A thrifty guide to visiting Dublin – Zafigo.com, September 12 2018

It’s no secret that a visit to Dublin can make a dent in your bank balance. Ireland’s capital was recently named by Mercer as the most expensive city in the Eurozone in terms of cost of living for expatriates. A separate report by ECA International lists Dublin as the 72nd most expensive city worldwide, beating the likes of Abu Dhabi and London. Yet, this shouldn’t put you off visiting the fun-filled and friendly city. With a bit of planning and some tips from a thrifty Dubliner, an affordable trip can most certainly be achieved.

Accommodation

Be it a hotel or a long-term rental, accommodation in Dublin is notoriously expensive. Hotel room rates are at a record high, with the latest average rate of a standard room at €136.96 (approximately USD159) per night. If you’re visiting Dublin with friends, your best bet is to share the cost of an Airbnb in or near the city centre.

If you aren’t fussed about staying in the city centre, considering planting your roots on the outskirts. Dublin is a small county, so provided you stay somewhere along the bus, Luas (light rail), or DART (train) lines, it’ll be pretty easy to get into the city. Howth and Dun Laoghaire are two beautiful seaside towns within close proximity to Dublin that I recommend. Of course, no matter where you choose to stay, it’s always worth hunting out hotel deals on sites such as Living Social and Groupon. Those willing to give couch-surfing a go will also save themselves some cash.

Long-term visitors will likely struggle to find a cheap pad, owing to a lack of accommodation available to meet the demand. The average monthly rent for a single room in the city is €643 (approximately USD746), and even at that price, rooms are often miniscule and in poor condition. The nightmare that is the search for rentals in Dublin is well-documented, and the best tip I can offer is to start early, long before the college year begins in September.

Keep an eye on university noticeboards and online pages for room shares or consider renting a room in a family home (known as digs) to cut on costs. If commuting is an option, staying in the suburbs or in neighbouring counties such as Wicklow or Meath may save you some stress as well as cash.

Food

The cost of dining out in Dublin varies depending on where and when you choose to grab a bite. Lunchtime offers are aplenty and you’re sure to stumble across them if you simply follow the students. Lolly and Cooks, KC Peaches, Chopped, Boojum Burrito Bars, and any supermarket deli counter are good choices for quality and affordable sandwiches, salads, and wraps. You also can’t beat a good cheese toastie in Peter’s Pub.

Govindas offers massive vegetarian plates for €6.95 (approximately USD8), while Yum Thai Noodle Bar and the Mongolian BBQ do cheap and extremely filling stir fry and noodle dishes for between €6.95 and €10 (approximately USD8-11.60). Luncheonette offers variety at a low cost, with a new menu of healthy dishes under €4 (approximately USD4.60) every few days, while the adorable and affordable Italian café Dolce Sicily is one of my new favourite spots to meet a friend for a hearty bowl of soup, pasta, or Italian pastries.

For dinner, avoid the sky-high prices of touristic centre Temple Bar and check out somewhere around the Dublin 2 area. Some personal favourite choices are grabbing a mouth-watering mezze platter to share at Jerusalem, anything on offer at Café Bliss (which has the added bonus of being BYOB), the €12 (approximately USD14) pizza and a pint on board the Big Blue Bus behind Bernard Shaw (weekdays 5-7pm), and the €5 (approximately USD6) Monday paella deal at Havana.

On weekends, I also love going to the farmer’s market at the seaside town of Dun Laoghaire for some cheap local grub. Try the falafel, it won’t disappoint! Of course, there are always discounts on offer across the city, so keep an eye on the aforementioned deal sites. Another way to save on dining out is to eat a bit earlier; many restaurants in the city offer great early bird deals.

If you’re here for a longer stay, you’re unlikely to be dining out every night. Lidl, Aldi, and Tesco are the best places to do a weekly shop and offer deals on fruit, vegetables, and meat. Though a bit pricier than the supermarkets, farmer’s markets such as those in Temple Bar, Howth, and Dun Laoghaire offer delicious baked goods and organic produce.

Nightlife

Dublin has become awash with trendy cocktail bars, but unfortunately, behind every delectable drink usually lies a €12 (approximately USD14) price tag. If you’re trying to cut costs, pass these places by, along with tourist hotspot Temple Bar which is renowned for its rip-off prices. Diceys, O’Reillys, and The Living Room are known to be student magnets, predominantly because of their affordable drinks and regular deals.

If you prefer a more relaxed environment, try somewhere like The Porterhouse on the weekdays, or hunt out offers in any of the cosy and unassuming pubs in the city’s side streets. When cocktails are on the cards, Capitol Lounge offers them from €5 (approximately USD6), while Sinnotts, 777, and Pygmalion offer two-for-one deals on certain days of the week.

Should you be lucky enough to catch a rare balmy evening in Dublin, head straight to the Pavilion (aka The Pav) at Trinity College. During the summer, this green area welcomes swarms of students, locals, and tourists alike, who can bring their own food and drinks to enjoy on the grass.

Concerts are expensive in Dublin, but many of the pubs offer live music several nights a week for little to nothing. The Bleeding Horse Pub and Whelans are two great choices. Alternatively, wander along Grafton Street for some free entertainment from one of the many buskers and street artists.

If you’re in need of a warm beverage in a chilled environment, head to Accents. This cosy late night café has plenty of comfortable seating, perfect for snuggling up on with a mug of hot chocolate and a brownie.

Activities

In the summertime, most of Dublin’s best activities are free of charge. The city is home to several parks, including Stephen’s Green, Iveagh Gardens, and Europe’s largest urban park, Phoenix Park. All are perfect picnic spots while at the latter, you may even get a chance to watch a polo game or meet some of the park’s wild deer.

Just a short DART journey from the city centre is Dun Laoghaire, where you can enjoy relaxing evening walks along the pier at any time of the year. Buying an ice cream cone from famous shop Teddy’s is an absolute must there. North of the city, the cliff walk in Howth is also a wonderful way to spend some time in nature, as are the tranquil National Botanic Gardens.

