Trump’s wall poses dire threat to wildlife populations: scientists

US President Donald Trump’s planned wall along the US-Mexico border could have devastating consequences for local wildlife populations, according to a host of ecologists and conservation scientists.

By creating a physical barrier across the country, the wall will carve up natural migratory routes, preventing the natural movement of wildlife populations, the scientists warn. This will block populations of species from intermixing, removing their ability to maintain healthy genetic stocks and replenish their numbers, meaning the area’s populations of numerous species would be at significant risk of collapse.

Interviewed by Lesley Evans Ogden for an article published today in the journal BioScience, the scientists described how the host of research already undertaken on the impacts of border walls has shown that they can be devastating for wildlife.

“If the wall is completed, it will create a considerable biodiversity conservation challenge – one unlikely to disappear anytime soon,” summarised Ogden.

One of several proposals for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall by The Penna Group. Image courtesy of The Penna Group

Even before the US-Mexico wall has been built, the activities of border agents have been having a negative effect on migratory behaviour.

Research by David Christianson of the University of Arizona, for example, has found that populations pronghorn antelope appear to be avoiding the border area, likely due to the presence of patrols.

“Even when there isn’t a physical wall or much of a barrier, [border agents] are actively engaged in enforcing the law through patrols,” said Christianson, adding that such patrols often travel “right in the middle of this endangered species habitat”.

Perhaps more alarmingly, research seems to suggest that where walls have been built along the border, they appear more successful at deterring animals than humans.

Camera traps set up along the sections of the US-Mexico border where 4m and 5m (13ft and 16.4ft) walls have already been constructed found that animals populations such as pumas and coati were present in lower numbers. This was expected by researcher Jamie McCallum, a consultant at Transfrontier International, and his colleagues from the Zoological Society of London, but they were alarmed to find that the wall did not appear to be making any dent in the number of undocumented migrants or smugglers making an appearance.

“I thought it would have at least some kind of trace of an effect, even if it wasn’t a statistically significant finding. But it didn’t appear to,” said McCallum.

An alternative proposal for the US-Mexico border wall, by San Diego Project Management. While this more closely aligns with the public perception of Trump’s proposed wall, it is not yet clear which companies have been selected. Image courtesy of San Diego Project Management

A centrepiece of Trump’s election campaign, the US-Mexico border wall has been a controversial proposal, drawing both fierce support and equally fierce criticism.

In March precise specifications for the wall were published as part of a Request for Proposal published on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

Describing the desired wall as “physically imposing”, the proposal required the wall to be between 18ft and 30ft (5.4m and 9.1m) tall, with a system to prevent tunnelling 6ft (1.8m) below the ground.

More than 200 companies submitted proposals for the wall, with finalists selected although not publicly disclosed earlier this month. Winners who will be asked to build short prototypes will be selected by mid-June.

However, whether the wall will end up being built along the entire border remains to be seen. In Trump’s 2018 budget, published yesterday, $1.6bn was allocated to its construction, an amount that would only allow a small section of the wall the be built.

To read more about the dangers to our environment and how technology is responding, check out the latest issue of Factor magazine.

AI will ultimately need globally agreed laws: DeepMind CEO

Once artificial intelligence has sufficiently advanced, it will need to be bound by rules and regulations that are agreed upon by governments across the world, Demis Hassabis, co-founder and CEO of Google-owned AI giant DeepMind, has said.

“What we hope is once we understand these systems better and understand what we would be legislating for, there would be some stronger form of governance that would be agreed by world governments,” he said.

“In the course of the next few decades as these systems develop, we will understand better what kind of control systems are required, how to check and interpret what these systems are doing and I think we will solve those problems on the way to building AI.”

Speaking on the latest episode of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Hassabis argued that AI was ultimately a positive force, in contrast to doom-ridden comments made by figures such as Stephen Hawking.

“The way I think about AI is as this amazing tool that we can use to enhance our own goals as humans,” he explained.

“I think there’s a lot of research left to go, but we have to think about what goals we give these systems, what values we give these systems and how we make sure that we stick to the goals that we give them.”

DeepMind CEO and co-founder Demis Hassabis. Image courtesy of DeepMind

Hassabis also rejected the notion that we should be concerned about current AI technology falling into the wrong hands, arguing that it was too complex and too small a field for this to realistically happen at present.

“One good thing about it at the moment is that these are incredibly tough systems to build, they’re incredibly complicated – there are only a few hundred people in the world who can build these things,” he said.

“And, you know, most of them know each other was well. We’re quite a small community – I couldn’t do it now on my own; we have 400 people, 250 PhDs from the top places in the world, coming together and even then we’re only making small progress towards this.”

After being bought by Google in 2014, DeepMind made headlines when its Go-playing AI software AlphaGo beat world-class professional Go player Lee Sedol.

The match, which was held in March 2016, was hailed as a watershed moment for AI as it required the system to develop its own methods to play the game, rather than being equipped with a set of routines it could run through.

However, Hassabis was keen to stress that although the resulting methods drew surprise, this was not evidence of a machine breaking its programming to think for itself.

“We were astonished by the capability the machine had, and our program that we created actually came up with its own ideas and its own motifs that even stunned the Go world,” he said.

“But we weren’t surprised that it could play Go well; we were surprised that it could create its own moves and we were delighted by what it created within the domain of what we made it to do, which was to play Go.“