I gave this a brief reply on twitter, but I'll give you a proper one here. In my opinion you raise valid concerns about the importance/value of real people who do work (not just the data collection) that can't be replaced by technology.
However, I'll admit my first reaction was to think you're getting a bit worked up in this particular context, because this categorically wasn't the suggestion. The virtual ecologist was actually was a catch-all for a suite of tools that could support under-resourced field ecologists/conservationists - particularly in the context of ecosystem assessments (EIAs etc).
In fact, I think most of us are on the same page about having a healthy (maybe overly?) cynicsm for what tech can actually deliver for conservation - and that it not a replacement for conservationists/boots on the ground. Lots of the feedback in the Community Survey spoke to this - when we asked 'What is the biggest myth you encounter regularly', the top response was (by far): Silver bullet: 'x will solve everything’. Some feedback included:
"Technology solves everything." It's just a tool, the same as a pen and a notepad. Solutions still come from people, brains, passion, and time.
AI will answer everything! I have recently had conversations with Microsoft offering to identify all of our camera trap images with the use of Bing! search and and AI. They couldn't actually find me 5 correctly labelled images of most of the species I wanted to study.
Silver bullets exist and that experimentation equates with innovation at scale
It is also bourne out by the fact that the key points that appear in that write up are actually about people, sharing how tech goes wrong, capacity building and cutting through hype.. not about what tech innovations we need. And that the virtual ecologist didn't make it onto our full list of 10 priorities for the next two years..
That being said, you do bring up a discussion that's probably worth having, even if the context here was misaligned. And there are two discussions during the week that have relevance here, but I'd welcome other people's input as well, particularly folks who were actually in the workshop as I'm going to be paraphrasing things.
1. Is tech important?
There was a discussion that opened the think tank (i nearly included it as one of my five take aways, so i've actually written it up already) that is useful as I think it goes some way to captures another side of the argument:
Don Driscol lobbed this fairly innocuous question into the opening of the Tech Think Tank, challenging how tech is framed in the context of conservation. We often downplay the importance of technology, using cautioning statements that it’s ‘just a tool’, and warning it’s not a ‘silver bullet’. Don interrogated this approach, asking:
If we didn’t bother with conservation tech, would we get there? Is it important?
His point being that conservation is a crisis discipline. Technology is giving us data that is absolutely critical, and we need technology to give us even better data, faster. Without it, we have no hope of reacting to the crisis, we won’t be able to act and reverse the trends in biodiversity loss without technology. From his perspective, technology might be just a tool, but it’s one that is absolutely critical to our work.
This opened up a discussion about the role of technology and data in conservation and behaviour change. Is data the limiting factor or do we actually have enough information and are failing to act based on other blockages?
2. Perception about the value of manually collected data vs automatically collected data
The second relevant discussion was captured in the go-long discussion list (see below). Participants brought up the idea of data integrity. Not all data is equal and in their experience, there are different perceptions/value put on data depending on how it is collected. Manually collected data can be seen as more trustworthy/valuable than data collected, collated and/or analysed automatically. How do we deal with this?
Not sure these actually answer your comments, but those are my thoughts. Let me know what you think.