Augmenting nature is an ancient idea that dates back to the earliest hominids and the dawn of agriculture. Here in 2018, the kind of augmentation Harpreet Sareen and Pattie Maes are exhibiting is a little more high-tech, harnessing the power of naturally occurring circuits in plants.
While plants at first glance look like static things, they are in fact very busy transmitting bio-electrochemical signals between tissues and organs. These signals are triggered when the plant experiences a change in its environment—a shift in temperature, for example, exposure to light, or damage to its stem, roots, leaves, or buds. When you touch a plant, the plant “knows” it’s being touched.
Sareen, assistant professor at the Parsons School of Design and an affiliate researcher at the MIT Media Lab, affixed silver electrodes to a Pink Flamingo Peace Lily and routed them to a robotic planter on wheels. When the lily detects light nearby, it signals the robot to move closer. Set between two desk lamps (which have a kinetic life of their own, thanks to the Pixar Animation Studios starring Luxo), the researchers show how quickly the plant responds by switching them on and off again. As Sareen puts it, “The agency of such movements rests with the plant.”
Yes, plants, like all living things, have agency—the agency to keep living. We knew this already, but seeing that agency visibly manifested in a plant that looks exactly like the one in your sunroom really amplifies the idea. Cybernetic organisms are no longer an outlandish sci-fi futurism.
Naturally, the plant cyborg has a name. It’s Elowan (though she did not sprout from seed in Rivendell). Elowan shows us that discrete biological systems can engage in dialogue with artificial machines. Think of what this could mean for the electronics of the future. The cost of building man-made electronics could theoretically be replaced by the inherent capabilities of things sprouting out of the ground.
What’s more, plants regenerate themselves. Aside from the basic need for air, water, light, and nutrients, they are completely self-sustaining. They are also self-repairing, which is definitely not the case for your computer when the pinwheel of death starts spinning. It suggests that the future of electronics, of electricity even, could be strengthened and sustained, not by subverting nature, but by harnessing natural intelligence in a way that makes the artificial world smarter and more resilient.
Sareen’s vision of a cybernetic Garden of Eden could elevate how we interface with the world around us, leveraging the natural abilities of plants to inform how we animals express our own agency to live, and keep living, perhaps a bit more symbiotically.