PREVENTING ECOLOGICAL RISKS IN AMAZONIA CONGITUS: NEW COGNITIVE TOOLS TO ASSESS ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS IN AMAZONIA

24 02 2009

By LUCIA SANTAELLA and JOSÉ WAGNER GARCIA

Petrobrás, the Brazilian National Oil Company, built a pipeline in Western Amazonia to transport crude oil from the Urucu river production region to a terminal in the vicinities of Coari, a city located on the right margin of the Solimões river. Tankers then ship the oil to another terminal in Manaus, capital of the Amazonas State. Between dry and wet seasons, water level dramatic changes in the Solimões River reach up to 14 meters This strong seasonal character of the Amazonian climate gives rise to four distinct scenarios in the annual hydrological cycle: low water, high water, receding water and rising water. These scenarios constitute the framework for the definition of oil spill response planning in the region, since flooded forest and flooded vegetation are the most sensitive fluvial environments to oil spills.

The methodology which has been currently used in Amazonia to assess and evaluate environmental risk to oil spills includes geographic information systems, image processing of remote sensing data, and cartographic conversion and generation of value-added product using 3D visualization. These procedures are carried out in order to improve analysis of digital topographic data and to generate sensitivity index maps for fluvial regions of the Solimões river. When the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) methodology was applied to the region, it revealed that the most sensitive spots of environment sensitivity in the flood months occur in 57,60% of the root of fluvial transportation of oil from the Solimões Terminal (TESOL), in Coari, to the Manaus Terminal (TEMAN).

Although this methodology has provided crucial information about oil spill environmental sensitivity in Western Amazonia it is not able to give us a more refined understanding of the river seasonal variation which is represented by an intricate arrangement of channels that change with time. The hydrological cycle produces and wipes out huge patches of flooded forest. Such a landscape regulates the spatial distribution of flora and wildlife, as well as the social habits of riverside villages. This web of relations is progressive and evolutionary and conventional approaches are not robust enough to address the complexity of spatial and temporal patterns in the Solimões River alluvial plain. Hence, a wider and more complex scientific approach proved to be necessary.

The Cognitus project was born to attend such necessity. It is in close connection with a series of more empirical research projects named Piatam I, II, III and Piatam Ocean, which are also developed in the Amazon region and financed by the environment department of Petrobras Reserch Center (CENPES). From molecular to ecological and evolutionary scales, Cognitus is conducted as an interdisciplinary inquiry which involves a deep interaction between Mathematics, Art, Philosophy, Semiotics, Computational Science, Evolutionary Robotics, Remote Sensing, Chemistry, Nanobiotechnology, Hydrology, Geology, Ecology, Botany, Genetics, Sociology, and Economics. The aim of this paper is to present the state of the art and the future perspectives of this project.

To the degree that science evolves it creates more precise and subtle tools which allow it to penetrate the core of reality and to improve the means for a more intimate knowledge of nature. If the aim of ecology is to attain a finer adaptation of humankind to its means of living we can say that technoscience is increasingly prepared to foster a more harmonious co-evolution between human beings and nature through the orientation of scientific and political actions toward a sustained development. As knowledge evolves it multiplies the possibilities of the technological choices which are better adaptable to local, ecological and human circumstances.

In tune with these ideas, Cognitus goal is to build fine cognitive tools for the apprehension of the complexity in the composition and relations between the Amazonian nature, its population and the activities of the petrol industry in the region. To attain this goal Cognitus develops a co-evolutionary view of nature and humanity, including the mediating role of science and technology in this co-evolutionary dynamics. Underlying this view is the philosophical questioning of the classical Cartesian division between mind and matter, thought and reality. Cartesianism made us believe, for a long time, that matter, life and thought were distant regions of knowledge from which sharp divisions between the physical and the psychical worlds, between nature and culture were derived.

