This Cyborg Plant Moves Toward Light on Its Own

The maker of a plant-robot from MIT Media Labs has some radical ideas about the future of technology.

MIT Media Labs, Elowan, cyborg plant
Harpreet Sareen.

Harpreet Sareen thinks big. Cybernetic plants that move around on their own? That's just the beginning. How about an end to global warming?

Sareen, currently an assistant professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, lit up the Internet last week with his latest creation — a hybrid robot-plant system called Elowan that moves toward light when it wants to. The cybernetic plant translates tiny electrical impulses in the leaves to trigger the wheels on a robotic planter underneath. When the plant senses light, it rolls toward it.

Elowan, which Sareen developed with colleague Pattie Maes at MIT Media Lab, could lead to new kinds of organic interface designs and atmospheric sensors.

“Plants working as light sensors is exactly what Elowan was designed to convey — deep integration of technology with nature,” Sareen told Seeker. “This leads to applications such as sensing a surrounding environment through a plant or tree signals, or routing those signals through interactive devices.”

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Practically speaking, such light-sensing biocomputing hybrids could be used as sensor platforms, detecting minute changes in the environment or monitoring the overall health of vast fields of crops. It's a bold vision in and of itself, and to hear Sareen tell it, it's only the beginning.

“Elowan was designed just for the light, but there's a possibility of taking things further,” he said.

Sareen is an inveterate tinkerer and a perpetually busy researcher. He's lived and worked in Austria, India, Japan, Singapore, and the U.S. His experience runs from corporate research wings to design studios, museums, and university research centers. He's previously worked at Google Creative Lab, Microsoft Research, MIT Media Lab, Ars Electronica Museum, the National University of Singapore, and Keio University.

MIT Media Labs, cyborg plant, cybernetic, elowan
Harpreet Sareen. | Harpreet Sareen

Sareen keeps a lot of irons in a lot of fires, and his wandering houseplant is actually just one small part of a larger notional construct he calls Cyborg Botany. The idea, simply put, is to stop making computers from the vantage point of our species and start making computers from the vantage point of our planet and our ecosystem as a whole.

“Cyborg Botany is a new, convergent view of interaction design in nature,” Harpreet writes on the Elowan project page. “Our primary means of sensing and display interactions in the environment are through our artificial electronics. However, there are a plethora of such capabilities that already exist in nature.”

Take plants, for instance. Earth already has a global active signal network that is self-powered, self-fabricating, and self-regenerating in its plant life.

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“They have the best kind of capabilities that an electronic device could carry,” he goes on. “Instead of building completely discrete systems, the new paradigm points toward using the capabilities that exist in plants, and nature at large, and creating hybrids with our digital world.”

Asked to indulge in some reckless conjecture, Sareen said he's already envisioned some space-age applications for his theories.

“Consider this example,” he replied. “We are looking for life in space, but some planets do not have enough light on most of its surface. So there’s no energy gathering mechanisms in dark areas of these planets, and we think life is not possible there.”

MIT Media lab, Elowan, cyborg plant, cybernetic
Elowan at work. | Harpreet Sareen

But extrapolate Elowan's photosynthetic system all the way to the event horizon, and you get at least one interesting scenario.

“A merger of plants with photoelectronic components in this way would mean that one starts to replace the other,” Sareen explained. “In other words, it's possible to replace photosynthetic mechanisms of plants with our own electronics. Such electronics can gather light from bright areas of a planet back to the plant, making it survive in the dark, creating this new form of astrobiological possibility – and living plants in dark areas of such planets.”

Sareen concedes that we're probably a few centuries away from cultivating plants on the dark side of colonized planets, but that's the fun of thinking big. Meanwhile, we could keep busy with the ecosystems we already have. Sareen envisions a new twist on the Internet of Things in which we create an Internet of Living Things by selectively hybridizing certain intersections of nature and technology.

“I think we need a paradigm change in our thinking of sustainability and conservation,” he said. “If we start looking at capabilities already in the natural environment, we align ourselves with that development as opposed to being divergent from it.”

RELATED: Hacking Earth's Atmosphere Won't Protect Crops From Global Warming

Sareen calls this particularly twisty avenue of thinking convergent design, and he's got some specific ideas.

“In terms of climate change, there's a possibility of hybridizing plants with photoelectronic components,” he offered. “Plants are inefficient energy gatherers — roughly only converting 10 percent of the light to something useful.”

But, Sareen notes, we already have nanoscale electronic components that are smaller than the cells of plants.

“Consider that we create combinations of cells with these components that can gather more electrons, such that they have a higher electron activity inside the cells of plants,” he said. “This means they absorb more energy, become more efficient and in turn take in more CO2. And scale this up to the number of plants on the planet, and suddenly we're talking of climate change being balanced by such bioelectronic components.”

Sareen concedes that such far-future speculation is largely a thought experiment at this point. But with each new project, he finds that he's connecting more dots and banking more real-world results for a rainy day. Like a houseplant that can move itself toward a light source, for example.

“As a designer, I work with science and technology to bring out the possibilities for humans and nature,” he remarked. “Space-age far-future is where I thrive because it's so exciting — carrying a flashlight in dark but not knowing where to point it at.”