Groundtruthing with a Raw Data Diet


Pretty soon, you might find that your garden is gossiping about you, says PLEASED, an outfit that is advancing plant cyborg technology. Last week, you found some thoughts here about an e-tattoo that could read humans’ unspoken thoughts, via electric impulses picked up at your vocal cords. PLEASED is taking eavesdropping to a new kingdom, to translate electric impulses to find out what plants are “thinking.”

In some fields,* plants are the experts. They’ve developed sensitive sensors for light, moisture, acidity, and more. Electric signals are part of the response to stimuli. PLEASED—PLants Employed as Sensing Devices— is tapping into that information and creating a network that harvests data from many plants to create a profile of the environmental conditions in the area. They are starting now with just a few measurements, but they are creating an open dataset to build an inventory of electric responses to stimuli and tools for translating those signals into useful field information.

The system may sound elaborate considering that we have thermometers, and other instruments that help us assess the conditions around us. Plants have evolved to be really good at sizing up their environments because they have to; they live and die by those measurements. Humans have figured out some work-arounds, maybe the simplest of which is that we can move around, say in and out of the shade. Some conditions, however, aren’t easy for us to control or escape. Breaking news from the collective plant kingdom could be very useful in that case, not only for the breadth, depth and accuracy that PLEASED is expecting, but also because vegetable data is as raw as it gets. Some of the biggest ecological questions that humans face have become fraught with media spin, corporate interest, and political posturing. Google “climate change facts” and the words “skeptics,” “denial,” “attacks,” “dangers,” and “myths” pop up everywhere in the first wave of results. Instead of having to weed through the human intrigue and error, “the internet of plants” could be one way to get info from unbiased sources. All the plants know is what they need to know to survive. And that’s what we humans need, too. We might be wise to tune in.

* I planted too many puns in this piece. Forgive me. Bonus prize if you can count them all.


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