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TEDGlobal: Stefano Mancuso and plant intelligence

Botanist Stefano Mancuso sees something moving from the biblical story of the ark. “Where are the plants?” There’s a deep bias in human history that tells us that plants aren’t living creatures.

We tend to say that the blue whale is the biggest living creature – it’s not. The great sequoia is far larger. Do we discriminate because plants don’t move? They do – watch the venus fly trap capture a snail. And this isn’t just a special case – plants move when they blossom, and they reposition and reorient to capture the sun, though you need to use time lapse to see this.

He shows us plants at play, immature sprouts learning how to track the sun. And he shows us plants sleeping, in less active states as they’re in darkness. He posits, “Perhaps we should study sleeping problems in plants, not just in animals.” The experimental and ethical issues, he suggests, are less serious. And we can think of plant reproduction – the movement of pollen via animals – as another form of movement.

It took a scientist no less than Darwin to get us to take seriously he power of movement in plants. He and a student wrote a 500 page monograph – “The Power of Movement in Plants”. Near the end, he makes reference to plant intelligence being “like the brain of the lower animals.”

We can see very interesting activity at the root apex, a very small region at the top of a root. We can track action potentials, signals that appear very similar to neurons in the brain.

A rye plant has roughly 11 million root apexes, and these are linked together by a structure that looks surprisingly similar to a network. He suggests we think of roots as being like the internet, linking together small computer machines. Why is there intelligence in the roots of plans? It allows them to seek opportunity and avoid danger.

So why don’t we have plant robots? It’s smart to emulate birds if we want to fly, but if we wanted to explore soil, plants are the masters.

Mancuso doesn’t mean this just as a provocation – he’s building robots that are controlled by
unicellular algae, leaves of plants, and roots. Wow.