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Stopping over in phoenix on my way home to Boston a few years ago, I was treated to a rare desert sight: a storm roaring into the city.

The skies opened and rain began pouring down. Then, five minutes after the tempest started, the hotel’s lawn sprinkler system came on. Pretty dumb sprinklers. In a city like Phoenix you’d think the gardeners would be running around with Dixie cups to catch every precious drop. Maybe someday the sprinklers will at least be smart enough to check the Internet for a weather report before they start watering. Or maybe they’ll just ask the plants themselves.

I wish they could. When I got home to Boston, the plant in my office had withered into a desiccated, brownish heap. Unable to cry for help, incapable of reaching the keyboard to send me a desperate e-mail, neglected and ignored by the graduate students and custodians who occasionally peeked in to see if I’d returned, the poor Spathiphyllum floribundum (a.k.a. indestructible generic office plant) really looked like it was pushing up daisies.

Somehow, even with my black thumb, I nursed it back to health with a combination of Poland Spring water and Peter’s Plant Food. But it really irked me that, in this day and age of imported strawberries and bioengineered corn, my poor office plant was forced to sit in a clay pot full of dirt with no means of support whenever I had to be away, doomed to wither and die without a plant-sitter at hand.

When I complained to the graduate students about their shameless neglect of a dying soul, their immediate response was to construct an automatic plant-caretaking system. Called Robocrop, it was designed to use a handful of sensors to monitor growth and dispense light, water and nutrients. Aside from how to prevent office ecological disasters, the questions were: What’s the optimal cycling of resources to promote plant growth? Would it be better to simply leave the grow-lights on 24 hours a day, or to cycle them? Should the light sources move (like the sun) or just remain overhead? Could a time-lapse camera watch and measure the plant’s response to various stimuli? Does playing Mozart really grow the biggest tomatoes, or could the students systematically put Napster to work to hone in on the absolute best music for tomato production?

Often the cycles of a busy life make it impossible to properly care for plants. And just as often, your own instincts about when to water or supply plant food may not be in tune with the plant’s true needs. So perhaps a little Internet-controlled herbal garden, with a sensor network and computer-driven drip-watering and misting system could keep a supply of basil and other cooking plants fresh and healthy and at hand. I often think that such a system would make a nice addition to, say, Hewlett-Packard’s catalogue of scanners and printers. Maybe someday little packets of seeds will be hanging next to the ink-jet cartridges at CompUSA.

There is a real opportunity and need to better connect with the lives of plants, and it isn’t only about keeping your office lily alive, or about applying “green” techniques to your lawn. There are larger ecosystem issues that need a more vigorous systems approach. For example, climate change and the coevolution of various species are clearly critical issues, but in some respects we know about as much about those issues as we do about our own backyards, which is to say, not much. 

A few years ago, MIT students Matt Reynolds and Rich Fletcher were inspired by an expedition to Mount Everest to construct a device to measure the weather there. They built a bombproof (and Everest-proof) weather sensor in a plastic pipe and bolted it to the mountain, where it recorded the data for nearly a year and transmitted the results via satellite onto the Internet.   Conveniently, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites swing overhead about ten times a day. It’s a store-and-forward system: the probe tosses up a 32-byte payload (enough for a couple hours of weather samples), and that packet blinks off the satellite and onto the Internet. At base camp, support teams can radio the climbers at higher-elevation camps (“It’s calm and sunny on the summit-now go for it!”).

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