Microsoft’s Project Florence turns a plant’s electrical impulses into messages

Be it Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain or a nocturne from Chopin, many budding gardeners will tell you that playing music for your plants boasts real benefits. But what if those same plants could actually talk back? Led by post-doc researcher Helene Steiner — an artist-in-residence for Microsoft Research’s Studio 99 program — the answer to this question may not be entirely unreachable. Dubbed Project Florence, Steiner hopes to translate the electrical impulses and chemicals plants give off into full-fledged messages. In other words, we’ll soon know how much our succulents hate classical music.

Under the hood, Project Florence is a sensor-equipped capsule that’s connected to a companion computer. When someone wants to speak to a plant inside the capsule, they simply type a message into the connected computer which then determines whether the message is positive or negative. Once this is complete, it’s then translated into a series of blinks — think Morse Code — with positive sentiments translated into long red blinks (i.e., the kind of light which produces flowering).

After sending the message, the computer is then capable of reading how the plant receives the message via sensors implanted in the leaves and roots. For instance, the readings could tell gardeners what state a plant’s soil is in or if the plant needs more water. The data quickly judges whether the plant itself transmits negative or positive sentiments, and translates these feelings into tweets. Seriously. Project Florence’s software scans Twitter for messages relating to a plant’s specific sentiment, and then fills in the blanks using said messages.

“We can almost create moods of the plant, and abstract the message that comes back,” Steiner told Fast Co. Design. “When I ask you a question and you’re in a really good mood the response is probably better than [when] you’re tired. That’s why we thought natural language processing was a good way [to indicate that plant’s state].”

Although it started out as a mere pet project, Steiner’s Project Florence has now become a focal point among several Microsoft divisions. Microsoft Research’s principal research designer, Asta Roseway, acknowledged that “groups across Microsoft” have inquired about further research on the technology to better understand the way in which humans and the environment can interact with each other.

“We were kind of caught off guard a little bit, because this raised a lot of visibility across the company,” Roseway added. “It’s brought together all sorts of folks from multiple fields and disciplines. It’s engineers sitting with biologists sitting with software [developers]. That kind of cross collaboration is essential for emerging technologies.”

Moving forward, Steiner intends to continue to work closely with Microsoft to further explore the core science behind the technology. The hope is that with extensive research, the team can more accurately translate a plant’s chemical and electrical output to better serve the plant itself.

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