Robot War and the Future of Perceptual Deception

[Image: A diagram of the accident site, via the Florida Highway Patrol].

One of the most remarkable details of last week’s fatal collision, involving a tractor trailer and a Tesla electric car operating in self-driving mode, was the fact that the car apparently mistook the side of the truck for the sky.

As Tesla explained in a public statement following the accidental death, the car’s autopilot was unable to see “the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky”—which is to say, it was unable to differentiate the two.

The truck was not seen as a discrete object, in other words, but as something indistinguishable from the larger spatial environment. It was more like an elision.

Examples like this are tragic, to be sure, but they are also technologically interesting, in that they give momentary glimpses of where robotic perception has failed. Hidden within this, then, are lessons not just for how vehicle designers and computers scientists alike could make sure this never happens again, but also precisely the opposite: how we could design spatial environments deliberately to deceive, misdirect, or otherwise baffle these sorts of semi-autonomous machines.

For all the talk of a “robot-readable world,” in other words, it is interesting to consider a world made deliberately illegible to robots, with materials used for throwing off 3D cameras or LiDAR, either through excess reflectivity or unexpected light-absorption.

Last summer, in a piece for New Scientist, I interviewed a robotics researcher named John Rogers, at Georgia Tech. Rogers pointed out that the perceptual needs of robots will have more and more of an effect on how architectural interiors are designed and built in the first place. Quoting that article at length:

In a detail that has implications beyond domestic healthcare, Rogers also discovered that some interiors confound robots altogether. Corridors that are lined with rubber sheeting to protect against damage from wayward robots—such as those in his lab—proved almost impossible to navigate. Why? Rubber absorbs light and prevents laser-based navigational systems from relaying spatial information back to the robot.
Mirrors and other reflective materials also threw off his robots’ ability to navigate. “It actually appeared that there was a virtual world beyond the mirror,” says Rogers. The illusion made his robots act as if there were a labyrinth of new rooms waiting to be entered and explored. When reflections from your kitchen tiles risk disrupting a robot’s navigational system, it might be time to rethink the very purpose of interior design.

I mention all this for at least two reasons.

1) It is obvious by now that the American highway system, as well as all of the vehicles that will be permitted to travel on it, will be remade as one of the first pieces of truly robot-legible public infrastructure. It will transition from being a “dumb” system of non-interactive 2D surfaces to become an immersive spatial environment filled with volumetric sign-systems meant for non-human readers. It will be rebuilt for perceptual systems other than our own.

2) Finding ways to throw-off self-driving robots will be more than just a harmless prank or even a serious violation of public safety; it will become part of a much larger arsenal for self-defense during war. In other words, consider the points raised by John Rogers, above, but in a new context: you live in a city under attack by a foreign military whose use of semi-autonomous machines requires defensive means other than—or in addition to—kinetic firepower. Wheeled and aerial robots alike have been deployed.

One possible line of defense—among many, of course—would be to redesign your city, even down to the interior of your own home, such that machine vision is constantly confused there. You thus rebuild the world using light-absorbing fabrics and reflective ornament, installing projections and mirrors, screens and smoke. Or “stealth objects” and radar-baffling architectural geometries. A military robot wheeling its way into your home thus simply gets lost there, stuck in a labyrinth of perceptual convolution and reflection-implied rooms that don’t exist.

In any case, I suppose the question is: if, today, a truck can blend-in with the Florida sky, and thus fatally disable a self-driving machine, what might we learn from this event in terms of how to deliberately confuse robotic military systems of the future?

We had so-called “dazzle ships” in World War I, for example, and the design of perceptually baffling military camouflage continues to undergo innovation today; but what is anti-robot architectural design, or anti-robot urban planning, and how could it be strategically deployed as a defensive tactic in war?

The Architecture of Delay vs. The Architecture of Prolongation

[Image: A rendering of the “Timeship” cryogenic facility by architect Stephen Valentine, via New Scientist].

The primary setting of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, is a cryogenic medical facility in the mountainous deserts of Central Asia. There we meet a family that is, in effect, freezing itself, one by one, for reawakening in a speculative second life, in some immortally self-continuous version of the future.

