Those fabulous electrical thinking machines

PHOTO: Samuel Huron, Flickr-CC-BY-NC-SA

We know the philodendron as a pleasant, low-maintenance plant suitable for shady gardens and indoor display. But have you ever wondered what it could do with a machete?

Now we don’t have to guess. Visual artist David Bowen recently rigged some sensors to read the natural electrical impulses of a plant, in this case our friend the peaceful philodendron. The input controls a machine with a robot arm holding a large knife. So as the plant fires off its electrical impulses, the sword-wielding houseplant waives the machete in different ways depending on the specific signal. At times, it appears pretty menacing.

“Essentially the plant is the brain of the robot controlling the machete determining how it swings, jabs, slices and interacts in space,” writes Bowen, an associate professor of sculpture and physical computing at the University of Minnesota.

Watching the philodendron’s wild slashing you might think this is just a gimmick. But any given toddler would probably use the machete the same way as the murder plant. And, to be frank, watching some people use social media is largely indistinguishable from this plant’s swordplay. It’s really just a question of awareness, something that can be learned.

This artistic experiment reminded me of an old Jack Handey quote from “Deep Thoughts” on Saturday Night Live. “If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”

We don’t get too excited about the life and death of plants, because we don’t think plants have consciousness. But what if we don’t really know what consciousness is?

Humans have long contemplated the meaning of life and our place in the universe. What began as superstition and myth now manifests as complex rumination about faith in the unseen. Organized religion and humanism may seem diametrically opposed, but both exert considerably energy on the question of why we exist.

That’s fine. But what I really want to know is how different are we from plants with swords? Because I’m betting that if enough plants could use swords, they would eventually figure out how to sack Rome. Photosynthesis-based religious theory could not be far behind.

Questions like these will only become more pressing with time. In fact, artificial intelligence technology is growing exponentially. Companies sell A.I. software that generates original copy. The writing resembles a lot of what you read on LinkedIn. Using a simple search bar on a public website, you can ask computers around the world to generate customized images. Deepfake technology allows advanced users to produce realistic videos of events that never happened. 

I watched with amused horror a video of images generated by A.I. using the lyrics to Don MacLean’s “American Pie.” The result was not only a plausible music video, but a distinct, melancholic vibe that almost feels … artistic.

Scientists are mapping how A.I. systems learn. Comparing notes with neuroscientists, they find that computer brain activity is beginning to resemble our own. In fact, we’re learning more about how our brains actually work from the artificial brains we programmed to learn.

Like the Transcontinental Railroad, A.I. scientists are laying track in one direction while biologists build from the other. In the journal Nature, Sara Reardon writes about a lab experiment testing tiny particles developed from stem cells. Scientists called off the tests when one clump of cells began to exhibit electrical signals that resembled human consciousness. 

Ethicists struggle with what to do about all this. So do I. Maybe we should give the accidental lab-grown brains a machete and see what happens next. Sure, they might become violent, self-centered and imperialistic. But really, who are we to judge?

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe musich says

    Was the plant given the opportunity to decline taking part in this “experiment?” Another fascinating presentation of human made “life” are the dog bots for lack of better words that play a part in the French War of the Worlds series. I suspect you would enjoy that. I wanted to view the American Pie video but the link came up private. This might be another doorway to the source ..,

  2. Shudder

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