Thursday, January 29, 2009

Screams of the Vegetables

You've probably read about the computerized collars that translate a dog's vocalizations into words, basically general phrases indicating whether the pet is happy, angry, scared, or whatever. Well, a company called Botanicalls has invented a system for enabling house plants to talk. Admittedly, their vocabulary is limited; we can't carry on conversations with them yet. Sensor probes in the soil keep track of the moisture content. An embedded ethernet connection sends the data over the Internet to a Twitter account. From there, the message is transmitted to the customer's cell phone. Plants apparently have a one-track mind, since all communications fall into categories such as "Water me, please" (with escalating degrees of urgency as applicable) and "Thank you for watering me." I can imagine a more complex system, however, that also measures fertilizer, sunlight, etc. This one costs $99. The device reminds me of the filk song in which carrot juice is condemned as murder and peeling potatoes as torture, with the refrain, "I've heard the screams of the vegetables." If your tomato vines talked to you, might you feel qualms about eating their offspring? :) People do tend to anthropomorphize the nonhuman on very slight provocation.

The plant-monitoring concept was invented by three telecommunications students at NYU. One of them, Kate Hartman, suggests that Botanicalls illustrates "people's growing comfort level with technology" and offers "a way to think about technology and its role in our lives." The system can be programmed by the user to expand its vocabulary or make it speak in other languages. Dialogue with inanimate objects such as the refrigerator can't be far behind. Some cars talk to their drivers already. We're moving closer all the time to Ray Bradbury's self-maintaining house in "There Will Come Soft Rains" or even the intelligent house with a personality and emphatic opinions on the TV series EUREKA. In fact, I've read other articles in the past that imply the technology to build a dwelling like the one in the Bradbury story already exists, for anyone who could afford to expend the cost and wanted such a living environment.

Margaret L. Carter (

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