First the mother goes; then the father, far before his time, willfully and preemptively ending things out of loneliness; next would be the son, the book’s ostensible protagonist, if he didn’t arrive with so many reservations about the procedure. Either way, it’s a question of what it means to delay one thing while prolonging another—to preserve one state as a means of preventing another from setting in. One is a refusal to let go of something you already possess; the other is a refusal to accept something you don’t yet have. An addiction to comfort vs. a fear of the new.

Without getting into too many of the book’s admittedly sparse details, it suffices to say that Zero K continues many of DeLillo’s most consistent themes—finance (Cosmopolis), apocalyptic religion (Mao II), the symbolic allure of mathematical analysis (Ratner’s Star).

What makes the book worth a mention here are some of the odder details of this cryogenic compound. It is a monumental space, described with references both to grand scientific and medical facilities—think the Salk Institute, perhaps—as well as to postmodern religious centers, this desert megachurch of the secular afterlife.

Yet its strangest details come from the site’s peripheral ornamentation: there are artificial gardens, for example, filled with resin-based and plastic plant life, and there is a surreal distribution of lifeless mannequins throughout the grounds, standing in penitential silence amongst the fake greenery. Unliving, they cannot die.

These stylized representations of biology, or replicant life forms that come across more like mockery than mimicry, expand the novel’s central conceit of frozen life—life reduced to absolute stillness, placed on pause, in hibernation, in temporal limbo, preserved—out into the landscape itself. It is an obvious symbolism, which is one of the book’s shortcomings; these deathless gardens with their plastic guards remain creepily poetic, nonetheless. These can also be seen as fittingly cynical flourishes for a facility founded on loose talk of singularities, medical resurrection, and quote-unquote human consciousness, as if even the designers themselves were in on the joke.

Briefly, despite my lukewarm feelings about the actual novel, I should say that I really love the title, Zero K. It is, of course, a thermal description—or zero K, zero kelvin, absolute zero, cryogenic perfection. Yet it is also refers to an empty digital file—zero k, zero kb—or, perhaps more accurately, a file saved with nothing in it, thus seemingly a quiet authorial nod to the idea that absolutely nothing about these characters is being saved, or preserved, in their quest for immortality. And it is also a nicely cross-literary reference to Frank Kafka’s existential navigator of European political absurdity, Josef K. or just K. From Josef K. to Zero K, his postmodern replacement.

The title, then, is brilliant—and the mannequins and the plastic plant life found at an end-times cryogenic facility in Central Asia make for an amazing set-up—but it’s certainly not one of DeLillo’s strongest books. In fact, I have been joking to people that, if you really want to read a novel this summer written by an aging white male cultural figure known for his avant-garde aesthetics, consider picking up Consumed, David Cronenberg’s strange, possibly too-Ballardian novel about murder, 3D printing, North Korean kidnapping squads, and more, rather than Zero K (or, of course, read both).

In any case, believe it or not, this all came out of the fact that I was about to tweet a link to a long New Scientist article about a cryogenic facility under construction in Texas when I realized that I had more to say than just 140 characters (Twitter, I have found, is actually a competitor to your writing masquerading as an enabler of it—alas, something I consistently re-forget).

There, Helen Thompson takes us to a place called Comfort, Texas.

[Image: Rendering of the “Timeship” facility by architect Stephen Valentine].

“The scene from here is surreal,” Thompson writes. “A lake with a newly restored wooden gazebo sits empty, waiting to be filled. A pregnant zebra strolls across a nearby field. And out in the distance some men in cowboy hats are starting to clear a huge area of shrub land. Soon the first few bricks will be laid here, marking the start of a scientific endeavour like no other.” A “monolithic building” is under construction in Comfort, and it will soon be “the new Mecca of cryogenics.”

Called Timeship, the monolithic building will become the world’s largest structure devoted to cryopreservation, and will be home to thousands of people who are neither dead nor alive, frozen in time in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life. And last month, building work began.

The resulting facility will include “a building that would house research laboratories, DNA from near-extinct species, the world’s largest human organ biobank, and 50,000 cryogenically frozen bodies.”

