Robotany: A Cybernetic Plant; The Impact of Autonomous Technology on Workforce Characteristics

Law, Noelle, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia

Bioelectric sensing is a rapidly growing field that uses signals from an organism as a cheap, resilient, and effective sensory device. The state-of-the-art technical project aims to combine biosensing and autonomous technology to design the Robotany, an environmentally-aware, autonomous plant-hybrid that tracks moisture levels, monitors growth, and moves according to the plant’s lighting needs. In parallel to the advancement of biosensors and their use in autonomous applications, robotic systems are being increasingly integrated into the workforce, leading to the emergence of new job opportunities and the destruction of old ones. The science, technology, and society (STS) topic provides a framework to analyze the impact of professional robots on workforce characteristics. The loosely coupled technical and STS topics provide insight into the applications of autonomous technology, and to the social consequences it introduces.
The technical report summarizes the development of a dual-motor smart-pot. Equipped with a moisture sensor and camera, the device allows the plant to notify the user through a mobile application when it should be watered and any updates about its growth. Additionally, two electrodes, attached to leaves on either side of the plant, will measure the plant’s bioelectrochemical signals and give the plant its own free-will to update its position. The Robotany provides the groundwork for many future plant-based sensing applications because it utilizes the biosensor qualities of the plant to directly monitor plant health and changes in the environment, proving to be a more efficient sensor in the natural world.
The final system included a functioning mobile plant robot that can reposition itself to the location of greatest light. Due to the difficulties experienced in sourcing a healthy mimosa plant, the signal that was to be measured from the plant was simulated instead using the function generators on the Analog Discovery 2. All the conventional sensors were able to successfully collect and utilize data to control the robot’s motion or provide information to the end user.
Increased advancement and more widespread acceptance of robotic workers brings forth the question of which jobs are at risk for being replaced by automated machinery and which ones are not. This research was conducted using Law and Callon’s Actor-Network Theory to examine how ideas, human actors, and non-human actors impact and are impacted by the diffusion of the professional robot. A collection of ethical readings, academic papers, and timely news articles were used to develop a framework that examines how policy can protect those who do not have the same access to education or training required to meet the needs of an emerging, technology-driven job force.
The prioritization of rights ethics proposes a solution that effectively adapts to the complex and uncertain nature of the problems of autonomous technology, particularly as non-human actors and ideas may evolve over time. The final policy recommendation ensures that the harmful effects of this technological diffusion, specifically as it pertains to the exacerbation of income inequality, are mitigated and that the characteristics of the workforce will not be skewed to favor those who are more fortunate socioeconomically.
Autonomous technology has many exciting applications, including cybernetic plants and larger-scale agriculture robots. However, it is important closely monitor the diffusion of such technology to better understand the social consequences that could follow diffusion. Autonomous systems must not only be weighed by their technical value, but by the value they add or detract from various social groups.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Actor-Network Theory, Biosensor, Autonomous Technology, Professional Robots, Technological Diffusion

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Eleanor Ozer, Jason Ashley, Zachary Hicks

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