Scientists at MIT have found a way to create "bionic plants" by taking a piece of spinach and, in a way, computerizing it. Using nanotubes (artificial carbon-based molecules that look like soot but can actually work much like the silicon we use for computers) scientists have found a way to endow a piece of spinach with the ability to relay information about its surroundings.
Right now this is being used to try and create bomb-sniffing plants, pretty much turning vegetation into a self-sustained safety monitoring system. Whenever the plant detects certain chemicals the implanted nanotubes give off a signal of infrared light that that can be picked up and allow the plant to directly alert the technological devices around it (such as smartphones) to the danger.
I'm not going to pretend I understand how this is truly possible, but what it in less technical terms means for the future is that we can put one of these plants in a public place like an airport and if someone walking by is carrying a bomb it can potentially detect the chemicals of the bomb and send information to people to alert them of this. The crazy part is this technique could be used on virtually any plant for a large range of detection needs.
We have essentially found a way to turn nature into our own computer. We could create plants that not only detect bombs but could create drug-sniffing leaves, plants that send emails to you to alert you when your town's groundwater is is unsafe to drink, , pollution levels in the air are too high, or if your crops are suffering from a drought and need more water.
It is not inconceivable to think that over time we could heighten this technology, make it bigger and more encompassing, so we could make trees that could alert us to forest fires, grass that could alert us when people are on it, flowers that give us specific information on how they are being pollinated, crops showing how pesticides are working on them. In the future is it possible we could even find ways to manipulate nano-technology so that we have tomato plants that also give you WiFi? This is all conjecture of course but the very fact that I can even talk about bionic bomb-sniffing plants, and not be referring to a scene in a science fiction novel makes me hesitant to discard any option as nonsense or "unrealistic" in the modern day.
The possibilities are quite massive because if we now have plants working with us to relay information about the climate around it, we can do almost anything with its digital powers, especially at the rate that the field of nanotechnology is growing., There are also some very scary aspects of this to consider. Many see it as bad enough that our computers and everyday devices seem constantly to be getting hacked or being used to keep surveillance on us, so what happens when we perfect this process further in the very nature around us?
Creating a techno-savvy garden might be appealing in some ways, but if plants can detect scents like bombs it can also pick up all sorts of information of its surroundings, turning our environment into a surveillance system.
We have now found ways to turn the natural world around us into an element of this digital age. Some may find this fascinating and others completely horrifying. Most. like myself, probably see it as a little bit of both. In the end true test of this technology's success isn't simply in how and if it will be able to function as a legitimate invention but will come in how we decide to put it to good use.