While not within Dublin, the scenic neighbouring county of Wicklow is also worth a trip if you have time. Spots within it such as Glendalough and the quaint village of Avoca are stunning throughout all four seasons.

Indeed, Ireland is not renowned for having a tropical climate (or anything remotely close), so outdoor activities may be out of the question. Not to worry. The city homes plenty of free museums worthy of visiting, including the Natural History Museum (known as the ‘dead zoo’), the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery, the Science Museum, Chester Beatty Library, the Hugh Lane Gallery, parts of Dublin Castle, and much more.

A walk around the grounds of Trinity College is also worth ticking off the list and is completely free. However, if you wish to view the Old Library and Book of Kells as many tourists do, it’ll set you back €11 (approximately USD12.80).

History buffs may wish to check out Kilmainham Gaol Museum, where many of Ireland’s revolutionary leaders were imprisoned and in some cases executed. A tour will provide a good overview of the country’s history and costs just €8 (approximately USD9.30) including museum entry.

From pay-what-you-can yoga classes to free talks and lectures to kilo sales, there’s always something happening in Dublin. Websites such as Eventbrite, Meetup, and Ticketmaster can help you find some of the more unusual events.

Transport

Dublin’s city centre is small and walkable, so if you want to save on transport, slip on those trainers and get moving. Cycling is the next best option. Dublin Bikes is a city-wide bike rental service that allows you pick up and drop off your set of wheels at various stations for just a few Euro.

Dublin Bus, the DART Service, and the Luas are the three modes of public transport in Dublin, with lines extending beyond the city centre and into the suburbs and even Wicklow. If you choose to avail of this, purchase a Leap Card in order to get discounted prices and avoid the hassle of fumbling for change for a bus. Unfortunately, Grab and Uber don’t exist in Ireland, but taxis are plentiful. They can be extremely expensive, however, so probably best avoided unless all other options are exhausted.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/thrifty-guide-dublin-ireland/)

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Ireland’s battle to save our wildlife – Irish Examiner, September 3 2018

Amy Lewis highlights the measures taken in tackling crimes against Ireland’s wildlife and the need for more action.

Protecting the voiceless victims of wildlife crime is a constant battle.

The ongoing persecution of wildlife overseas is often highlighted but such incidences aren’t as far away from home as one might imagine. In fact, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Gardaí face them each week.

In July, two men were charged before Portlaoise District Court for the trapping of protected wild goldfinches using bait and rat glue.

Meanwhile, an investigation is underway in Louth regarding the unlawful killing of two peregrine falcons nesting in the Cooley Mountains.

However, these and other known cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Many cases go undiscovered because by their nature, they’re suspicious and secretive activities,” says Dr Barry O’ Donoghue from the NPWS Agri-Ecology Unit.

The stakes are being raised to combat wildlife criminals and their increasingly sophisticated methods.

An Garda Síochána recently announced plans for a wildlife crime training course. Commencing in September, it will equip specially-appointed inspectors from each Garda division with tools to recognise and deal with wildlife crime.

Each inspector will work closely with their opposite number in the NPWS.

“Information is key. We want to show [inspectors] what the main offences are and demonstrate how to deal with them and prosecute them in the District Court,” says Kildare Superintendent Martin Walker, who previously led the Garda’s anti-poaching investigation Operation Bambi alongside the NPWS.

Although the Wildlife Act is the principal legislation regarding wildlife crime, Supt Walker says prosecution powers within it are limited.

Through training, he hopes to encourage Gardaí to ‘think laterally’ about other legislation that relates to these cases.

A surreptitious nature is a common denominator among wildlife crimes but offences take many forms.

According to Supt Walker, the illegal hunting of deer at night using lamps or lurchers is common.

Indeed, the Irish Deer Commission recently reported a significant increase in deer poaching and badger baiting in the Midlands.

“That’s particularly cruel. These animals release stress hormones and the meat isn’t even fit for human consumption. It’s just an absolute bloodlust,” says Supt Walker.

Catching finches is widespread, as is hare poaching with hounds.

“People are hunting hares across farmer’s land. They’ve no authority to be there, farmers are afraid and sometimes their livestock is getting injured,” says Supt Walker, who says that poachers often use hunts as intelligence-gathering operations for farm theft.

Birds of prey are also regular targets. The RAPTOR (Recording and Addressing Persecution and Threats to Our Raptors) protocol is a collaborative approach between the NPWS, Regional Veterinary Laboratories and the State Laboratory to determine non-habitat related threats to birds of prey.

“We needed a mechanism of investigating and recording incidents, as well as using that data to inform and provide intelligence for addressing these issues,” says O’ Donoghue, who is a Project Investigator for RAPTOR.

The sixth and most recently published report showed that in 2016, there were 19 poisonings, six shootings and one incident involving a vehicle collision.

Common buzzards, red kites and peregrine falcons were the most highly-recorded victims.

Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland notes that peregrines are common targets.

While he says some crimes have been at the hand of pigeon-fanciers, he stresses that most people involved in this hobby wouldn’t harm peregrines in any way.

Project Manager of the White-tailed Sea Eagle Reintroduction Project Dr Allan Mee adds that peregrine chicks are sometimes taken from the wild by those without a licence.

“Buzzards are [also] being targeted because some see them as a threat to pheasants being released. Buzzards aren’t well-regarded by some gun clubs in parts of the country,” continues Mee, stressing that generally, his team have a good relationship with gun clubs.

“Buzzards were almost extinct in Ireland but now have spread across the country. There’s no earthly reason for anyone to persecute them,” adds Hatch.

People are sometimes worried that they’re a threat to lambs but they couldn’t kill a lamb in a million years. They’re nothing but a benefit to a farm as they kill rats and rabbits.

The RAPTOR report notes that some poisoning incidents, particularly those involving buzzards, red kites and barn owls are the result of bio-accumulation i.e. birds ingesting rodents that have been poisoned with rodenticides.

