These 'cyborg' plants can sense motion and move on command

Researchers foresee a world in which plants collect and transmit information without computers' glaring screens or intrusive sounds.
Image: Planta Digitalis, Plants as Antennas, Motion Sensors and more.
In this "cyborg botany" project from the MIT Media Lab, a plant is turned into a motion sensor.Harpreet Sareen
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By Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky

Houseplants can boost moods and help purify the air, but at times they seem more ornament than organism.

Now researchers at MIT are trying to change that. They've turned a variety of common plants into bionic flora that can sense motion, propel robotic vehicles and respond to the click of a mouse. With further development, the researchers say, the nascent field of "cyborg botany" might yield plants that guard our homes, connect us to distant friends and send us gentle push notifications without the sensory overload of a computer screen.

"Plants are like the best electronics that we could have," said team leader Harpreet Sareen, a research affiliate at MIT and a professor of media and interaction design at the Parsons School of Design in New York. "Our purpose is to look at nature and converge with it, tap into it and piggyback on it."

Phytoactuators, another cyborg botany project, use electrodes to control a Venus flytrap.Harpreet Sareen

Sareen and his colleagues presented a pair of rudimentary tech-enabled plants at a recent computer conference in Glasgow, Scotland. One was an electrode-studded Venus flytrap that can be controlled from a computer: click on a specific part of the plant on the app, and the corresponding leaf snaps shut. The other was a plant grown with a tiny wire inside, enabling it to function as a sort of motion-detecting antenna.

Before these two plants, there was Sareen's first cyborg botany project: a plant whose natural inclination to grow toward light was used to propel a small wheeled robot. Turn on a nearby lamp, and the plant rolls toward the lamp on its wheeled planter.

The details aren't yet ironed out, but the researchers have a vision for how we might one day interact with cyborg plants.

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A video accompanying the research shows a motion-sensitive rosebush that functions as a no-touch trackpad, translating hand gestures into actions on a computer. Another rosebush in the video acts as a sort of pet sentry, sensing when a cat scurries out a door and sending an alert to its owner's computer so the fugitive feline can be retrieved.

Then there's a pair of ferns that help couples feel connected even when they're separated: When one partner gently pokes her fern, her partner's fern wiggles — as if to say hello.

A Venus flytrap, one of the plants turned into an interactive display by Sareen and his colleagues.Harpreet Sareen

Sareen calls these "soft notifications" — alerts that tell us about things happening around us without the intrusive sounds or glaring displays of computers and smartphones. "These are all small things, but these are actually how we do things in nature," he said. "We don't have to do things in front of a screen."

Katie Siek, a professor of informatics at Indiana University who wasn't involved in the research, agreed. "People do not always want a piece of technology visible — no matter how sleek it may look," she said in an email, adding that she's seen some people cover devices with blankets to keep them out of view. With interactive plants, she said, "sensing and visualization can be provided without the need for technology to be obvious."

A plant is hooked up to electrodes as part of a cyborg botany project.Harpreet Sareen

She said motion-sensing plants might even be used to alert caregivers when an older person has fallen and needs assistance.

But Siek also sees a potential downside to such surveillance.

"What if the plant at work could tell exactly how long you were at your desk?" she said. "What if someone could hack your shrub to see when you arrive at home? Do we want a future where everything and everyone can be tracked?"

And the soft notifications envisioned by Sareen might distract us from work or family time, Siek added: "Did the wind blow that plant, or am I missing a call?"

We won't have to wrestle with these questions anytime soon. Sareen said he had no immediate plans to commercialize the technology he and his team have begun to develop. But that's not to say that he doesn't have big ambitions.

"The movie 'Avatar' shows plants on an alien planet doing all these amazing activities," he said, referring to the 2009 James Cameron film about a race of blue-hued humanoids who communicate with sentient flora and fauna through a neural link in their hair. "But looking closer, what the movie did was expose the function hidden within the plants," he said, adding that the ultimate goal is "a sort of Avatar world."

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