Gardeners have long claimed that talking to plants helps them grow—an idea backed up by science. But more recently, we’re discovering that plants talk, too, reacting to their environment in a language of electrical impulses and chemicals.
The question is whether there's a way that we—humans and plants—could talk to one another? Thanks to Project Florence, a project created by post-doc researcher Helene Steiner during her time as an artist-in-residence with Microsoft Research’s Studio 99 program, we're getting closer.
Project Florence is a sensor-loaded plant capsule that’s connected to a computer. To begin communicating, you type anything you like at the device's accompanying terminal. Then, a few things happen to that message at the same time.
First, your message is mapped for sentiment—is it a positive or negative message?—and that sentiment is translated into a Morse Code-like series of blinks. For instance, a very warm, kind sentiment might appear as long red blinks, because red light causes a plant to flower. Sensors on the leaves and roots, as well as in the soil and air, get a general gist of how the plant is feeling. Are the leaves giving off a defensive chemical? Does the soil seem to be in drought? From those sensor readings, the plant creates a positive or negative "response" to your sentiment. The plant's reaction is translated into words we can understand thanks to Twitter: Florence's software searches for Tweets similar to the plant's sentiment, and uses those Tweets to fill in the blanks.
"We can almost create moods of the plant, and abstract the message that comes back," says Steiner. "When I ask you as question and you’re in a really good mood the response is probably better than you’re tired. That’s why we thought natural language processing was a good way [to indicate the plant’s state]."
This conversation may at first seem a bit silly—I imagine all sorts of emoji-filled waxings on Beyonce—but it’s an approachable way to translate what’s potentially a lot of complex data about a plant into brief, meaningful insight to a person. Or in other words, if I’m concerned about your health, I don’t break into the hospital to read your full medical charts. I don’t steal the password to your Fitbit account to see how active you’ve been lately. Instead, I might ask how you’re doing, and glean a response from either what you say or how you say it.
Project Florence was never intended to be anything more than an artistic endeavor, and a somewhat academic thought provocation. As Asta Roseway, Principal Research Designer at Microsoft Research, puts it, "We wanted to create an idea around the Internet of Things. That seems to be a hot topic, all things connected, and we wanted to generate another kind of future where we're getting away from 'your refrigerator talks to your watch!’ We wanted to make a radical departure there."
Yet Steiner’s research has inspired Microsoft to think about the conversation between humans and our natural environments more closely.
"We were kind of caught off guard a little bit, because this raised a lot of visibility across the company," says Roseway. "We’ve been approached by groups across Microsoft in agriculture and urban farming ... it’s brought together all sorts of folks from multiple fields and disciplines. It’s engineers sitting with biologists sitting with software [developers]. That kind of cross-collaboration is essential for emerging technologies."
That cross-discipline work doesn’t just mean that Microsoft’s lunchroom has gotten a lot more interesting. It means the company is expanding its research in this field, constructing a hydroponics and aquaponics farm on the campus this summer. Meanwhile, Steiner is continuing her research with Microsoft, working with academics on the hardcore science end of the project to better equate and categorize a plant’s electrical and chemical responses to more literal meanings.
"I think there are so many aspects where research like this can really open up," says Steiner. "You want to build more sustainable agricultural systems, but there are interesting aspects if you think about responsive environments. You could really think about bringing a natural environment into our technological world, rather than putting technology everywhere into our environment."
All Photos: via Project Florence