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Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Rachel Armstrong, the Living Architect, expanded on this idea, saying, “Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.” These ideas remind us that technology (and civilization) is advancing at rapid rates, and before we know it, it will become unrecognizable when compared to its present forms. I, for one, find this quite exciting. It’s a concept that has been explored in many science fiction universes, and has been evident throughout history.

Researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa revealed a machine that mimics the functions of plant roots. The machine can “grow” roots by unwinding materials to penetrate the soil. It can sense environmental conditions and adjust growth accordingly, following a similar systematic behavior found in plant roots (roots don’t grow randomly, and part of the research is determining how roots behave). Another aspect of the PLANTOID project is to harvest energy from the environment in a more efficient way, similar to how natural roots harvest energy for the plant. A root-like system that can reliable pull power from the environment without environmental harm could be very valuable. Other applications for such a system include medical uses (a flexible endoscope that can grow into a patient) or space travel (by utilizing the root’s anchoring and exploratory properties).

The PLANTOID system responding to varying environmental inputs. Source: Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa

If successful, we could have a world where plant-like energy harvesters “grow” side-by-side to trees and other plants. We may simply need to “plug” our appliances into the soil and generate energy. To an outsider, it would look like we were actually tapping into the Earth for power, perhaps by magical means (admit it, it’d make for a great sci-fi setting).

Our current practice of resource extraction is quickly becoming obsolete. The Earth System is a beautiful machine (forgive the lifeless analogy) that includes powerful forces. The coming revolution of renewable energy is a new paradigm, a paradigm of tapping into the Earth System instead of draining it. The wind, the waves, and to a point, the sun, is all run on this Earth System. The soil, the microbes, the chemical environment, it all relies on these forces, and instead of extracting these resources we are now working with these forces to generate the energy we need. Technology isn’t taking over nature, it will become nature, and nature will become technology. I just hope I will be able to contribute to this changing paradigm.

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