Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

That Plant Is Not a Cyborg

Or a robot. The MIT researcher's underlying idea is a good one but let’s not “plant” mistaken ideas
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Harpreet Sareen
Harpreet Sareen

If plants could move around freely, they would move into the most beneficial lighting arrangement. They compensate for their rootedness by growing in the optimum direction and constantly repositioning their leaves.

An MIT researcher has helped out a plant by fitting it with electronic sensors attached to robotic wheels. The sensors detect the electrical signals the plant emits when it detects light and convey these signals to a motor that moves the wheels to a more light-friendly location.

Harpreet Sareen envisions “Elowan,” as he calls his creation, as the beginnings of a “Cyborg Garden.”

If nature has those capabilities, such as of sensing (signals inside plants), response (plant movement, color change, leaves opening/closing, growth etc.), then why not tap into those capabilities of what nature does best?” he says. “This I believe can be the future of interaction–where we don’t think of interfaces as separate but within nature itself. Katharine Schwab, “This plant is a cyborg (and it might be the future of interfaces)” at Fast Company

One suggestion offered: “For instance, instead of using a light sensor in your office to ensure that employees are getting enough natural light, a plant hooked up to a computer could do just as good of a job.”

Yes, but some caution is needed in the choice of advisory plants. Plants thrive under a variety of conditions, from tundra to tropics, from oceans to deserts, from low light to midday sun at the equator. The plant senses whether its own needs are met; that could, of course, be a different matter from whether employees’ needs are met.

Now, about that hype (“robotic,” “cyborg”): Curiously, the article at Fast Company describes the plant as a “robotic sensor.” The plant is not a robotic sensor; it is a plant (a mottled pink anthurium?) sitting in a pot on a robotically controlled cart. All the light sensing is actually done by the plant. The electronic sensors pick up the plant’s electrical signals in response to light. They transmit these signals to the mechanism that moves the cart. The cart may be a robot but the plant isn’t.

Similarly, Sareen describes his creation as a “plant-robot hybrid.” It is nothing of the sort. It is, again, a plant positioned on a robotic cart, with sensors attached. The plant and the cart do not become a unit in any sense. An example of a “hybrid” would be a mule, a single, unique animal which is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. The horse and donkey components in the living animal are detectable but they are not separable.

This is a fun story and Sareen’s idea is a good one, worthy of further development. So let’s not get lost in the weeds of dramatic, unsustainable claims about “robotic” plants. There is a wealth of knowledge waiting in the world of plants if we are willing to consider learning it.

See also: Can plants be as smart as animals? Seeking to thrive and grow, plants communicate extensively, without a mind or a brain

and

Can a stuffed toy turn into a robot? Maybe to amuse a sick child? With the right skin, yes.