Robotany: An Environmentally-Aware, Autonomous Plant-Hybrid Robot; The Billionaire Space Race as an Example of Idealistic Technology, Viewed from a Technology Historian’s Perspective

Ozer, Eleanor, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia

In July, 2021, several of the world’s billionaires launched themselves into space, temporarily leaving behind a world largely suffering through climate change, food insecurity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Though some lauded their achievements, many viewed the spectacle as an audacious display of wealth and ego — wholly inconsiderate to the decaying planet they launched from. The spectacle ignited profound anger and debate across social media and the news, which I tended to agree with. On one hand, the cost of a launch could be used to fund better purposes, such as climate change intervention. And, yes, any one of the space-crazed billionaires could singlehandedly afford to “solve” world hunger, which would drastically improve the lives of tens of millions. But I found myself starting to defend the billionaires: of all the wasteful and egotistical things that billionaires do, at least this was in the pursuit of science. Was the outrage justified? In an attempt to find an answer, I eventually devoted my STS research to understanding the Billionaire Space Race from an ethical and historical perspective. My technical project, conversely, did not involve space or billionaires; instead, it set out to create a plant-controlled-robot, called The Robotany, which would tend to the needs of the plant and notify users when their plant needed to be watered or harvested. Initially, I did not see any logical connection between my STS research and capstone project; it wasn't until I had submitted my research paper that I realized The Robotany was itself a form of idealistic technology: conceived through virtuosic purposes, solving no relevant problem.

My capstone team thought up The Robotany shortly after we learned that plants transmit electrical signals whenever they sense a change in, for example, temperature, pressure, or light. As electrical engineers, we wanted to measure those signals and use them for our own purposes; the goal was to build a robot exoskeleton for the plant, so the plant could maneuver at will: a perverse combination of nature and machinery. Despite our attempts, we were unable to measure the plant’s internal signals reliably and had to use traditional sensors instead. The Robotany holds a small houseplant inside a 3D printed body, atop a moving robot chassis, and is sequined with sensors (such as light, edge, and bump detectors). With the plant seated inside, the robot autonomously moves towards areas with more light, which not only looks cool, but aids in plant growth. Additionally, the robot is equipped with a moisture sensor and onboard camera, which makes the plant’s water and harvest status viewable through a mobile application.

In my STS research, I wanted to investigate whether the Billionaire Space Race was inherently “right” or “wrong”, to put an end to the online arguments, and to understand what makes the world's wealthiest so brazen and egotistical. Instead, I stumbled upon a framework that put the Billionaire Space Race into greater perspective; the framework, derived from two of technology historian Arnold Pacey’s books, describes the general influences, motivations, and predictable outcomes of idealistic technology, such as the Space Race. Upon further reading, I came to understand that the Billionaire Space Race is hardly an outlier; similar stunts and ego contests have been seen regularly throughout the past millennium (e.g., cathedrals, the Eiffel Tower, the moon landing). Additionally, idealistic technology, although often negligent and unnecessary, can and does lead to genuine progress and technological innovation; that is, the technologies initially created for the wealthy will typically result in new knowledge that eventually helps the poor.

We can apply the results of my STS research to The Robotany: though the end product of my technical project was overpriced, over-engineered, and entirely unnecessary, my group’s research into consistently measuring the electrical signals of plants could be useful in wide scale applications, like farming and biosensing. This is not to say that our excursion into idealistic technology was revolutionary or in-any-way beneficial, but perhaps The Robotany lays the groundwork for future world-improving technologies. The field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which investigates how technology impacts people and society, is particularly concerned with ethical technological development. That is, encouraging technologists to be cautious and think about how their innovations will affect everyone. Ultimately, by defining the motivations behind idealistic technology, my research can help encourage ethical and intentional innovation. And though I could not conclude whether the Space Race was ethically right or wrong, my research can perhaps help assuage our collective anger, knowing that the Space Race will likely benefit us all some day.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Robotany, Bioelectrochemical signals, Arnold Pacey, Billionaire Space Race, Tech Titans, Plant-Hybrid

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members: Jason Ashley, Zach Hicks, Noelle Law

Issued Date: