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Cyborg Houseplant Can Drive Itself Toward the Light It Craves



Elowan in action.
GIF: MIT Media Lab / Gizmodo

During the impending robopocalypse, humanity will have to ward off freakishly agile androids, robotic dogs, whatever the hell this is, and, as new research from MIT suggests, quasi-autonomous, mobile robot-plant hybrids.

Introducing Elowan, a robot-hybrid hybrid designed by Harpreet Sareen and Pattie Maes, both from MIT Media Lab. The system is a true cybernetic organism, though not the child we are used to seeing; Instead of merging human with machine, these researchers have leveraged the internal electrical signals produced by plants to control the actions of a two-wheeled robot platform. In tests, Elowan was able to move towards a light source-an action triggered by the plant itself.

Plants may seem inert, but they are surprisingly electrical in nature. Our photosynthetic friends are equipped with biological circuits capable of transmitting bio-electrochemical signals between tissues and organs. These signals are triggered under special circumstances, such as when the plant is exposed to light, a shift in gravity (or orientation), a mechanical force, changes in temperature, and when injured. Indeed plants may not be mobile or exhibit awareness, but they are armed with an assortment of tricks to help them thrive and survive. De interne transmissie van bio-electrochemische signalen exciteert de cellen en tissues binnen plantencellen, waarbij bepaalde acties of reacties, zoals weefselregeneratie (groei), het uitbreiden van bladeren naar licht, of triggering een verdediging tegen bedreigingen worden.

This active signal network, as the new experiment in "cyborg botany" shows, can also be used to augment a plant's natural capabilities. In dit geval, de beweging van het plant is gebaseerd op zijn interne bio-elektrochemische signalen, die de robotbasis raken om naar een lichtbron te gaan.

In this proof-of-concept demonstration, Sareen and Maes placed silver electrodes into the plants stems, leaves, and root system. Een interface apparaat verwerkt en versterkt de zwakke signalen die door planten zijn uitgezonden, en dan zenden deze signalen naar de robotinrichting. In tests, lamps were placed on either side of Elowan. The plant could sense the light coming from the illuminated side, resulting in a signal response that triggered the movement towards the light. Thus, the plant-robot hybrid traveled either left or right by itself, where the "agency of movement rests with the plant," in the words of the researchers.

To be fair, the use of the term "agency" may be a bit of a stretch. Planter har ikke en byrå i den forstand at de er i stand til å træffe beslut eller utøve fri vilje. Rather, their internal circuits and processes are being triggered by external stimuli, making them mindless automatons. The claim that Elowan's internal circuitry is driving the process is fair, however.

It's a neat experiment, both in terms of its scientific and artistic aspects (Sareen is also a visual artist and an assistant professor at the Parsons School of Design) , men det system kan udvides eller ændres for praktiske anvendelser, samt. Een deel van de rationale achter het project was om de natuurlijke abiliteiten van planten te optimaliseren als een manier om hun mogelijkheden verder te verruimen. Sareen imagines extensions to cybernetic plants that could allow them to grow and defend themselves in novel ways. Wat meer is, deze symbiotische systemen zouden ook kunnen worden gebruikt om toekomstige elektronische systemen meer organisch te ontwikkelen, resulterende in apparaten die geschikt zijn voor zelfkracht, zelf-reparatie en zelf-groei.

It's all very exciting stuff-and we are finally setting the stage for a plant-based technological singularity. I, for one, look forward to welcoming our new vegetable overlords.

[MIT Media Lab]


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