Combining the natural abilities of plants with electronics yields fascinating results

Elowan is a cyborg plant that uses its electrical signals to interface with robotics, giving it motion. The natural communication is why a plant grows towards sunlight, changes color, and reacts to injury, changes in temperature, and other stimuli.  

Developed by scientist and artist Harpreet Sareen during his time as a graduate student at MIT, Elowan’s leaves are connected to an interface with wheels on the bottom of its planter, allowing it to move. The plant’s naturally-occurring electrical signals are transmitted to the wheels, propelling it closer to light, when necessary.

Cyborg Botany

Cyborg botany is the term Sareen uses to refer to this new idea of connecting nature with electronics to better understand the environment. The idea behind developing such technology is that we can tap into sensors and displays that already exist in nature to better understand our environment rather than using “artificial electronics.” Additionally, Sarween explains that in his view, “… the acceleration of evolution through technology needs to move from a human centric to a holistic nature centric view.”

In addition to Elowan, Sareen has also developed Argus, a plant that can aid in the detection of amounts of lead in drinking water. He explains that manmade sensors can take days to analyze groundwater, whereas plants do so naturally. Attaching manmade sensors to the plant allows the natural “heavy metal sensing capability inside the plants” to interface with a digital display, resulting in rapid detection of contaminants in water.

Both projects have only been done on a small scale but have unique promise if they are further pursued.

Rethinking Smart Homes

The use of such sensors and technology could cause nature lovers to rethink the gadgets they use to control the environment in their homes. Plants equipped with sensors could be used to know when a room needs more natural light, or whether or not the air quality in a home is healthy.

Should cyborg botany develop beyond merely a curiosity, houseplants could eventually become something far more useful than decorations (and more aesthetically pleasing than typical digital interfaces). In the meantime, Sarween has certainly succeeded in his goal with Elowan, “… to provoke thought as to what augmented plants would mean.”