Interviewing Albert Lin: A new age of exploration

Interviewing Albert Lin: A new age of exploration
Photo Credit: Mike Hennig

Photo Credit: Mike Hennig

On August 30, National Geographic explorer Albert Lin will be coming to Singapore as part of the National Geographic Live series and share his experience on chasing ancient mysteries. His personal quest to seek for the lost remnants of Mongolia through the innovative use of technology and the collective public sets to redefine what it means to be a modern day explorer. I had the privilege to interview this trailblazer of an explorer.

So sit back and enjoy this interview with Albert Lin.


OKJ: How has your experience been in sharing the story of the Valley of Khans for years, to thousands of people across the globe?

Albert Lin: I have been able to share this story all over this story all over the planet from places ranging from Asia to the United States to Europe to South Africa even. I was able to give this lecture at a National Science Fair in South Africa and it was incredible because here's a story about Mongolia and the question was how did this relate to people across South Africa.

I had this one little sound recording of a shaman with these drums that were being played in a rhythmic pattern. And the people in the audience, even though most of the story was about this journey, when it got to that drum section, they related to it in a deep and powerful way because it was the same sort of ancestral sound that they knew very well – this deep booming drum.

And what that kind of felt like was that this was not a story of just one culture but it is a story of our human experience. When you get down to the idea of shamans and nomads and what they were talking about - it was about maintaining a respect for your tradition, for your culture, for your past; and that applies across any society and any culture.

OKJ: What about the people who live in modern societies such as New York and Singapore where most people live their lives in a cityspace. From your experience, how do these people relate to your storytelling?

This is an exciting moment in our time where those innovations may lead to great changes in how we see the world.
Albert Lin: I grew up in a lot of different places but also in the bay area during the midst of the tech boom back in the 90s and 2000s. A lot of the tools that I bring to the story were tools that we created through the same sense of innovation and problem solving that you see in the modern startup world where everything is driven by innovation.

Really what it is is that we are trying to solve a problem, trying to solve different problems or coming up with different ways of solving that problem. But it is a big adventure of how we solve that problem. You don’t really know how your idea or your way of doing it might turn out, you just have to try. And so, the story that I am going to tell in August is one that follows this very true and romantic story of exploration where we are going to the unknown to search for something that had been missing for 800 years but we are doing so through the lens of modern technology so that we can maintain a respect for the tradition and that my technology was the sort of things that we innovated on the fly.

For a lot of people, in today’s day and age, where technology evolves so rapidly, this is an exciting moment in our time where those innovations may lead to great changes in how we see the world. It’s in part that sense of (us wanting to) tinker, play and develop new technologies and solutions that overcome the challenges we face every day and when we do that enough we might answer some real big questions and I think a lot of people across different demographics can relate to that.

OKJ: You have a PHd in engineering and yet you are pursuing a career that does not seem to be related to engineering. How did your expertise in engineering help you in your exploration?

I realise that we are in this new age of exploration
Albert Lin: I think, throughout life, we go through these points of reflection. It is not only about your career but it is about your deep general search of purpose in life right? And when I finished my PHd, it was just a moment that I knew I had to be on the road, that I needed to be out in the world, I had to go back to Asia because I had grown up in the West and I needed to know more about my ancestry and my roots. I traveled through China to Mongolia and all over Asia. And it began really as a soul searching experience. I needed to know who I am first and foremost. And so I basically sold everything I had, got a plane ticket, had very little money and did that.

But along the way, I found this very important part of history that had these big question in them. At the same time, I was listening to these couple of people that were showing me these very interesting things of applying technology in new ways to these sorts of compelling questions. There is a guy that uses biomedical imaging tool to search for lost Leonardo Davinci artworks that were thought to be missing between two walls. So there are really cool stuff happening in the world of exploration right now and actually I realise that we are in this new age of exploration where data being collected in ways that we could never had imagined before and its like the amount of discovery that’s about to happen is just unbelievable. It will be a watershed moment for us once we figure out how to get through all these data.

And it gets back to all these very root sort of questions such as why is technology always been a part of exploration? Well, technology and engineering - engineering is a practice you do to try to solve a problem. You solve a problem through some sort of innovation but the problem you might be facing could be generated by your curiosity. I think exploration is really driven by the human condition of being curious and we innovate and engineer in order to fulfill that human tradition.

And when you look back at National Geographic as a society, it was actually founded 125 years ago by an engineer, Alexander Gram Bell, with a few other people. (An engineer) founded this society which is now so iconically linked to exploration and I think it is because it is really just about trying to finding new ways to go beyond what you could currently do at this current state by finding ways to fix through a challenge and that’s what innovation is.
Photo Credit: University of California

Photo Credit: University of California

OKJ: Your technique of making big data accessible to the public was an innovative way of mobilising a collective effort for exploration. Do you see that technique becoming mainstream for other explorers to adopt?

Albert Lin: I totally see that being the way of the future. Right now, we are very used to a one way conversation of information where someone publishes something and you read about it. But I think that the future of our interconnectivity and how we organise ourselves is going to be much more organic and it’s a two way conversation.

And when you look at the way we organise ourselves now digitally, new information emerges from the ground up in really powerful ways and I do think that this is going to happen more often. In fact, it is a better way to even pursue some of the scientific questions that are out there.

The truth is that the human mind is incredibly powerful. In terms of human perception, it is still more powerful than the best computer vision algorithms. It’s just been a challenge to scale up the power of the human mind to deal with massive data sizes that we face but through our interconnectivity we can easily do that.I think one of the most exciting things that is going to come out of our connected age is that we are going to be able to create information as human societies that are organised and meaningful and gain insights into things that we couldn’t get otherwise
Photo Credit: University of California

Photo Credit: University of California

OKJ: Part of your non-invasive exploration is the use of scanning technology to create virtual reality maps of the area. How do you see the upcoming mainstream adoption of Virtual Reality affect your efforts in history conservation?

Albert Lin: In archaeology, even in the traditional form of archaeology, when you dig something up, a lot of times you will have to fill it back in afterwards, its called backfilling. I spend a lot of time in the juggles of Guatemala recently where a friend of mine was running a dig and they were excavating this ancient Maya temple inside another Maya temple. Afterwards, they had to fill it up because they collected all the data and they done all the drawings so they filled it up. So really, nobody will ever see it again in its raw form. Unless we collect the 3D data that can create these immersive experiences that become more rich and powerful.

I really do think that this can be a way in which we share these sort of very compelling stories of not just our past – It is who we are and where we came from. Our view of our world is limited to such a short amount of time. But even in your own character - who you are, the way you interact - it is just a continuation of the people that came before you. You carry with you the culture, the expressions, the experiences, the love, the trauma, all of it from before.

So you can get a feeling of the past and maybe the world that you see today becomes richer and beautiful. It shouldn’t just be relegated to the few that are able to be part of that expedition because it is all of our shared cultural heritage and I think that Virtual Reality as a tool that we are about to explode onto the scene in a big way. Virtual Reality is going to make an entirely rich and beautiful experience for people to open their minds in a whole new realm of our human existence.
The story that I am going to tell in August is one that follows this very true and romantic story of exploration

It was a pleasure to have interviewed Albert Lin. If you want to learn more of his experiences, be sure to find out about his National Geographic Live talk that will be happening on 30 August, Tuesday, 7:30pm at the Esplanade. Tickets start from S$39. For more information, visit http://events.nationalgeographic.com/speakers/2016/08/30/ancient-mysteries-singapore/