Absurd Plant Caddy Robots

A simple little robot with an absurd amount of nonsense aboard.

This project is so blatantly stupid, I really wonder if it is supposed to be a satire, spoofing the stupid drive to put rebots is all sorts of pointless uses, with the same lame claims about how beneficial these trivial applications are.  Incorporating soy beans might be a satiric dig at the mighty ag research establishment at Purdue.

But if this is satire, they were too subtle for me to catch it, and they certainly seem to have fooled the poor science “journalist” who reported it.

Soybot is a mash up of a Roomba with a GoPro camera and simple light seeking logic. Additional sensors tell the human when to water. Small soybean plants ride atop this platform, which basically seeks the sunniest spot it can find. Simple, and nothing here hasn’t been done before. (A long time ago, e.g., at the MIT Media Lab thirty years ago [1])

The project was originally for an art installation, which is fine. I’m sure they were fascinated by light following behavior, though it isn’t exactly ground breaking technology.

But the video goes absolutely over the top, suggesting that the plants are somehow involved in driving the robot, or that the behavior of the robots tells us something about what the plants “like”, or makes the plants “happy”.

Rubbish. The plants are passive passengers. The behavior is programmed by people, not by plants. For example, the robot is programmed to seek the brightest light in visible range. While the plants need light, “find the most light” is scarcely what the plant “wants”, nor is it even necessarily healthy.

I can go on to say that this device solves no real problem. They suggest that people might use this to assure that their plants stay healthy if they are away from home. Really? Do you move your plants around chasing the sun every day? I doubt it.

Incidentally, the artists make claims about how healthy the plants are, with no evidence to support that claim. They are at Purdue University for goodness sake; there are  thousands people there who know all about how to measure and demonstrate the effects of growing conditions on soy beans. This nonsense is a disgrace to the name of a great agricultural research institution.

Finally, and most important, my own view is that the great joy of gardening is personal attention to the plants. Not only is this the fun part, it is a deeply important psychological benefit and, for many, a spiritual connection to nature. “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.”

Why, oh, why, would I want to automate this process with a silly robot? My plants are a direct connection between me and nature, and the time I spend tending plants ties me into the great web of life. I don’t want a robot taking over that  from me, thank you very much.

This isn’t real technology, and it is even good art.


 

  1. Brand, Stewart, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, New York, Viking, 1987.

 

 

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