These cases are considered secondary and unintentional.

Through spreading awareness, Mee has seen that this can be mitigated.

Of 14 confirmed poisoning cases of white-tailed sea eagles, since their reintroduction from Norway commenced in 2007, Mee says not one has taken place since 2015.

He credits this to awareness, education and working with landowners.

“In the past when they were poisoned, it was largely because people weren’t aware that the birds were out there or of a change in their population.”

Some other poisoning incidents are more sinister, such the illegal placing of poisoned meat baits.

According to O’ Donoghue, some have been laced with enough poison to kill a human if touched and accidentally ingested.

To tackle these crimes, it’s universally agreed that more education and public awareness is key.

“We must engage with local communities so that they have someone they know and trust they can report something to,” says O’ Donoghue.

The 2013 and 2015 Wildlife Crime Conferences organised by Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland have helped to spread awareness.

The organisation, who run the information website Wildlifecrime.ie, will hold a public Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference in Slane this October which includes talks on wildlife crime.

Additionally, Hatch says that more resources could help.

“The NPWS needs to be much better resourced. They’re doing great work but are struggling because they don’t have the resources they need and deserve.”

Supt Walker hopes that with the upcoming training, potential plans for a wildlife crime recording system and liaising with various stakeholders, wildlife crime nationwide will be minimised.

This can be aided with the cooperation of the public.

If aware of a suspected wildlife crime, they should report it to the Gardaí and local NPWS ranger.

Supt Walker stresses that anyone who reports will have their anonymity fully respected.

(First published by the Irish Examiner on September 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/irelands-battle-to-save-our-wildlife-866228.html)

Machine minds: can AI play a role in mental health therapy? – Irish Times, August 23 2018

A welcome conversation surrounding mental health has arisen but as more people make the decision to reach out, too few find a supportive hand.

Not a week passes without a report on Ireland’s mental health system, where lengthy waiting lists, staff shortages and inadequate facilities are the rule rather than the exception. Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health Jim Daly recently announced plans to pilot mental health “web therapy”; signalling a growing recognition of the need for novel approaches.

The capabilities of technology in the mental health sphere continue to flourish and developing therapeutic applications based upon systems driven by artificial intelligence (AI), particularly chatbots, is one arena that’s rapidly expanding. Yet, if you needed to open up, would you reach out to a robot?

Bot benefits

While not specifically focused on AI, a study from the Applied Research for Connected Health (Arch) centre at UCD shows 94 per cent of Irish adults surveyed would be willing to engage with connected mental health technology.

Study co-author Dr Louise Rooney, a postdoctoral research fellow at Arch, says AI-based systems with a research and a patient-centred focus could be beneficial.

“I don’t think AI is the answer to everything or that it could fully replace therapy intervention but I think there’s a place for it at every juncture through the process of treatment; from checking in, to remote monitoring, even down to people getting information,” she says.

The latest Mental Health Commission report shows waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services can reach 15 months. Rooney believes AI-based therapy could be particularly useful for young people who “respond very well to connected mental health technology”. The anonymity of such platforms could also break down barriers for men, who are less likely to seek help than women.

Prof Paul Walsh from Cork Institute of Technology’s department of computer science feels that AI-driven tools can “improve the accessibility to mental health services” but won’t fully replace human therapy.

“For those who are vulnerable and need help late at night, there’s evidence to show [therapy chatbots using AI and NLP] can be an effective way of calming people,” says Walsh, who is currently researching how to build software and machine learning systems for people with cognitive disorders. “If someone’s worried or stressed and needs immediate feedback, it’s possible to give real-time response and support without visiting a therapist.”

Professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dr Brendan Kelly says AI-based platforms such as chatbots can help people to take control of their wellbeing in a positive manner.

“They can help people to take the first step into an arena that may be scary for them but I feel there will come a point that this is combined with, or replaced by, a real therapist,” adds the consultant psychiatrist based at TallaghtHospital.

Privacy concerns

Using AI-driven mental health therapy doesn’t come without concerns, one being privacy.

“Clearly it’s a very important issue and people shouldn’t use something that compromises their privacy but it’s not a deal-breaker,” says Kelly. “There are ways to ensure privacy which must be done but [fears and challenges] shouldn’t sink the boat.”

Being completely transparent with users about data collection and storage is key, Rooney adds.

Whether AI can determine someone’s ability to consent to therapy is another potential caveat raised by Rooney. However, she feels that forming “watertight legislation” for this technology and ensuring it’s backed by research can help to overcome this and other potential pitfalls.

While most current tools in this field focus on mental wellbeing and not severe problems, Walsh raises the potential of false negatives should AI decide somebody has a chronic illness. To avoid this, it’s important to keep a human in the loop.

“Many machine-learning systems are really hard to analyse to see how they make these judgements,” he adds. “We’re working on ways to try to make it more amenable to inspection.”

As potentially anybody can engineer a system, Walsh recommends avoiding anything without a “vast paper trail” of evidence.

“These will have to go through rigorous clinical trials,” he says. “We need policing and enforcement for anything making medical claims.”

Humans could become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case with Eliza, a chatbot developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. However, Walsh doubts they will ever be as addictive or as great a threat as things like online gambling.

While the sentiment that AI-based therapy will assist rather than replace human therapy is quite universal, so is the view it can have a great impact.

“Achieving optimum mental health involves being open to all different ingredients, mixing it up and making a cake. AI can be part of that,” says Rooney.

If well regulated, Walsh says AI can augment humans in terms of treating people.

“I’m hopeful that benefits would be accentuated and the negatives or risks could be managed,” says Kelly. “The fact that it’s difficult and complex doesn’t mean we should shy away, just that we must think how best to capture the benefits of this technology.”

Brains behind the bots

Stanford psychologist and UCD PhD graduate Dr Alison Darcy is the brains behind Woebot: a chatbot combining artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioural therapy for mental health management.

