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 thetechnification 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 justhow 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."