The design of the compound is not free of the sort of symbolic details we saw in DeLillo’s novel. Indeed, Thompson explains, “Parts of the project are somewhat theatrical—backup liquid nitrogen storage tanks are covered overhead by a glass-floored plaza on which you can walk surrounded by a fine mist of clouds—others are purely functional, like the three wind turbines that will provide year-round back-up energy.” And then there’s that pregnant zebra.

[Image: An otherwise totally unrelated photo of a circuit, chosen simply for its visual resemblance to the mandala/temple/resurrection facility in Texas; via DARPA].

It’s a long feature, worth reading in full—so click over to New Scientist to check it out—but what captivates me here is the notion that a sufficiently advanced scientific facility could require an architectural design that leans more toward religious symbolism.

What are the criteria, in other words, by which an otherwise rational scientific undertaking—conquering death? achieving resurrection? simulating the birth of the universe?—can shade off into mysticism and poetry, into ritual and symbolism, into what Zero K refers to as “faith-based technology,” and what architectural forms are thus most appropriate for housing it?

In fact, DeLillo presents a political variation on this question in Zero K. At one point, the book’s narrator explains, looking out over the cryogenic facility, “I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile logic? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells [the facility’s administrators], in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.” When does utilitarian become totalitarian.

When do scientific undertakings become religious movements? When does minimalism become a form of political control?

Immersive and Oceanic

navy[Image: Undersea augmented reality headgear; courtesy of the U.S. Navy].

By now you’ve no doubt seen Hyper-Reality, the new short film produced by visualization wunderkind Keiichi Matsuda, whose early video experiments, produced while still a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, I posted about here a long while back.

As you can see in the embedded video, above, Matsuda’s film is a POV exploration of information overload, identity gamification, and the mass burial of public space beneath impenetrable curtains of privately relevant, interactive marketing data, all cranked up to the level of cacophony; when it all shuts off at one point, leaving viewers stranded in a nearly silent, everyday supermarket, the effect is almost therapeutic, an intensely relieving escape back to cognition free from popup ads.

[Image: From Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda].

I was reminded of Matsuda’s film, however, by the recent news that so-called heads-up displays, or HUDs, are coming to an underwater experience near you: the U.S. Navy has developed an augmented reality helmet for undersea missions.

This unique system enables divers to have real-time visual display of everything from sector sonar (real-time topside view of the diver’s location and dive site), text messages, diagrams, photographs and even augmented reality videos. Having real-time operational data enables them to be more effective and safe in their missions—providing expanded situational awareness and increased accuracy in navigating to a target such as a ship, downed aircraft, or other objects of interest.

Wandering among enemy seamounts, swimming through immersive 3-dimensional visualizations of currents and tides, watching instructional videos for how to infiltrate an adversary’s port defenses, the U.S. Navy attack crews of the near-future will be like characters in an aquatic Hyper-Reality, negotiating drop-down menus and the threat of moray eels simultaneously.

[Image: From Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda].

This raises the question of how future landscape architects, given undersea terrains as a possible target of design, might use augmented reality on the seabed.

Recall the preservation program underway today in the Baltic Sea, whereby historically valuable shipwrecks are being given interpretive signage to remind people—that is, possible looters—that what they are seeing down there is not mere debris. They are, in effect, swimming amidst an open-water museum, a gallery of the lost and sunken.

So here’s to someone visualizing the augmented reality underwater shipwreck museum of tomorrow, narratives of immersive data gone oceanic.

A Window “Radically Different From All Previous Windows”

LIGO[Image: The corridors of LIGO, Louisiana, shaped like a “carpenter’s square”; via Google Earth].

It’s been really interesting for the last few weeks to watch as rumors and speculations about the first confirmed detection of gravitational waves have washed over the internet—primarily, at least from my perspective, because my wife, Nicola Twilley, who writes for The New Yorker, has been the only journalist given early access not just to the results but, more importantly, to the scientists behind the experiment, while writing an article that just went live over at The New Yorker.

It has been incredibly exciting to listen-in on partial conversations and snippets of overheard interviews in our home office here, as people like Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and David Reitze, among a dozen others, all explained to her exactly how the gravitational waves were first detected and what it means for our future ability to study and understand the cosmos.

