The story of the Venus flytrap is interesting – and pretty important too

Venus flytrap
Image by JaneB | Bigstockphoto

We ran the story about researchers controlling a Venus flytrap last week because, well, why wouldn’t you? It was, of course, about much more than the flytrap.

Essentially the story was about communicating with the flytrap (which closes on its prey) as an experiment in producing ‘soft’ robots that can work with ultra-sensitive materials. And that seems a good idea, with some potential use cases that could be of great benefit beyond the realms of robotics, lifting delicate materials and manipulation by smartphone.

One of the interesting parts of the story was not just that the researchers could give instructions to the flytrap but that the flytrap could communicate with the researchers. They believe that a plant can signal whether it was healthy or not or suffering from pollution or lack of nutrients.

This would mean a tremendous boost for the future of agriculture. Sensors attached to plants in several areas of a crop could offer farmers a huge amount of information about getting the best out of the plants. The discovery could be used particularly effectively in the emerging world of vertical farming. Already, farmers are maximising their crop yields using lighting that makes plants grow best. And, of course, you can create 24-hour daylight.

The story of the flytrap has a potential dark side, too. If you can manipulate plants – or animals – then you can probably turn them against people. If you were feeling evil, you might be able to poison crops and produce massive food shortages for your enemy.

That potential may seem an unlikely side to the story, almost laughable, but almost every breakthrough that was developed for good has been harnessed for bad, too.

For once, this story might be more good than bad, but the amount of effort being put into making sure that AI is properly controlled so that it cannot be used for evil is huge.

One scientist, Ayanna Howard, who has been building intelligent robots for 30 years (robots to explore Mars, clean up pollution), has one thing that keeps her awake at night. That humans put too much trust in automated systems.

The story of a humble Venus flytrap might seem more curious and interesting than important, but it is the kind of story that might start revolutions down the track.

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