Presently, however, both Francisco Varela´s “naturalized epistemology” and C. S. Peirce´s synechism, which proposes the continuity between mind and matter, allow the attenuation of the frontiers between the inanimate and the living, presenting a renovated reunion of humankind with nature. Furthermore the increasing possibility of creating living beings through non-natural means and the urgent necessity of protecting the species, the ecosystems, and even the biosphere, by international conventions, clearly testify that nature is far from being an autonomous realm. Thanks to the growth of ecological concerns, we are ready to admit that plants, animals, genes, deserts, forests, rivers, and the chemistry of the atmosphere do not exist as a parallel universe, juxtaposed to ours but, on the contrary, they can be subjects of expert knowledge which is able to integrate thought and nature.

By means of a concentrated effort of conceptual elaboration Cognitus is looking for the constitution of a new parameter for scientific production. That is why its philosophical foundations propose a hybrid methodology which allies the visionary inspiration of the artists with the rigorous experimentation of the scientists toward the generation of knowledge through investment in advanced research and technology in order to signal without delay the ecosystems to be protected in case of ecological accidents.

Last September Cognitus presented the results of its phase II and proposed the research projects to be developed in phase III. The project has a modular structure and counts now with 46 researchers who are working in the four distinct but interconnected modules, namely: (1) Evolutionary Robotics, (2) Nanobiotechnology, (3) Hypersigns, and (4) Scientific Visualization.

1. Evolutionary Robotics aims at (a) developing autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic systems to collect data and act remotely; (b) Improve the communication patterns of robotic systems in order to develop a swarm of robots. (c) Develop a geo-referential data bank to collect information received from the remote devices. This module is subdivided into:

1.1. Amazonbots: Kwata and Poraque. Kwata is a line of fixed robots aimed at collecting environmental data. Poraque is a robot system inspired in the electric fish to be used in the monitoring of the water quality and in 3D visualization based on electric fields.

1.2. Graphbots will project, develop and test a mobile robot system for non-structured environments, which is able of symbolic processing to create collaborative webs for sensoring and distributed processing.

1.3. Archibots will construct an operational basis and support for the robot systems founded on matrices of information and knowledge: construction material, environmental comfort, local culture in search of systemic and adaptative solutions.

1.4. Hybrid Environmental Robot is a multimission mobile platform to act in Amazonia. It presents two systems: one is commanded by humans and the other is autonomous. Both are meant for collecting data and for visual inspection.

1.5. Acoustic ecology will register and analyze natural and anthropic soundscapes, what implies knowledge of local bio and geophony in order to interpret the sound registers as significant environmental indicators.

1.5. Evolutionary Design will project, develop and test a system of evolutionary computing design based on relational representations of objects which are submitted to environmental inducers and repressors.

2. Nanobiotechnology aims at developing innovative technologies and products based on the convergence of micro and biotechnology which unites the bottom up procedure of molecular manipulation with the top down approach of microelectronics. The subprojects under this module are:

2.1. Biocompilator will project, develop and test an integrated system of a lab on a chip which contains microfluid sensors, channels and agents able of intelligent and coordinated response to external stimuli, especially to the presence of hydrocarbide.

2.2. Sensors for liquid and gas based on superficial acoustic waves (SAW). This project will develop a technology for the production of a set of sensors (SAW) for the analysis of the liquid and gas phases to apply in the petrol industry.

2.3. Interaction of Nano Particles for Biosensors (INB). Aiming at the development of biosensors of hydro carbide it investigates the processes involved in the interaction of nano particles generated in a process of atomization of fluids through superficial acoustic waves (SAW) in micro gravity with proteins which are fixed on a surface.

2.4. Biosensors for Hydro carbide use a surface engineering technology with fluorescent proteins.

2.5. Photo Acoustic spectroscopy (PAS) to develop biosensors of hydro carbide. This device will be constructed with an optimized camera to investigate GFP fluorescent proteins and their modification when interacting with hydro carbide. This technique monitors the non-radioactive decaying of the interactive processes.

2.6. Bicog will develop a new system of sensoring and agency based on electric signals which contain information about the physiological and biochemical state of the electric fish organs discharge or EEG signals (Electro encephalongram).

