Cyborg Plants Won't Let You Kill Them


by Tim Moran

Got any plants or flowers around your home or office that are dead or dying? We all do--at least I do. Forgot to water them. Not enough--or too much--sun. Miracle-Gro? What's that?

If robotics expert Stéphane Magnenat, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, and his artist colleague, Aline Veillat, have their way, such floricide and herbicide will be a thing of the past.

Robot, meet Fern.

Magnenat and Veillat, along with some others, have collaborated on a paper called "Towards adaptive robotic green plants," in which they explain the goal of their project: "To lead the general public to a questioning about the role of plants in the society through an artistic installation. We do so by endowing a green plant with motion, perception, learning and adaptation capabilities while retaining the emotional characteristic of a plant, such as calm and gently random behaviours."

What they propose is a cyborg, combining biological and technological elements, based on an iRobot Create, a computer running Linux, a normal plant and some additional sensors. To save itself from murderers--or at least plantslaughterers, such as me--this cyborg will, more or less, live its own life by looking out for its own need for water, sunlight, and--because of the associated electronics--electrical energy. In other words, it can fetch its own water, scuttle to the sunny side of the room, and find the plug into which it can recharge its battery.

Explains the team: "To do so, and in contrast with existing works, the robot employs a well-founded probabilistic planning algorithm. This algorithm takes as input the current state of the cyborg needs, and produces as output a sequence of actions." This simple plant, therefore, can plan what it needs based on "expected fitness values," and then create a "probabilistic model of the effect of actions on needs."

The algorithm will sequence through these actions and estimate the final fitness value. Apparently it cannot kill itself--Praise Be!--for any sequence that would lead it to starvation or peril of any kind is rejected. The sequence resulting in the best fitness value is accepted.

The cyborg plant can currently, using its sensors, avoid obstacles, find the best light source, and stay out from under foot when humans come a callin'. Say the artist and roboticist: "Ultimately, we hope to awake questions about the role of plants in the society, and to highlight their presence as actors in the world."

In my world, then tend to do death scenes very well. "Alas, poor Philodendron! I knew him, Hydrangea."