Meet Elowan, a cybernetic plant developed by researchers at MIT Media Lab that uses electrodes, a robot, and wheels to drive itself around and survive.
Elowan is basically a car powered by a plant brain. The plant is hooked up to silver electrodes, which detect bioelectrochemical signals from the plant that respond to light. These signals are routed to a robot underneath the plant, and wheels take the plant to a spot best-suited for its survival. “The agency of such movements rests with the plant,” a video explaining the technology says.
Let’s say the plant needs more light. The plant’s own photosynthetic signals indicating this are sent to the robot, which interprets them and moves the plant towards a detected light source. Harpreet Sareen and Pattie Maes, the researchers who developed this project, argue that since the robot and the plant work together in this way, they aren’t two separate entities but one cohesive cybernetic organism.
Other engineers have created plant-robot hybrids before, but most have taken a different approach than Sareen and Maes. Tianqi Sun, the CEO of technology company Vincross, created a very cute six-legged robot in September 2017. But he took a different approach: rather than having a robot interacting with a plant, he helped created a robot that interacts with the environment alone. “Plants are passive,” Sun wrote in a blog post. “Eternally, inexplicably passive.”
Meanwhile, Sareen and Maes emphasize that plants are not “eternally” passive but are “electrically active systems” that constantly sending bio-electrochemical messages about the environment throughout the plant body. So much so, in fact, that a plant can basically pilot a robot.
“Instead of building completely discrete systems,” an MIT press release reads, “the new paradigm points toward using the capabilities that exist in plants (and nature at large) and creating hybrids with our digital world.”