“The goal is to make mental health radically accessible. Accessibility goes beyond the regular logistical things like trying to get an appointment,” explains the Dublin native, who conducted a randomised control trial of Woebot before launching. “It also includes things like whether it can be meaningfully integrated into everyday life.”

Darcy is clear that Woebot isn’t a replacement for human therapy, nor will he attempt to diagnose. In the interest of privacy, all data collected is treated as if users are in a clinical study.

Not intended for severe mental illness, Woebot is clear about what he can do. If he detects someone in crisis, Woebot declares the situation is beyond his reach and provides helplines and a link to a clinically-proven suicide-prevention app.

Originally from Wexford, Máirín Reid has also harnessed the capabilities of AI in the mental health sphere through Cogniant. Founded in Singapore with business partner Neeraj Kothari, it links existing clinicians and patients to allow for non-intrusive patient monitoring between sessions.

It’s currently being utilised by public health providers in Singapore with the aim of preventing relapses and aiding efficiency for human therapists. As Cogniant is recommended to users by human therapists, decisions on consent capabilities are formed by humans.

“Our on-boarding process is very clinically-driven,” says Reid. “We’re not there to replace, but to complement.”

While not intended for high-risk patients, Cogniant has an escalation process that connects any highly-distressed users to their therapist and provides supports. There’s also a great emphasis on privacy and being transparent from the offset.

“Clinicians are saying it drives efficiency and they can treat patients more effectively. Patients find it’s non-intrusive and not judgmental in any form.”

(First published by the Irish Times on August 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/machine-minds-can-ai-play-a-role-in-mental-health-therapy-1.3598546)

Watching from the wings – Irish Examiner, August 13 2018

Just a stone’s throw away from the world-acclaimed Wexford Opera House, it’s easy to get a front-row seat at arguably the best and most diverse show in town. This is a show where nature takes to the stage.

On this summer afternoon, now unfamiliar clouds serve as a slow-moving backdrop while swallows dip and dive over the gently lapping water.

Ducks of various varieties bob along before a heron swoops in from the wings, causing an eruption of squabbles and commotion. Unaware of the fuss, a pair of goldfinches dance and whistle around one another before settling on a nearby swaying branch.

The smell of salty sea air wafts in through the open door. Wind whispers through the reeds. As far as shows go, it’s certainly a feast for the senses.

All of this unravels before the Pump House Hide overlooking Wexford Wildfowl Reserve’s main water channel. It is one of the reserve’s three bird hides – a simple shelter used to observe wildlife at close range without disturbance.

Birdwatching from the hides or the reserve’s elevated observation tower gives people the chance to remain sheltered from the elements while still getting to witness nature’s spectacles. In fact, nature often brings itself even closer.

Next to the wooden bench I’m perched upon is a sign requesting that hide windows are left open, to allow for the resident swallows to return to their nests. Sure enough, a mud-bound dwelling is nestled into the wooden ceiling above my head. In the upper floor of the hide, which overlooks Wexford Harbour, there are several more.

Despite the myriad of activities, Education Officer at the reserve John Kinsella tells me that summer is quiet season. A ‘ballpark figure of 260 species’ have been recorded on the 200-hectare reserve, which is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and jointly owned with BirdWatch Ireland. Many birds will arrive later this year.

Perhaps the most famous winter residents are the Greenland White-fronted geese, whose expected time of arrival is October.

The reserve welcomes up to 8,000 of the visitors – approximately 45 per cent of the world population – each winter and many birders swoop in to greet them after their long journey.

“The geese have a 15 to 18-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland, their halfway point,” explains John, adding that they stop for four weeks in Iceland before taking the second 18-hour flight to our shores.

“By the time they reach Ireland, they have lost above half a kilo in bodyweight, which is the equivalent of about two stone for us humans.”

This is no issue for Europe’s rarest geese, who replenish their energy stores by feeding up on rye grasses and sugar beet in the following months. The geese remain in Ireland, as well as their other wintering spot in Scotland, before making the journey back to Western Greenland in April.

However, John points out that one individual has decided to stick around a bit longer. From the reserve’s eight-metre high observation tower, a lone goose with a distinctive orange bill can be spied sitting comfortably in a field.

While unsure as to why he remains, John says that the goose is healthy and will likely return to Greenland next year. The influx of Greenland White-fronted geese is an indication that winter is coming, says John. “Cue Game of Thrones music,” he laughs. Until then, there’s still always something to be seen.

From the tower, a group of godwits can be seen prodding in the grass for food with their strikingly-long beaks. Several curlews walk among them, likely migrant birds rather than members of our breeding population, which has declined by 96 per cent since the 1980s.

Little terns, sedge warblers and great-crested grebes are just some of the other birds that can be spotted in summer, while pale-bellied brent geese, Slavonian grebes and great northern divers may be ticked off the list in winter.

The North Slob is also an Irish Hare sanctuary and we spot two on the grass as evening sets in, while at least five species of bat have been recorded here.

In the summertime, the reserve plays host to several events, including the popular weekly pond-dipping and bug discovery activities. This year, a special photography exhibition telling the reserve’s story will be held in the Visitor Centre during Heritage Week in advance of the 50th anniversary in 2019.

While the reserve was officially established in 1969, its history began long before that. The North Slob, where the reserve is located, is a 1,000-hectare mudflat that was reclaimed from the sea for farmland in the 1840’s.

Nowadays, along with being a Nature Reserve, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve forms part of the larger Wexford Slobs and Harbour Special Protected Area (SPA) – a habitat designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of birds.

The remainder of the North Slob still consists of farmland and the reserve team liaise with local farmers to ensure birds are not disturbed. When the geese arrive, local landowners are subsidised for halting any potentially disruptive agricultural activity on nearby land.

“Goodwill is very high,” says John when asked about cooperation.

Bar the occasional incident with poachers and this year’s heavy snow – more problematic for reserve staff and visitors than birds – John says the reserve has been confronted with few challenges since its foundation. However, they are faced with an issue universal to most environmental efforts: climate change.