All this gloating as a proud husband aside, however, it’s a truly fascinating story and well worth mentioning here.

LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—is a virtuoso act of precision construction: a pair of instruments, separated by thousands of miles, used to detect gravitational waves. They are shaped like “carpenter’s squares,” we read, and they stand in surreal, liminal landscapes: surrounded by water-logged swampland in Louisiana and “amid desert sagebrush, tumbleweed, and decommissioned reactors” in Hanford, Washington.

Ligo-Hanford [Image: LIGO, Hanford; via Google Earth].

Each consists of vast, seismically isolated corridors and finely calibrated super-mirrors between which lasers reflect in precise synchrony. These hallways are actually “so long—nearly two and a half miles—that they had to be raised a yard off the ground at each end, to keep them lying flat as Earth curved beneath them.”

To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, [Rainer Weiss, who first proposed the instrument’s construction] suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the “L.” It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles, the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony—unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam was now covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any before it, and it would require delicate tuning, in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.

LIGO is the most sensitive instrument ever created by human beings, and its near-magical ability to pick up the tiniest tremor in the fabric of spacetime lends it a fantastical air that began to invade the team’s sleep. As Frederick Raab, director of the Hanford instrument, told Nicola, “When these people wake up in the middle of the night dreaming, they’re dreaming about the detector.”

Because of this hyper-sensitivity, its results need to be corrected against everything from minor earthquakes, windstorms, and passing truck traffic to “fluctuations in the power grid,” “distant lightning storms,” and even the howls of prowling wolves.

When the first positive signal came through, the team was actually worried it might not be a gravitational wave at all but “a very large lightning strike in Africa at about the same time.” (They checked; it wasn’t.)

Newton[Image: “Newton” (1795-c.1805) by William Blake, courtesy of the Tate].

The big deal amidst all this is that being able to study gravitational waves is very roughly analogous to the discovery of radio astronomy—where gravitational wave astronomy has the added benefit of opening up an entirely new spectrum of observation. Gravitational waves will let us “see” the fabric of spacetime in a way broadly similar to how we can “see” otherwise invisible radio emissions in deep space.

From The New Yorker:

Virtually all that is known about the universe has come to scientists by way of the electromagnetic spectrum. Four hundred years ago, Galileo began exploring the realm of visible light with his telescope. Since then, astronomers have pushed their instruments further. They have learned to see in radio waves and microwaves, in infrared and ultraviolet, in X-rays and gamma rays, revealing the birth of stars in the Carina Nebula and the eruption of geysers on Saturn’s eighth moon, pinpointing the center of the Milky Way and the locations of Earth-like planets around us. But more than ninety-five per cent of the universe remains imperceptible to traditional astronomy… “This is a completely new kind of telescope,” [David] Reitze said. “And that means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore.”

Interestingly, in fact, my “seeing” metaphor, above, is misguided. As it happens, the gravitational waves studied by LIGO in its current state—ever-larger and more powerful new versions of the instrument are already being planned—“fall within the range of human hearing.”

If you want to hear spacetime, there is an embedded media player over at The New Yorker with a processed snippet of the “chirp” made by the incoming gravitational wave.

In any case, I’ve already gone on at great length, but the article ends with a truly fantastic quote from Kip Thorne. Thorne, of course, achieved minor celebrity last year when he consulted on the physics for Christopher Nolan’s relativistic time-travel film Interstellar, and he is not lacking for imagination.

Thorne compares LIGO to a window (and my inner H.P. Lovecraft reader shuddered at the ensuing metaphor):

“We are opening up a window on the universe so radically different from all previous windows that we are pretty ignorant about what’s going to come through,” Thorne said. “There are just bound to be big surprises.”

Go read the article in full!

“Building with metals not from Earth”

I missed the story last month that a company called Planetary Resources had successfully 3D-printed a small model using “metals not from Earth”—that is, metal harvested from a meteorite. “Transforming a chunk of space rock into something you can feed into a 3D printer is a pretty odd process. Planetary Resources uses a plasma that essentially turns the meteorite into a cloud that then ‘precipitates’ metallic powder that can be extracted via a vacuum system. ‘It condenses like rain out of a cloud,’ said [a company spokesperson], ‘but instead of raining water, you’re raining titanium pellets out of an iron nickel cloud.’ (…) ‘Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.’”