2.7. Meta genome will investigate the bacterial biodiversity of the Solimões and adjacent rivers in order to settle correlation among species and bio geo chemical cycles in the region. It aims at obtaining data about microecology contributing to the refinement of the determination of environmental sensitivity to oil spills.

3. Hypersigns is turned to the diagnosis of hydro geological, biological and global environmental data in order to understand the complexity of the Amazonian fluvial system and its levels of organization. It investigates the temporal series of the water level of the Solimões river from Coari to Manaus to establish the grades of organization and complexity of the Amazonian system. In its present and third stage of development it will improve the software for the analysis of the temporal series of the river. It also aims at proposing a new epistemological model for the production of knowledge about nature, developing scientific activities in a way that is contaminated by artistic principles and whose profile is modeled according to semiotic concepts.

4. Scientific Visualization will develop non-conventional forms of representation for environmental data and information, exploring new aspects of technology, sign devices and cognitive strategies in order to facilitate the access, circulation and exchange of data so as to provide an effective and privileged support for decisions. This module is subdivided in the following lines of research:

4.1. Qualitune is a computing model of dynamical transformations for systems based on qualitative relations. The logical description of these relations is based on C. S. Peirce’s existential graphs, in alpha, beta and gamma phases.

4.2. Wet Computing goal is to produce a natural computing environment based on efficient molecular processes. Two of such processes are being taken into account: protein-protein interaction and gene circuits. In the protein interaction environment, specific biochemical models are being design to explore certain types of molecular interaction. In the gene circuit scope, details of nonlinear dynamical systems are being studied to effectively control the operations performed by circuits. Particularly, the interaction environments produced by protein interaction and gene circuits will allow the implementation of the first physical mapping of the Qualitune computing model.

4.3. Syntony is a system of affective immersion, one of the manifestations of the epistemological program for an Artistic Science. It is an experimental and innovative project in the application of computational technologies in order to develop an interactive space to be operated by means of Affective Computation and inductive qualitative models. The qualitative foundations of human relationships, which are mainly rendered in emotions and feelings, find a suitable interpretation place in this environment.

By artistic science we mean a kind of science that exhibits artistic qualities and attributes. The original idea for the development of an artistic science was born in Wagner Garcia’s dissertation about an evolutionary aesthetics conceived of in the light of a semiotic aesthetics. In the process of creating an evolutionary art, there was a kind of migration or subversion from the strictly artistic realm to the realm of the sciences of nature, which generated a conceptually hybrid environment, under the name of artistic science.

What it proposes now in the context of the Cognitus project is the development of a new epistemological model for the production of knowledge by means of a science which is contaminated by some of the principles which govern the making of art. This can be attained through a sort of practice that overlaps objectives and procedures from both epistemological universes – the scientific and the artistic ones.

There is a difference between a scientific art and an artistic science. In the latter, the inquiry purpose of scientific thought, that is, to reveal the laws of its experimental object, has to be preserved, but while absorbing the observation power which is proper of creativity in art, an artistic science will transform scientific concepts into sensory, sensitive processes.

The results of the above projects are meant to be visualized in the LabCog, a laboratory which was originally conceived of in the context of the Cognitus Project. However, by means of a collaboration between Petrobras R&D Center (CENPES) and the Rio de Janeiro Federal University (UFRJ/COPPE), it was submitted and approved, in 2004, by FINEP, a foundation for the development of science and technology in Rio de Janeiro. LabCog aimed at setting up a Laboratory of R&D on human-computer interfaces, providing multi modal interactive support to the research projects that are developed concerning the Amazon. For that purpose, presently an advanced building is under construction with virtual reality and augmented reality labs.

Cognitus as a whole is in tune with an extraordinary statement that was given by Michel Cassé, from the Astrophysics Institute in Paris: “We now live in a blessed time in which matter speaks” In fact, what Cognitus is trying to do is ultimately not only to listen to what the Amazonian nature has to say but also to enter into a conversation with it.

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