More Hokum About Plant “Intelligence”

In an earlier post I beefed about some careless nonsense about plant-robot interactions.

The Interactive Architecture Lab in London has another entry in this growing catalog of bunkum: reEarth: Hortum machine, B.

Hortum machine is “an autonomous robotic ecosystem”, “controlled” by signals from sensors reading the “electro-physiology” of the plants inside it.

OK, this is kind of cool, will all the mechatronics, rolling around by shifting the center of mass. Take the plants out, and it is a slick bit of machinery, and would be fun to “drive”!

And, OK, “Half garden, half machine” is a fair description. Not that anyone actually needs or wants such a thing.

But the designers go way off the tracks when they call this “a new cybernetic lifeform”, which it ain’t. They claim this is “cybernetic” because the plants are wired into the control loop. Specifically, the sensor readings measuring the conductivity of the individual plants are (somehow) combined to trigger the mechanism to trigger a movement. These pretty much random signals are combined by an unstated algorithm to for input into a meaningless choice to activate the robotic movement.

This device is “autonomous” in the sense of “not human directed”. In this sense, a random number generator is “autonomous”, too, as is the random decay of a radioisotope.

What this is not, is any kind of intelligence, consciousness, or even intentional behavior.

[S]ensing of the state of individual plants collectively and democratically controls decision-making of the orientation of the structure and its mobility

Rubbish! Not only are we playing fast and loose with the notions of intentional behavior, we are trashing “democracy” in the process. How is this “democratic decision making”? This rhetoric is not only bogus, it is a dangerous misrepresentation of what democracy should mean.

Not content with merely misrepresenting the work itself, the team puts forth the preposterous suggestion that,

In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment. Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener.

Huh? Clearly, these folks misunderstand the idea of autonomous vehicles which generally do not go anywhere unless directed by a human to do so. They also stretch the term “gardeners” past any sensible limit. Their machine does no “gardening”, cyber or otherwise. In fact, I would be surprised if this mad-scientist’s rig doesn’t kill off the unlucky plants trapped aboard it’s mindless wandering.

This project exhibits beautiful workmanship, but terrible theorizing.


Robot Wednesday

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