Landscapes of Data Infection

seeds[Image: An otherwise unrelated seed x-ray from the Bulkley Valley Research Centre].

There’s a fascinating Q&A in a recent issue of New Scientist with doctor and genetic researcher Karin Ljubic Fister.

Fister studies “plant-based data storage,” which relies on a combination of artificially modified genes, bacteria, and “infected” tobacco plants.

Comparing genetic programming with binary code, Fister explains that, “First you need a coding system. A computer program is basically a sequence of 0s and 1s, so we transformed this into the four DNA ‘letters’—A, G, C and T—by turning 00 into A, 10 into C, 01 into G and 11 into T. Then we synthesised the resulting DNA sequence. We transferred this artificial DNA into a bacterium and infected the leaf of a tobacco plant with it. The bacterium transfers this artificial DNA into the plant.”

Even better, the resulting “infection” is heritable: “We took a cutting of the infected leaf, planted it, and grew a full tobacco plant from it. This is essentially cloning, so all the leaves of this new plant, and its seeds, contained the ‘Hello World’ program encoded in their DNA.” The plants thus constitute an archive of data.

In fact, Fister points out that “all of the archives in the world could be stored in one box of seeds.” Now put that box of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, she suggests, and you could store all the world’s information for thousands of years. Seed drives, not hard drives.

It’s worth reading the Q&A in full, but she really goes for it at the end, pointing out at least two things worth highlighting here.

saguaros[Image: “Higashiyama III” (1989) by Kozo Miyoshi, courtesy University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography; via but does it float].

One is that specialized botanical equipment could be used as a technical interface to “read” the data stored in plants. The design possibilities here are mind-boggling—and, in fact, are reminiscent of the Landscape Futures exhibition—and they lead directly to Fister’s final, amazing point, which is that this would, of course, have landscape-scale implications.

After all, you could still actually sow these seeds, populating an entire ecosystem with data plants: archives in the form of forests.

“Imagine walking through a park that is actually a library,” she says, “every plant, flower and shrub full of archived information. You sit down on a bench, touch your handheld DNA reader to a leaf and listen to the Rolling Stones directly from it, or choose a novel or watch a documentary amid the greenery.” Information ecosystems, hiding in plain sight.

Fly, Eagles, Fly

Speaking of animals being actively incorporated into urban infrastructure, Dutch police are training eagles to hunt drones. “What I find fascinating is that birds can hit the drone in such a way that they don’t get injured by the rotors,” explains a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society. “They seem to be whacking the drone right in the center so they don’t get hit; they have incredible visual acuity and they can probably actually see the rotors.”

Wearable Furniture, Portable Rooms

archelis[Image: Archelis via the Tech Times].

“Japanese researchers have developed a wearable chair called Archelis that can help surgeons when they are performing long surgeries,” the Tech Times explains.

At first glance Archelis does not look like a chair at all. The wearable chair looks more like a leg brace. The wearer of Archelis will not get full comfort of sitting on a chair but the gadget actually wraps around the wearer’s buttocks and legs, providing support that effectively allows them to sit down wherever and whenever needed.
The developers of Archelis suggest that even though the chair is targeted for surgeons performing long surgeries, it can be used by anyone in fields that require a lot of standing. Moreover, the chair may also assist people who have to sit briefly after walking for a while.

Your leg braces, in other words, convert into furniture, as seen in the video below.

While this is already interesting, of course, the artistic and even architectural implications are pretty fascinating, with clear applications outside the realm of surgery. Crowds as coordinated super-furniture. A choreography of linked braces forming structural chains and portable rooms.

Give it a few years—and then why design and build certain types of furniture at all, when people can simply wear them? What would this do to how architects frame space?

Until that day, read more at the Tech Times.

(Spotted via @curiousoctopus).

In the Garden of 3D Printers

[Image: Unrelated image of incredible floral shapes 3D-printed by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg (via)].

