Tim Shields Wants You to Save Tortoises by Piloting Laser Robots With Your Phone

Our obsession with gaming might help us save some of our most vulnerable species.

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Mar 16 2017, 9:00pm

Humans of the Year

Tim Shields has spent 40 years living alongside the desert tortoise. In the wilds of the southwestern US, he said, he found himself growing affectionate for the "eminently sane" animal. "They'd have to be," he told me, "Or they'd die."

Now what Shields, an inventor and biologist, is trying to figure out is why humans—arguably the most rational animal—have stopped caring about Earth.

"I've spent my whole life out in the wilderness, falling completely in love with this planet. Very few people get to do that. But ecologically, we as a species are sleepwalking toward a cliff," Shields said.

Shields' abundant enthusiasm for conservation is undeniably infectious. He's the founder of Hardshell Labs, an innovative coalition dedicated to saving species through gamification. Yes, gaming. For the past few years, he and a team of engineers, designers, educators, and futurists have worked thanklessly to port nature directly into our digital devices.

Why? Because most of us experience nature through a screen, anyway, and not in real life.

Despite America's wealth of wild places, things like poverty, poor transportation, or urbanization make it hard for everyone to traverse the great outdoors. A new phenomenon among children called "nature deficit disorder" has been blamed for everything from obesity to depression. But the craving is still there. I'm reminded of it whenever I'm entranced by the BBC's acclaimed wildlife series Planet Earth or pore over nature photography on Instagram.

"The environmental movement right now has failed significantly to engage people emotionally. We think about being good Earth citizens but we don't feel about it as much as we should," Shields said. "If you're looking at your screen, seeing a piece the planet, it's quite likely you'll want to intervene to protect something."

"The grain of humanity is playing games. This is what we are; we're a game-playing species."

Like anyone who thinks about games for a living, Shields has an uncanny way of making the most complicated things sound simple, even enjoyable. Despite chatting about extinction, habitat destruction, and environmental indifference—pretty dispiriting stuff—by the end of our conversation, I was feeling uncharacteristically optimistic for the future of Earth.

Motherboard first spoke to Shields soon after he started working on a project to save the desert tortoise. These prehistoric-looking reptiles are native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of the southwestern US. They're extremophiles, surviving 140-degree temperatures and months without rainfall. Shields likened them to nature's "hackers" because of their ability to, well, hack it in a place where few other lifeforms could survive.

But desert tortoises are teetering on the edge of extinction. Creeping urbanization, agriculture, and vehicle mortality are all to blame in part. But the tortoise's cleverest enemy is the raven: That ingenious, charismatic corvid also quite likes the taste of baby desert tortoise. This was all part of nature's ebb and flow until humans (namely, their trash) lured more of the birds into desert habitats. By 1984, biologists had observed a 90 percent population decline over the last century, and today, only an estimated 100,000 tortoises remain in the American southwest.

So instead of watching tortoises succumb to man-made adversities, Shields engineered a solution: robotic, internet connected, human-controlled rovers armed with 532 nanometer lasers.

To ravens, lasers are annoying as hell, but more importantly, they're nonlethal. And through negative reinforcement—think of someone flashing a laser pointer in your face—the birds can be taught to avoid tortoise habitat.

Hardshell Labs also developed Raven Repel, an augmented reality app, that aimed to make the process user-controlled as well. Anyone anywhere could control the rovers through the app, and remotely participate in conservation. (A demo version of the app used simulated ravens, and wasn't too dissimilar from Pokémon Go, Shields wryly noted to me.)

The company is still experimenting with different interfaces, adding new ideas to Hardshell Labs' tortoise-conservation efforts—but what stands out through it all is Shields' unflappably positive philosophy. In order for games to unlock our conservation potential, he reasons, it must already exist somewhere inside of us. Gamification is going to cure our deficit, he said, because "it's too damn cool to interact with nature."

"I'm not doing this just for tortoises. I'm also doing this for our own species."

The release of Pokémon Go last year had many biologists arguing the same thing: If the difference between action and inaction was interacting with wildlife (real or Nidoran), then games can function like a gateway. "There are a lot of barriers to learning about nature, and there's no tutorial mode to help people get started like there is in Pokémon," Morgan Jackson, an insect taxonomist at the University of Guelph, told me then.

Still, many others were skeptical, and wondered if a love for fictional creatures could apply to endangered ones. Shields was also cautious, adding that "it's interesting, but I wouldn't go out in the world and stare at it through a telephone screen." Something like Minecraft, however, which "has chaotic patterns that completely just dwarf anything that a little human brain can come up with," offers richer exploratory possibilities.

For a gaming entrepreneur, Shields seemed disinterested in calling himself a gamer. He got as far as Pong before heading out into the desert, and admits he doesn't know much about electronic games. That stuff he entrusts to developers and engineers at Hardshell Labs. Instead, Shields provides the glue that holds the operation together. I suspect he also imparts a certain faith in humanity that I only got a taste of during our interview.

Right now, Hardshell Labs is building out the architecture for its nature games. But when they're ready, Shields plans to start seeding them in schools. Some educators are already clamoring for the chance to test them, he said. Eventually Shields hopes that all walks of life—from a kid in Cleveland to an inmate serving time in prison—will get hooked on digital conservation. If people can kill a live deer with a click of their mouse, why can't they protect a tortoise via their iPhone?

"The grain of humanity is playing games. This is what we are; we're a game-playing species," Shields said.

And with this also comes community building. We are, after all, social animals. To account for things like trolls, who might want to mess with the tortoises, for example, Shields anticipates that moderators will keep them in check. A new user might have to level up to control the robotic rover. But as a backup safety measure, Shields assured me the rovers have extremely soft tires and aren't capable of hurting the tortoises.

The startup recently partnered with Autodesk, a software company that specializes in 3D engineering and design. Shields and his colleagues managed to 3D-print baby desert tortoises (or Techno-tortoises) to one day replace the bulky rovers. The next step is to observe how ravens will respond to them.

When we spoke, Shields was about to head into the field for numerous research expeditions. Meanwhile, he added that Hardshell Labs is seeking funding for three proof of concept projects.

"If we don't start collaborating on a massive scale, I think we're toast," he told me. "I'm not doing this just for tortoises. I'm also doing this for our own species."

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