The internet of things. Cybernetics. The quantified self. Brain-computer interfaces. We're wiring more and more of the physical world and the human body. But should we really extend the technification of the 21st century to the Earth's vegetation?
For better or worse, it’s happening. Italian researchers are building a network of connected "cyborg" plants (plantborgs? cyplants? cyberflora?) to use as organic biosensors. The plants are embedded with a tiny electronic device to monitor things like pollution levels, overuse of chemicals, temperature, parasites, acid rain, and communicate the data through a wireless network back to the lab.
The project is called PLEASED, for PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices. It's slated to finish in May, and lead researcher Andrea Vitaletti, a computer engineer at W-LAB of the University of Rome, spoke to the EU media group youris.com about the process last week. (Hat tip to Wired for digging it up.)
The rather ambitious idea is rooted in the fact that plants are remarkably intelligent (though just how smart is still a matter of debate). Researchers believe it’s possible to harness that natural intelligence by "listening" to what plants know about their natural surroundings. Think: The exotic talking trees in Avatar, if humans joined in the conversation. If possible, that could tap into a massive amount of data about the environment.
Of course, society today is hardly suffering from a lack of data; we already have sensors measuring all kinds of environmental conditions. But researchers are intoxicated by plants’ potential as a self-sustaining, organic alternative to electronic sensors. They’re cheaper, ubiquitous, and have impressive sensing capabilities.
Those roots sprawling out through the ground and branches reaching up into the sky are plants' eyes and ears, constantly monitoring natural chemical and physical stimuli to survive—that intelligence is why plants have been able to adapt and evolve on Earth for so many millennia, Vitaletti explains. Plants give off an electrical signal when they interact with environmental stimuli, and now scientists want to analyze those signals to glean insights from the cybernetic flora.
Collecting the data involves wiring the hell out of the greenery. It similar to the process that makes it possible to control a prosthetic limb with just your thoughts, by transmitting the brain’s electrical activity to a computer. Plants are fitted with EEG sensors and hardware that reads and recording the signals in their "mind."
But making sense of the plant-speak is much harder. The challenge is differentiating between the mess of electrical noise—finding patterns in the data to determine which outside factors caused which signals. Researchers have published their findings so far in an open source dataset online. They also mapped the signals as music and images that were then expressed through interpretive dance. No joke.
"Imagine you know which electrical pattern is typically produced by a sunflower when it is suffering from drought," Vitaletti said in the interview. "Then, you could keep looking for that pattern in sunflowers. The plant will so-to-speak tell you when it wants some water through specific electrical signals."
Precision farming and hobbyist gardeners already use biosensors to monitor their crops improve their green thumbs. But the PLEASED project goes a step further, turning the plants themselves into observation tools.
So now we've got GPS-enabled sharks and elephants on Twitter and cyborg plants sending Big Data to the cloud. Is the information coming in worth wiring the flora and fauna of the planet? Even if the data could be used down the road to protect the environment, do we really want plants to evolve into machines? It's worth asking. There's just something that doesn't seem right about bushy green leaves with an Arduino circuit board hanging off the end.