A story published earlier this year explained how pollinating insects could be studied by way of 3D-printed flowers.

The actual target of the study was the hawkmoth, and four types of flowers were designed and produced to help understand the geometry of moth/flower interactions, including how “the hawkmoth responded to each of the flower shapes” and “how the flower shape affected the ability of the moth to use its proboscis (the long tube it uses as a mouth).”

Of course, a very similar experiment could have been done using handmade model flowers—not 3D printers—and thus could also have been performed with little fanfare generations ago.

But the idea that a surrogate landscape can now be so accurately designed and manufactured by printheads that it can be put into service specifically for the purpose of cross-species dissimulation—that it, tricking species other than humans into thinking that these flowers are part of a natural ecosystem—is extraordinary.

[Image: An also unrelated project called “Blossom,” by Richard Clarkson].

Many, many years ago, I was sitting in a park in Providence, Rhode Island, one afternoon reading a copy of Germinal Life by Keith Ansell Pearson. The book had a large printed flower on its front cover, wrapping over onto the book’s spine.

Incredibly, at one point in the afternoon a small bee seemed to become confused by the image, as the bee kept returning over and over again to land on the spine and crawl around there—which, of course, might have had absolutely nothing to do with the image of a printed flower, but, considering the subject matter of Ansell Pearson’s book, this was not without significant irony.

It was as if the book itself had become a participant in, or even the mediator of, a temporary human/bee ecosystem, an indirect assemblage created by this image, this surrogate flower.

In any case, the image of little gardens or entire, wild landscapes of 3D-printed flowers so detailed they appear to be organic brought me to look a little further into the work of Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, a few pieces of whose you can see in the opening image at the top of this post.

Their 3D-printed floral and coral forms are astonishing.

[Image: “hyphae 3D 1” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Rosenkrantz’s Flickr page gives as clear an indication as anything of what their formal interests and influences are: photos of coral, lichen, moss, mushrooms, and wildflowers pop up around shots of 3D-printed models.

They sometimes blend in so well, they appear to be living specimens.

[Image: Spot the model; from Jessica Rosenkrantz’s Flickr page].

There is an attention to accuracy and detail in each piece that is obvious at first glance, but that is also made even more clear when you see the sorts of growth-studies they perform to understand how these sorts of systems branch and expand through space.

[Image: “Floraform—Splitting Point Growth” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

The organism as space-filling device.

And the detail itself is jaw-dropping. The following shot shows how crazy-ornate these things can get.

[Image: “Hyphae spiral” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Anyway, while this work is not, of course, related to the hawkmoth study with which this post began, it’s nonetheless pretty easy to get excited about the scientific and aesthetic possibilities opened up by some entirely speculative future collaboration between these sorts of 3D-printed models and laboratory-based ecological research.

One day, you receive a mysterious invitation to visit a small glass atrium constructed atop an old warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of New York City. You arrive, baffled as to what it is you’re meant to see, when you notice, even from a great distance, that the room is alive with small colorful shapes, flickering around what appears to be a field of delicate flowers. As you approach the atrium, someone opens a door for you and you step inside, silent, slightly stunned, noticing that there is life everywhere: there are lichens, orchids, creeping vines, and wildflowers, even cacti and what appears to be a coral reef somehow inexplicably growing on dry land.

But the room does not smell like a garden; the air instead is charged with a light perfume of adhesives.

[Image: “Hyphae crispata #1 (detail)” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Everything you see has been 3D-printed, which comes as a shock as you begin to see tiny insects flittering from flowerhead to flowerhead, buzzing through laceworks of creeping vines and moss—until you look even more carefully and realize that they, too, have been 3D-printed, that everything in this beautiful, technicolor room is artificial, and that the person standing quietly at the other end amidst a tangle of replicant vegetation is not a gardener at all but a geometrician, watching for your reaction to this most recent work.

Cereal Bags of the Stratosphere

[Image: One of Google’ Loon balloons; screen grab from this video].

“The lab is 250 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and 70 feet tall. It’s a massive space where Google’s scientists can simulate the negative-60 degrees Celsius temperature of the stratosphere.” Alexis Madrigal on Google’s Project Loon balloons.

