Meet Elowan, a plant equipped with a robot that can move itself toward light.
I have always marveled, and I mean really marveled, at the lives of plants. Rooted to the same place by nature of their anatomy, they have figured out how to flourish despite their lack of mobility. But that immobility also renders plants and trees so vulnerable, helpless in the face of humanity's boorish destruction. I have often fantasized that they could just get up and run away. Or fight back.
And now, maybe their time is coming! Well, for houseplants at least. And they love us, right? So they likely don't want to wage a campaign of revenge ... (though maybe on behalf of their kin)?Anyway. Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have just introduced Elowan to the world. Calling it (need a better pronoun here than it) a "cybernetic lifeform," the plant is in direct dialogue with a machine that does its bidding. When plants wants light, they bend and grow towards it. When Elowan wants light? It just scoots right on over.
"Using its own internal electrical signals, the plant is interfaced with a robotic extension that drives it toward light," say the researchers. Explaining that plants are electrically active systems, they get bio-electrochemically excited and communicate between their cells in response to changes in light, gravity, mechanical stimulation, temperature, wounding, and other stimuli.
Now while I'm getting all excited that a plant can move itself around, the project's team, Harpreet Sareen and Pattie Maes, have much loftier ambitions than revenge fantasies enabled by a bit of anthropomorphism. They write:
"The enduring evolutionary processes change the traits of an organism based on its fitness in the environment. In recent history, humans domesticated certain plants, selecting the desired species based on specific traits. A few became house plants, while others were made fit for agricultural practice. From natural habitats to micro-climates, the environments for these plants have significantly altered. As humans, we rely on technological augmentations to tune our fitness to the environment. However, the acceleration of evolution through technology needs to move from a human-centric to a holistic, nature-centric view."
They explain that Elowan (presumably named after the sentient plant creatures in the game Starlight 3) is an attempt to demonstrate what augmentation of nature could mean, and it's part of the emerging field of Cyborg Botany, which is described as a convergent view of interaction design in nature. "Instead of building completely discrete systems, the new paradigm points toward using the capabilities that exist in plants (and nature at large) and creating hybrids with our digital world."
As one of these plant-electronic hybrids, Elowan the robot houseplant shows where these two disparate worlds can meet. What does our strange future hold for cyborg plants? It's anyone's guess ... but if they just so happen to become our new overlords, I'd say their time has come.
You can watch Elowan in action in the video below.