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These Strange Plant Robots Move To Where Light Takes Them

Every move towards genetic modification and farm robotization takes us further away from the idealized notion of what agriculture is, or should be. We’re entering an era where plants and animals are part of a technological system and where notions of living and manmade things are becoming blurred.

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To draw attention to this, two artists at Purdue University have created this working exhibit: three robots that seek out the best source of light for their soy plant cargo. “We consider the ‘Soybots’ a speculative installation that poses ‘what if’ questions about possible future relations between humans, plants and intelligent machines,” say Shannon McMullen and Fabian Winkler in a joint email.


Built on the iRobot Create platform, the modules skirt a room looking for light of a threshold intensity. If their photocells find it, they’ll stop in place. If not, they’ll reduce the threshold and look again. The Soybots are plant machines that are able to regulate themselves without ongoing human intervention.

“The Soybots are a metaphor, inviting viewers to reflect on nature-technology hybrids,” say McMullen and Winkler. “We’re asking what possible agricultural futures do we want? What possible futures are less desirable? What if humans are less in control of what happens to plants. What do plants desire and what do robots want?”

The artists chose soy because it’s one of the world’s commoditized crops and the subject of a lot genetic modification efforts, for example to improve pest resistance. “A decorative houseplant would not have the same effect,” they say.

The robots are due to go on show soon at the Balance-Unbalance event hosted by Arizona State University. Hopefully they won’t escape.

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