Last year, the reserve welcomed less Greenland White-fronted geese than usual. Although ongoing long-term research must be completed to be certain, it’s believed this is a result of climate change.

However, scientists are not yet sure exactly how this affects them or whether the decline will change.

Butterfly walks on the reserve have also yielded less sightings than usual.

Only time will tell what the consequences of our rapidly changing planet will be for birdlife worldwide. In the meantime, staff here will continue to do what they can to protect the many species that call Wexford Wildfowl Reserve home.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on August 13 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/watching-from-the-wings-where-nature-takes-centre-stage-861738.html)

Would you trust a robot with your mind? – Asian Scientist, August 3 2018

When it comes to allowing others inside our heads, most of us only crack open the door for a select few, likely close family members or trusted psychologists. But if you were really struggling, would you consider sharing your innermost thoughts with a robot?

Robot therapists aren’t as far-fetched as you might think. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed ELIZA, an early chatbot that could emulate the conversations of a psychotherapist. Since then, many increasingly sophisticated applications bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the mental health realm have emerged.

The brainchild of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot combines machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to assess users’ moods and offer them appropriate cognitive behavioral therapy. Emotionally intelligent chatbot Wysa, developed by Indian entrepreneurs Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, uses AI and NLP techniques to track users’ emotions and act as their virtual mental wellness coach. Singapore-born Cogniant integrates AI technology with face-to-face therapy and aims to prevent mental illness relapses by monitoring existing patients and assisting them with therapy goals.

AI and mental health: what are the risks?

In 2018, an estimated 340 million people in Asia will require mental health services. With professional help shortages, rural isolation, high costs and stigma being the main obstacles to treatment, AI-centered mental health innovations could be particularly pertinent in the region. Yet, could involving AI in something as potentially delicate as mental health pose any threat?

Given that AI is currently used for mental health diagnostics and wellness coaching rather than treatment, Professor Pascale Fung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says privacy is the main concern.

“For AI to do a good job, it needs access to patient records, past history and family medical knowledge. Security and safety of this data is very important. There are concerns about AI being hacked or data being stolen for other purposes,” she says. “On the other hand, that’s something we should be worried about when dealing with patient records anyway.”

Indeed, researchers have noted that the misuse of sensitive information shared between a patient and AI can have significant consequences, for both the user and the profession’s integrity. To avoid distrust, it’s important for developers to fully disclose data policies to users from the beginning, says Mr. Neeraj Kothari, co-founder of Cogniant. He says that users can then make an informed decision about what they share.

“We have signed an agreement to say we won’t sell data to a third party,” he adds. “The best way we can progress is to demonstrate through action that we are here to help, not to harm.”

Another risk is that humans could potentially become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case for many of ELIZA’s ‘patients,’ who believed that they were truly conversing with a human. This led to the coining of the phrase ‘the ELIZA effect,’ which describes the tendency of people to assume computer behaviors are equivalent to human behaviors. However, while acknowledging the need for more research in this area, Fung doesn’t believe this problem is unique to AI—people also become attached to devices such as mobile phones and television sets, she says.

“In every generation, there have always been concerns with new technology. When it becomes obsessive, people go to professionals for help.”

People may also joke with or lie to AI, but such instances can be minimized through the use of deception detection techniques like facial recognition, says Kothari.

“In general, if AI is designed for the benefit of patients and is non-judgmental and non-intrusive, there will be no reason to lie to the AI.”

The possibility of deception has more to do with human responsibility than technological downfalls, adds Fung.

“[AI] is a tool and what people decide to do with it is up to humans.”

Complementing, not replacing

Most researchers in the field acknowledge that AI is not a therapist replacement, but believe that it can be a supporting tool. Professor Zhu Tingshao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, for example, developed an AI-based system currently integrated into Weibo that recognizes people who express suicidal thoughts; subsequently, it sends them hotline numbers and messages of support. While the researchers can’t determine if people subsequently seek help, Zhu says the technology is still a proactive step towards suicide prevention.

“Right now when it comes to suicide intervention, we need the [suicidal] people to do the contacting themselves. [But] few people with a problem want to actively ask for help,” says Zhu, who adds that the tool has received positive feedback so far. “We cannot take the place of psychologists or counselling professionals, but we can help people know their mental health status and, if needed, provide some help in time [to prevent suicide].”

Ms. Bhairavi Prakash, founder of The Mithra Trust, an Indian organization that runs wellbeing initiatives combining technology and community engagement, believes that AI can be useful for promoting wellness. However, she too doesn’t think that it can provide complete treatment, especially for severe mental illness. Attempting to apply it to such cases could be dangerous, and should not be attempted until the technology is more sophisticated, she says.

“You don’t know if AI is triggering the person, you can’t see their facial reactions,” says the work and organizational psychologist. “If someone is delusional or hallucinating and talking to the AI, it won’t know how much is real.”

Legislation also needs to catch up before AI is assigned more tasks, adds Prakash. For example, human psychologists may be required by law to notify the authorities if a patient shows signs of wanting to harm others, but it’s unclear how such cases should be handled by AI.

Fung echoes the need for clearer legislation, saying that humans must still remain in the loop for important decisions such as medication prescriptions.

“Machines aren’t perfect. Humans aren’t either, but we do have laws or regulations [to deal with] human error or medical accidents. We don’t really have very good regulations for machine error.”

In the future, Fung envisions AI helping to create better personalized treatment plans, while Zhu says it will make mental health services more efficient. Prakash feels AI-based tools will encourage people to make the initial step in seeking help.

“In conversations people have with [AI], they are so open because there is zero judgment. They can talk about anything. That is extremely liberating and great for mental wellness.”

(First published by Asian Scientist on August 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/08/features/artificial-intelligence-mental-health/)

Umbrella Species: Conservation’s Poster Children – The Scientist, August 1 2018

Regardless of how sturdy your umbrella is, someone’s always going to get left out in the rain.

