Meet Elowan – the Cyborg Houseplant From MIT


Introducing the Elowan, a robot based plant hybrid designed by Harpreet Sareen and Pattie Maes in MIT Media Lab. The houseplant is a combination of true cybernetic technology and nature. It is not a usual plant that we are accustomed to seeing every day. Its unusual feature lies in its ability to move towards the source of light. It does that using the robot’s help.

According to researchers at MIT the plants are surprisingly electrical in nature. They can transmit bio-electrochemical signals between tissues and organs. Using these signals, specifically using the nature’s process called the photosynthesis, plants can grow, feed themselves and produce the oxygen. Our green friends also react to the changes in temperature and mechanical force. Not being smart and brainy like people, they have built-in defense mechanisms to help them survive. Transmitting the bio-electrical signals to cells and tissues, they prompt certain actions such as tissue regeneration or extending leaves towards the light.

What the researchers did was, capture the plant’s bio-electric response to the electric bulb emissions and turn them into a command of a robot. When the plant responded to artificial light positively, it moved more towards the light source using the robot.

The proof of concept has been achieved through the interface device that processed and amplified the weak signals by plants. However, what plants do lack in nature is the free will or an intellectual ability to make independent decisions. Rather, we should understand the concept in the following way. In our green friends, any internal circuitry or growth processes are triggered and reinforced by the external stimuli. What the scientists did was just to capture the response to that stimuli and turn it into fun activities.

As a result, this cyborg robot is not fully controlled by a plant as it seems in the video and cannot make decisions like when to stop moving when faced with the obstacle. The video rather demonstrates the proof of concept that plants do emit very weak electrical signals in response to stimuli and that signal can be captured.

Another question was if the plants react to electrical bulb light at our homes in the same way as to sunlight. We know that plants do grow when exposed to natural sources of light. However, we also know that no light at home can be compared to sunlight by the amount of energy it gives. We learned that not all plants need sunlight to grow. Low-light foliage plants such as pothos and peace lily can grow quite well with enough artificial light.

The MIT Media Lab is not the only one trying to weave electronics into the natural world. The EU-funded flora robotica project is successfully growing plants through a network of sensors computers and 3D-printed robotic nodes that are connected to each other. The robots guide the plants growing in pre-programmed shapes.

Eleni Stavrinidou in bioelectronics department at Linköping University in Sweden was also able to grow a wire inside the rose’s stem back in 2017. The polymer wire grew inside the roots and stem of the plant, making the plant potentially able to conduct electricity towards itself.

While all of this sounds as exciting science fiction, it has some practical implications like combatting climate change and powering future electronic systems more organically. We could be able to create the devices that can self-power, self-repair and initiate self-growth learned from plants.

Source: MIT Media Lab

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