bridge as well as DNA profiles of animals on either side of the freeway. Many are watching to see what will happen with the area’s population of mountain lions. Over time, inbreeding has led to genetic abnormalities, like a telltale kink in local cats’ tails. The agency predicted that the population would become extinct within decades without a crossing.
Across the US, the infrastructure bill’s $350 million falls far short of what will be needed to address the fragmentation created by the country’s 4 million miles of public roads. But there are a handful of innovations that could tip the cost-benefit analysis by allowing crossings to be built at lower cost or in places where it was not feasible before.
Animal bridges are currently built only where there is protected land on both sides of the road, as the typical expense of constructing a concrete bridge would be hard to justify on a site that someone might develop in a few years’ time. Lighter, cheaper, modular systems could be used in places whose futures are less secure, explains Huijser: “If the adjacent lands become unsuitable for wildlife, we take it apart and you can move it.”
One candidate material for such modular systems is precast concrete. There’s also excitement about fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP), a material less dense than concrete that is made from structural fibers set in resin. FRP has been used to build foot and bike bridges in Europe and a quick-and-easy wildlife bridge in Rhenen, just south of the Gooi in the Netherlands. Currently the Federal Highway Administration does not allow it to be used in traffic infrastructure in the US, but there are growing demands for change. “These are barriers that are principally about policy and governance. They’re not about science and they’re not about technology,” says Lister.
“They know that the last thing anybody wants is for a big structure, with a lot of publicity, to get built—and then it doesn’t work.”
Designers like Lister and innovators like Callahan are vocal proponents of building wildlife bridges across the country. Road ecologists and wildlife scientists, on the other hand, remain more cautious. “They are hypercritical because they know that the last thing anybody wants is for a big structure, with a lot of publicity, to get built—and then it doesn’t work. Because everybody will come out of the woodwork and say, ‘See! Waste of time! Complete crap!’” Jones says.
But today even cautious types want to see more built. Although we may not have conducted enough research to have all the answers, it would be dangerous to take that as a signal we should stop, Huijser says. He calls such over-cautiousness a “type II error”—a false negative. In this time of mass extinction, it is as if the house is burning down and our solution so far has been to squirt a water pistol at it a few times. To conclude that water isn’t the answer would be a mistake.
Despite the challenges in Ede and elsewhere, van der Grift says, the answer is learning while building. We still need to invest in the real work of tagging, installing trail cams, and doing DNA testing and long-term population monitoring, he emphasizes. But we must first build more crossings—and the evidence we have so far says to build big and bold. “You have to realize that you almost cannot do too much,” he says. “You do what you think is necessary, study it, and then, nine out of 10 times, you will see, ‘Oh, I should have done more.’ But there’s no point in waiting until you have figured that out.”
Matthew Ponsford is a freelance reporter based in London.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”