The concept of umbrella species is the central tenet of a conservation strategy that focuses on protecting the habitat of one species in the hope of protecting many others in the same ecosystem. But recent research questions the effectiveness of this strategy. It’s likely that not every species whose range overlaps with that of an umbrella species will benefit—in fact, some may even suffer as a result of the interventions—and conservationists are beginning to call for a revaluation of this conservation approach.

“There’s a misinterpretation of the concept that an umbrella species is going to shelter everything under the umbrella,” says John Wiens, a retired ecologist formerly of Colorado State University who most recently served as chief scientist for a number of conservation nonprofits. “Like all things in ecology, it’s not as simple as it looks.”

study published this May on the use of the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as an umbrella species illustrates the problem. After three years of ecological monitoring in an area where the sagebrush had been mowed to improve nesting habitat for the sage-grouse, researchers from the University of Wyoming found that two “background” species, the Brewer’s sparrow (Spizella breweri) and sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), fared less well than they would have without the habitat alteration. This was likely due to differences between the species in nest site preferences. While ground-nesting sage-grouse are thought to prefer mowed sites due to the increased availability of food for their chicks, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher nest almost exclusively in shrubs, habitat that was largely wiped out by the mowing. The overall abundance of Brewer’s sparrow remained the same, but the overall abundance of sage thrashers decreased by nearly 50 percent.

“This paper focused on the fact that we don’t always just protect, we often manage the habitat, and that can have unanticipated consequences,” says Jason Carlisle, a former University of Wyoming graduate student and lead author of the study. While not surprised at the results, he hopes that they will encourage others to adopt caution when carrying out habitat management.

We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.

—Jason Carlisle, University of Wyoming

Just because it can act as a double-edged sword, however, conservationists shouldn’t throw the umbrella species concept out of the conservation toolbox, says University of California, Davis, behavioral ecologist Tim Caro. Rather, he says, researchers and managers should be aware of the approach’s limitations and critically evaluate its effectiveness in meeting intended goals.

“The heart of the problem is there are always going to be trade-offs,” notes Wiens. “You need to do an analysis of who benefits and who loses, and then you can assess whether the trade-offs are worth it.”

Choosing the best representative

Evaluating those trade-offs depends on what background species are considered. For example, the jaguar(Panthera onca) is often cited as an effective umbrella species for many large mammals across Central America, but smaller critters, such as hares, moles, and shrews, aren’t as well shielded by habitat protections designed to conserve jaguar numbers. Similarly, a study assessing the effectiveness of using the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) as an umbrella species in British Columbia found that while fish species with similar resource and habitat requirements benefitted, most amphibians inhabiting some of the same freshwater ecosystems as the salmon did not. And Carlisle and his colleagues have found that species with similar habitats and traits to those of the sage-grouse, such as sagebrush sparrows (Artemisiospiza nevadensis),  vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis), were protected better than others.

For an umbrella strategy to benefit as many co-occurring species as possible, researchers must choose a species that best represents the ecosystem and all it encompasses. “It’s clear that picking the right umbrella species is key,” says Carlisle, now a biometrician at the environmental and statistical consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. While researchers are still working out what makes a species a good umbrella, there are a few characteristics that conservationists generally aim for, including a large range and ease of sampling. In addition, umbrella species should be sensitive to human disturbances while being unlikely to become endangered or go extinct.

Barry Noon, an ecologist at Colorado State University, suggests adding one more trait. “The umbrella species should be one that uses a diversity of resources or habitat types for different life history stages.” Other scientists have argued for the use of multiple umbrella species, whose spatial, compositional, and functional requirements are different from one another and, collectively, encompass those of all other species in the ecosystem.

Whatever species are chosen, researchers must continue to evaluate their suitability to represent the ecosystem. Noon and his colleagues have demonstrated, for example, that while the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was initially an effective umbrella in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, after a significant drop in its population—first due to logging of old-growth forest required for nesting, then as a result of the barred owl’s (Strix varia) unexpected invasion—it was no longer a suitable representative of the ecosystem.

“Initially the northern spotted owl was a good umbrella,” says Noon, explaining that this was because it uses forest habitats of varying levels of maturity throughout its lifespan. “Now, if we use the [umbrella] criteria and look at its viability, northern spotted owls are in significant decline,” he says. Rare and declining species are less likely to make effective umbrellas, as they occur in so few locations and are less likely to protect others.

Umbrellas rally support

Taking a step back from the umbrella species concept to focus on simply protecting a large area could be a better approach for wildlife conservation than focusing on one or several species, says Noon. In fact, many of the more successful umbrella studies suggest that focusing on a broad area, rather than the umbrella species themselves, as the reason the conservation efforts proved effective, he notes. Indeed, Caro’s analysis of East African reserves that were established 50 years ago using large mammals as umbrellas suggests that background species have been well protected because most reserves were initially large. Similarly, in a study published last August, Carlisle and colleagues found that priority areas for conservation (PACs) set up to protect the greater sage-grouse in the western U.S. were no more effective than randomly selected PACs of the same size at protecting golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

But selecting an umbrella species is often helpful for getting political and social support to protect areas, Carlisle says, noting that focusing on the iconic sage-grouse was what garnered support for the protection of the 70 million acres of the Midwestern grasslands in which it resides. This makes it a “flagship-umbrella” species, meaning that it combines the functions of a flagship species—to promote public awareness and raise conservation funds—with the intended role of an umbrella species, to protect co-occurring species and habitats. Caro argues that such flagship-umbrella species could be a boon to conservation efforts. Indeed, a 2016 study demonstrated that the flagship species the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) could also be an effective umbrella species because its range overlaps with many other endemic species in China.

But the criticism of umbrella species strategies is valid, says Carlisle, and it’s important to be realistic about the approach’s weaknesses and assess what background species need for protection. “We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.”

