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Step Into an Interactive Map Made From the Songs of Thousands of Birds


Google and Cornell University used artificial intelligence to map bird songs on a remarkable interactive platform.

With a disembodied beauty, the song of a bird inevitably transcends the being which emits it. It becomes an archetypal sound, a call to the unconscious, a melody that awakens human intuition, and which is immortal, as the poet John Keats put it in his Ode to a Nightingale – perhaps one of the most important poems in the English language. In this context, a new project by the Google Creative Lab and the ornithological laboratory at Cornell University emerges as a celebration of birdsong, mapping them on an interactive platform which, though it bears a scientific purpose, is also a sublime, inspiring catalog of sound.

Some years ago, Cornell University published an enormous archive which includes 150,000 individual bird songs, some of them recorded decades ago. Based on all of this information, ornithologists at Cornell, along with computer experts from Google, developed an interactive map which graphically depicts the songs of these thousands of birds. Users may listen to them by clicking on a button which then displays the name and photograph of each species.

The process of organizing the files began by fragmentating the sound of each bird into sections of less than a second. A complex mathematical algorithm and artificial intelligence allowed the computer to assign a kind of “fingerprint” to each of the songs and grouped them according to their similarities (in terms of sound and type of bird). The map also allows users to search for songs using the birds’ names.

The difficulty in realizing a project of this nature lies in the tremendous number of individual species of birds that exist in the world, each with its characteristic sound. What’s more, songs from one species may be nearly imperceptible from those of another. The long-term goal of the project includes gathering recordings of birds and other animals to identify the fauna of any given ecosystem entirely through their sounds.

But beyond an exciting collaboration of biology and computer science, the project is also an opportunity to navigate the timid, bizarre, sweet, terrifying, and strange sounds birds are able to make, a music which has always accompanied the mythology of humankind.

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