MIT Researchers Develop a Cyborg Houseplant That Goes After the Light

Similar to the way machines replicate brain function, a new cyborg setup offers the potential to exploit the full capabilities of plants.
Mario L. Major

Now there's a project that builds on the solutions for all those indoor plant lovers who simply don't possess a green thumb.

Surprisingly, theirs is one of many developments in recent years aimed at AI-assisted technology and robotics that support the growth of healthy plants, from a hexapod robot that can actually seek out the sun for your plants, to all-in-one planting, watering and lighting solutions.

Plant and Machine Synthesis

Named Elowan, it was developed by a team of researchers from MIT Media Lab. 

Moving the evolution of tech-based plant support to a new level, it was developed with the goal of creating "a plant in direct dialogue with a machine". 

MIT Researchers Develop a Cyborg Houseplant That Goes After the Light
Source: Harpreet Sareen/MIT

Building on the process of plants' seeking out sunlight, it sets up a sophisticated system of bio-electric stimulation via electrical signals, in a sense replicating a natural process.

The concept they refer to is Cyber Botany, which was discussed in a research paper from co-project member Harpreet Sareen in a paper from last year.  

She designed it with Patti Maes. It can be thought of as a highly enhanced version of a greenhouse in which technology ensures an optimally controlled environment.

In the paper, Sareen described the potential of plants:

"They are self-powered, self-fabricating, self-regenerating and active signal networks. They carry highly advanced systems to sense and respond to the environment."

The goal is to produce "techno-plant hybrids":

specifically, the electrodes for Elowan are embedded in the stems, ground, and leaves. The nanosensors send feedback via conductive channels in a well-coordinated process. 

Pushing the Boundaries of Plant Interaction

Where Elowan goes beyond robot-supported indoor plant setups is they embrace a vision of "hybridizing with nature", or in other words, expanding the potential of what value plants can offer. 

A couple of applications the pair predicts that could come from their work involve:

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(1) the use of plants as sensing platforms which could play a role in monitoring health,

(2) enhancing sensing capabilities for the surrounding environment.

A new group of devices could come out of this emerging technology, which the researchers refer to as "organic interactive devices."

In fact, the next goals for the ambitious project involve developing plant capabilities for monitoring and printing.

With the added support of the Parsons School of Design, there is an expanded nature-based design initiative in the works called Synthetic Ecosystems.

MIT Researchers Develop a Cyborg Houseplant That Goes After the Light
Source: Harpreet Sareen/MIT

The multi-perspective project is proof of the power of technology to tap into the processes in our surroundings, detect its supporting parts and structure, and weave a new narrative that synthesizes nature and tech.

The researchers themselves summed up the goal of their work best:

"But 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?

This I believe can be the future of interaction—where we don't think of interfaces as separate but  within our nature itself."

Via: MIT