INFOGRAPHIC: CHOOSING THE RIGHT UMBRELLA

Umbrella species are often chosen to represent an ecosystem in need of protection. The idea is that protecting the umbrella species will indirectly benefit habitat and other species in the area. But the strategy has its weaknesses. There are three varieties of the umbrella species concept as coined by Tim Caro in his book Conservation by Proxy—classic, local, and management— each of which is liable to fail if implemented incorrectly or in the wrong circumstances.

Classic umbrella strategy

Assumes that if researchers can protect the area that contains a viable population of an umbrella species, that effort will also maintain viable populations of other species in the area.

Risk: The reserve might not be big enough to cover viable populations of other species of concern.

Example: The jaguar (Panthera onca) served as an effective umbrella species for protecting other large mammals in Latin America but was less effective at shielding smaller animals such as rodents, likely due to differences in the size and scale of their respective habitats.

Local umbrella strategy

Makes no viability assumptions, instead simply assuming that protecting the areas where an umbrella species is present will also protect many other species in the same area.

Risk: Other species of conservation concern might not co-occur with the umbrella species and might therefore be unprotected.

Example: The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was found to be a good local umbrella species in the Italian Alps, offering protection for other birds species as well as butterflies and other background species. In northern Japan, however, despite being an effective umbrella for a variety of birds, goshawks were not effective as an indicator of the species diversity of butterflies, beetles, or native forest-floor plants.

Management umbrella strategy

Assumes that planned human management and intervention targeting an umbrella species will benefit a suite of other species in the same area.

Risk: The management actions taken to benefit the umbrella species might harm other species.

Example: In Wyoming, mowing intended to benefit the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) resulted in a higher abundance of vesper sparrows but lower abundance of Brewer’s sparrows and sage thrashers, likely due to differences in land use.

(First published by The Scientist on August 1 2018. Available online at: https://www.the-scientist.com/features/umbrella-species–conservations-poster-children-64507)

What lies beneath: protected habitats under pressure – Irish Independent, July 15 2018

Ireland is famed worldwide for its rugged and seemingly untouched landscape.

Amid images of rainforest destruction, bleached coral reefs and plastic seas elsewhere, our country appears to outshine others as a natural haven. Yet, what’s below the surface isn’t always quite as idyllic. Do some digging and it becomes clear that we too have many habitats that are being pushed to their limits.

Evidence of this comes in a recent study published in Science, which highlights that one-third of protected land worldwide is “under intense human pressure”. From an Irish perspective, the researchers note that 81pc of the country’s protected land is subject to such strain, which includes pressure from urban centres, intensive agriculture, pasture lands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways and navigable waterways.

This corresponds with figures in the most recent report on ‘The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland’ (known as the Article 17 Report) compiled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2013. It showed that 91pc of the country’s EU protected habitats were in poor condition, with 50pc categorised as ‘inadequate’ and 41pc labelled ‘bad’. The next report is due out next year.

While there’s evident disparity between the figures, likely a result of the different measuring tools used, the stark conclusion formed by both is the same.

LAW OF THE LAND

To understand how we got here, it’s important to note the several categories of protected habitats in Ireland. The most significant at a European and national level are the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). SACs, which cover approximately 13,500 sq km of the country, are areas selected and designated under the EU Habitats Directive to protect unique habitats and species. They include raised and blanket bogs, sand dunes, heaths and woodlands, to name a few. SPAs, which comprise of over 570,000 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitats, were designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of wild birds. At a national level, and subject to less regulations, are the National Heritage Areas (NHA) and predominantly state-owned Nature Reserves and National Parks.

There are several reasons why our protected habitats have been degraded despite such stringent legislative framework, according to Conor Linehan, head of environmental and planning law with William Fry.

“The Birds Directive came about in 1979 and the Habitats Directive in 1992, but we really only started to take them seriously around 1997,” he explains.

“That 20-year period in which we have been giving effect to the requirements of these laws – and it has taken a long time to get to grips with them – has coincided more or less with a period where there has been a drive to upgrade waste infrastructure, roads infrastructure, energy infrastructure and agriculture.”

The boost in tourism and Ireland’s widely dispersed population are other factors, according to Linehan.

A lack of resources for conservation is an additional reason why these areas are more protected by name than by nature, says senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Dr Tomás Murray.

“If the laws were fully implemented, everything would be fine,” he explains. “At present, approximately 16.8pc of our landscape is designated for nature conservation. Under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, that must be 17pc by 2020 so, on paper, we’re pretty close to the international target. Implementation for legislation on those lands is needed but the resources to support conservation objectives for these areas just isn’t there.”

When looking at these figures, it’s also important to note that not all degradation on protected land arises from local activity, says professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin, Yvonne Buckley.

UNDER PRESSURE

The main pressures to habitats are ecologically-unsuitable grazing levels, freshwater pollution, drainage and cutting of peatlands and wetlands, invasive species, forestry and recreational pressures. The habitats of most pressing concern are species-rich grasslands and bogs.

“In the range of peatland habitats and species-rich grasslands, agriculture intensification is a particular pressure,” says advocacy officer with An Taisce, Ian Lumley.

“Land reclamation, drainage, removal of habitats and replanting of those areas with monoculture rye grass for cattle grazing, this all puts increased pressure on these habitats.”

Lumley adds that these factors, coupled with the wider use of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides are linked to a decline in butterfly, bee and ground-nesting bird species. To resolve these issues, he says, it’s vital that the conflict between governmental plans for environmental protection and agricultural intensification is addressed and that more “area-based strategies” are introduced.

“On one hand you have a plan to protect biodiversity and habitats, on the other you have the cattle herd increasing” he says, noting that the rise is due to current targets for agricultural intensification.

Murray says that while farming can lead to habitat degradation, it can also be the solution to it, provided that farmers are supported. He says there’s a need for “effective agri-environment schemes” which support small-scale farmers to farm sustainably while at the same time, provide incentives for those who farm intensively to leave land to nature.

“In many places east of the Shannon, we have rich agricultural systems that cover large areas of our landscape. It always will be more profitable for farmers there to farm than not farm, so in this case, it isn’t about more sustainable agricultural practices, we need to pay them not to farm. It is this land sharing versus land sparing debate.” Indeed, agriculture is not the only driver of habitat decline. In fact, completely abandoning agricultural land can have negative consequences, notes Buckley from TCD.

