Saturday, January 24, 2004

The Secret Inner Computational Lives of Plants

I have maintained for a long time that the intelligence of plants is severely underappreciated. This is, among other things, why I am not a vegetarian --- I don't see much moral difference between using cows for food and using wheat for food. A stalk of wheat may have "consciousness" that is more alien to us than that of a cow, but it may be no less worthy of consideration.

Well, progress is being made on this front. Three-Toed Sloth points to a recent paper by D. Peak, J. D. West, S. M. Messinger, and K. A. Mott with this fascinating abstract:

It has been suggested that some biological processes are equivalent to computation, but quantitative evidence for that view is weak. Plants must solve the problem of adjusting stomatal apertures to allow sufficient CO2 uptake for photosynthesis while preventing excessive water loss. Under some conditions, stomatal apertures become synchronized into patches that exhibit richly complicated dynamics, similar to behaviors found in cellular automata that perform computational tasks. Using sequences of chlorophyll fluorescence images from leaves of Xanthium strumarium L. (cocklebur), we quantified spatial and temporal correlations in stomatal dynamics. Our values are statistically indistinguishable from those of the same correlations found in the dynamics of automata that compute. These results are consistent with the proposition that a plant solves its optimal gas exchange problem through an emergent, distributed computation performed by its leaves.

I, for one, welcome our new photosynthetic overlords.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I realize this is an old post, but I just found it, and... I've never met anyone who felt the way I do about this. Until now - even the "photosynthetic overlords" comment sounds like something I'd say. That's awesome, thank you so much. It's nice to not be alone.