The future of the internet is cereal bag technology in the sky.

Electronic Plantlife

[Image: A rose-circuit, courtesy Linköping University].

In a newly published paper called “Electronic plants,” researchers from Linköping University in Sweden describe the process by which they were able to “manufacture” what they call “analog and digital organic electronic circuits and devices” inside living plants.

The plants not only conducted electrical signals, but, as Science News points, the team also “induced roses leaves to light up and change color.”

Indeed, in their way of thinking, plants have been electronic gadgets all along: “The roots, stems, leaves, and vascular circuitry of higher plants are responsible for conveying the chemical signals that regulate growth and functions. From a certain perspective, these features are analogous to the contacts, interconnections, devices, and wires of discrete and integrated electronic circuits.”

[Image: Bioluminescent foxfire mushrooms (used purely for illustrative effect), via Wikipedia].

Here’s the process in a nutshell:

The idea of putting electronics directly into trees for the paper industry originated in the 1990s while the LOE team at Linköping University was researching printed electronics on paper. Early efforts to introduce electronics in plants were attempted by Assistant Professor Daniel Simon, leader of the LOE’s bioelectronics team, and Professor Xavier Crispin, leader of the LOE’s solid-state device team, but a lack of funding from skeptical investors halted these projects.
Thanks to independent research money from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in 2012, Professor Berggren was able to assemble a team of researchers to reboot the project. The team tried many attempts of introducing conductive polymers through rose stems. Only one polymer, called PEDOT-S, synthesized by Dr. Roger Gabrielsson, successfully assembled itself inside the xylem channels as conducting wires, while still allowing the transport of water and nutrients. Dr. Eleni Stavrinidou used the material to create long (10 cm) wires in the xylem channels of the rose. By combining the wires with the electrolyte that surrounds these channels she was able to create an electrochemical transistor, a transistor that converts ionic signals to electronic output. Using the xylem transistors she also demonstrated digital logic gate function.

Headily enough, using plantlife as a logic gate also implies a future computational use of vegetation: living supercomputers producing their own circuits inside dual-use stems.

Previously, we have looked at the use of electricity to stimulate plants into producing certain chemicals, how the action of plant roots growing through soil could be tapped as a future source of power, and how soil bacteria could be wired up into huge, living battery fields—in fact, we also looked at a tongue-in-cheek design project for “growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees“—but this actually turns vegetation into a form of living circuitry.

While Archigram’s “Logplug” project is an obvious reference point here within the world of architectural design, it seems more interesting to consider instead the future landscape design implications of technological advances such as this—how “electronic plants” might affect everything from forestry to home gardening, energy production and distribution infrastructure to a city’s lighting grid.

[Image: The “Logplug” by Archigram, from Archigram].

We looked at this latter possibility several few years ago, in fact, in a post from 2009 called “The Bioluminescent Metropolis,” where the first comment now seems both prescient and somewhat sad given later developments.

But the possibilities here go beyond mere bioluminescence, into someday fully functioning electronic vegetation.

Plants could be used as interactive displays—recall the roses “induced… to light up and change color”—as well as given larger conductive roles in a region’s electrical grid. Imagine storing excess electricity from a solar power plant inside shining rose gardens, or the ability to bypass fallen power lines after a thunderstorm by re-routing a town’s electrical supply through the landscape itself, living corridors wired from within by self-assembling circuits and transistors.

And, of course, that’s all in addition to the possibility of cultivating plants specifically for their use as manufacturing systems for organic electronics—for example, cracking them open not to reveal nuts, seeds, or other consumable protein, but the flexible circuits of living computer networks. BioRAM.

There are obvious reasons to hesitate before realizing such a vision—that is, before charging headlong into a future world where forests are treated merely as back-up lighting plans for overcrowded cities and plants of every kind are seen as nothing but wildlife-disrupting sources of light cultivated for the throwaway value of human aesthetic pleasure.

Nonetheless, thinking through the design possibilities in addition to the ethical risks not only now seems very necessary, but might also lead someplace truly extraordinary—or someplace otherworldly, we might say with no need for justification.

For now, check out the original research paper over at Science Advances.