“The Burren is the best example where, if traditional ways of farming are dropped because it’s no longer economically-viable, you will get an invasion of hazel into very diverse wildflower meadows. If you have wall-to-wall hazel, it’s not great for biodiversity.”

While our raised and blanket bogs – assessed as ‘bad’ and ‘declining’ in the previous Article 17 report – have been affected by agriculture, and-use, peat-extraction has been a key driver in their decline.

“Some of our peat bogs are very precious in terms of biodiversity so we should be protecting them. But there’s often conflict between people who want to use them for fuel and those who look at conserving them. Conflict can lead to delays in management and even lack of management,” says Buckley.

Meanwhile, the forestry industry and our growing list off invasive species such as Japanese knotweed are also doing damage to our habitats.When it comes to the status of marine habitats, the waters are a little murky. Under the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework directive, Ireland has committed to establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) across 10pc of our seas and coastlines by 2020 but to date, only 2.3pc has been designated, one of the lowest percentages in the EU. In light of this, a motion calling on the Government to act on these agreements was recently introduced and subsequently passed in the Seanad.”Ireland is emerging as being particularly behind on marine protection. Because we haven’t designated protected marine areas yet, we don’t have reporting on areas showing how well or badly we are faring,” says Lumley from An Taisce.

MAKING PROGRESS

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom for our habitats.

Buckley notes some positive sustainable agriculture initiatives, such as the BurrenLIFE and AranLIFE projects, which fund sustainable agricultural management of the priority habitats in The Burren and Aran Islands respectively.

She adds that citizen science initiatives, including bee and butterfly monitoring schemes launched by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, have proven beneficial as they help to increase the public’s appreciation of the natural world.

Additionally, there has been some movement in the area of bog protection and restoration. Lodge Bog in Kildare is one example of a good news story.

“Lodge Bog was given to the Irish Peat Conservation Council in the early 2000s by Bord na Móna. It had been drained but not cut over yet,” says natural environment officer with An Taisce, Elaine McGoff. “Since then, they have blocked all the grounds, used corrugated plastic and put in drains which allowed the water to rise again.

“Because they acted on it as quickly as possible, there are areas of actively growing bog now.”

Now designated as a nature reserve, Lodge Bog has a rich diversity of wildlife with over 388 plants, birds and animals calling it home, including the iconic and endangered curlew.

The Abbeyleix Bog Project is another one of a selection of projects helping with bog protection and recovery, notes McGoff. Another notable step up came in 2015, when €5.4m in EU funding was granted for the restoration of Active Raised Bog in Ireland’s SAC network. This work will continue until 2020.

On another note, Linehan from William Fry says that recent years have seen an improved understanding of our requirements under the Habitats and Birds Directive by planning bodies,.

FORWARD THINKING

It’s clear that human activity in many forms is behind much of the decline of our protected habitats. Rather than abandoning these activities altogether, Buckley from TCD says creating a diverse landscape that melds pockets of these activities with untouched habitats is the way forward. Another way of helping our habitats is by introducing public payments for ecosystem services.

“These areas provide people with clean water, water filtration, beauty, clean air, and health benefits,” she says. “If we want those benefits, we do need to pay for them, either through taxes or direct payments.”

Directly engaging the public in nature is another step forward that we can make, says Murray from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, who says that environmental education should not just be focused on those of school age.

“There has to be a much broader education resource that can get people outside to teach people about Irish wildlife and encourage them to become interested.”

Engagement will also lead people to consider environmental issues when voting, continues Murray, who says that overall, nature conservation is not a priority for the Irish voting public. Finally, he suggests expanding or adding to our existing nature reserves.

Along with the aforementioned government actions, Lumley also suggests some practical actions that can be taken by members of the public. These include joining local conservation groups and Tidy Towns initiatives, making your garden wildlife-friendly by reducing chemical usage and moving towards a more plant-based diet.

However, more resources for environmental protection are what’s truly needed.

“All of this is futile unless we take the protection of nature seriously and we resource that protection more effectively, both legally and financially, as well as equally,” says Lumley.

Murray agrees, saying that our environmental problems are not due to lack of knowledge, but a lack of resources.

“For me, there’s little you can do without resources for conservation in Ireland,” echoes Buckley.

‘No one is leading farmers on this’

With the right knowledge and ­resources, Donal Sheehan believes farmers can serve as friends of the environment.

Driven by his passion for nature, the Cork-based dairy farmer has incorporated various measures such as bird feeders, rainwater harvesting systems and pollinator corridors into his farming practice.

Sheehan notes that a lack of both knowledge and financial incentives can serve as barriers to some farmers who want to move to more sustainable practices.

“There is a huge appetite from farmers. They want to do it, but there’s no one leading them,” says Sheehan, who is based in Castlelyons.

One way he hopes to tackle this issue is through locally-led projects. Sheehan is currently the project manager of the BRIDE (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) project in the Bride Valley in east Cork.

This project – which was selected by the Department of Agriculture and the EU under the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) funding programme – rewards farmers who protect important wildlife habitats on their farmland, such as hedgerows, bogs, woodland and ponds.

Over a five-year period, the wildlife on these farms will be assessed and farmers will be rewarded on a unique results-based payment system, i.e. one that sees higher payments for higher wildlife gains.

The project, which is one of our first to focus on intensive farmland, was designed by local farmers for local farmers.

“This is for habitats, species and people in the Bride valley. If farmers can focus on their own immediate area, you will get better buy-in from others as it’s local and people will feel the effects locally,” he says, adding that much of the farmland by the Bride riverbank is an SAC (Special Area of Conservation).

“This is one way we can solve the many environmental issues.”

(First published in the Irish Independent Review on July 15 2018. Available online at: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/what-lies-beneath-protected-habitats-under-pressure-37112290.html)