Karen Bakker, scientist and author, 1971-2023
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This year, the Canadian scientist and author Karen Bakker held an audience at a TED conference spellbound as she played the “pick-up lines” of bats recorded during their mating season and the chirpy calls of orcas, normally unheard by the human ear.
Bakker crisply explained how a hardware revolution in recording devices and a software revolution in artificial intelligence was enabling researchers to listen in to all kinds of conversations outside the range of human hearing. Then, she asked what must surely count as one of the most extraordinary questions ever posed at a tech festival: could an orca give a TED talk?
Imagine the stories the orca could tell, Bakker riffed, about dodging ships and seismic blasts and hunters and “trying to survive on this beautiful planet in this crazy moment in our era of untethered human creativity and unprecedented environmental emergency”.
Although such talk might sound like a surreal flight of fancy, Bakker, who died last month, was a member of the bioacoustic research community trying to turn this dream into a reality. Her 2022 book, The Sounds of Life, explained how it might one day be possible to create a kind of Google Translate for animals. The same AI technology that has enabled chatbots such as ChatGPT to recognise and replicate patterns of text could also be used to help biologists understand non-human communication regimes.
Researchers are already compiling sonic dictionaries of several species, including east African elephants and sperm whales, and studying how animal sounds correlate with observed behaviours. Such research might one day enable us to speak with noisy animals, such as whales, elephants and bats. What would we learn about them — and about ourselves?
This week, Bakker’s colleagues at the University of British Columbia paid tribute to her wide-ranging research interests, her fierce public engagement and her commitment as a mother and friend.
“Writing, speaking, researching or chatting about any topic imaginable, Karen always had interesting things to say and could offer incisive commentary and engaged banter — whether it be about cooking, gardening, stand-up paddle boarding, or the local food cart scene,” they wrote.
Born in Montreal in 1971, Bakker studied at McMaster University and went on to win a Rhodes scholarship to pursue her doctoral research at the University of Oxford. She joined the geography department of the University of British Columbia in 2002 and later held research fellowships at both Stanford and Harvard universities.
Bakker wrote more than 100 academic articles and seven books on subjects ranging from water security to digital networks. Under the nom de plume Karen Le Billon, she also wrote a blog about how to encourage children to eat healthily. Inspired by a year in France with her family, Bakker published an account of that time, titled French Kids Eat Everything.
Insatiably curious, Bakker was fascinated by the revolution in bioacoustic technology and the discoveries it promised, just as the 17th-century invention of the modern microscope had enabled scientists to explore a previously unseen world. “Sonics is the new optics,” she told the Financial Times this year.
But Bakker was also concerned about the potential misuses of AI. She thought deeply about the ethics of communicating with non-human species, recognising that the technology could be used by hunters as well as academics.
With two fellow researchers, Gary Marcus and Anka Reuel, Bakker founded the Center for the Advancement of Trustworthy AI. Its mission is to ensure safe AI for all by promoting agile global governance of the technology.
“Literally every time we spoke, I learnt something from Karen,” Marcus wrote last week. “She seemed to have lived everywhere and done everything.”
Bakker’s final book Gaia’s Web, to be published next year, questions whether digital technology will accelerate environmental degradation or regeneration. What happens when the world wide web intertwines with the web of life?
This summer, the FT recorded an interview with Bakker, which we will broadcast next week with the family’s blessing, as part of the Tech Tonic podcast series. The subject of the series — how the bioacoustic revolution might one day enable interspecies communication — was inspired by Bakker’s work. As she wrote in the conclusion to The Sounds of Life: “If we open our ears, a world of wonder awaits.”
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