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My Garden Is Telling Me That I'm Abusing My Kids
Could our house plants someday tell us just how much we suck at being a parent?

AdriĆ  Bassaganyes and Ben Salem, of Eindhoven University of Technology, in co-operation with Singapore National University’s Mixed Reality Lab, are exploring that possibility — and more — with their investigative project called Ambient Biomedia.

Ambient Biomedia

Quoting a quote published in a recent post in Next Nature:

Ambient Biomedia is an investigative project about using living beings, in particular plants, to display human lifestyle problems information. The working principle of our systems is taking data about the lifestyle aspect that the user wants to monitor, such as time spent with somebody, health aspects or bad habits, and semantically couple it into an aspect of a living being. The user would merge the plant with his daily environment, following the evolution of his problem’s state in a non intrusive way. Thanks to the empathical link existing between human and other living beings, the user would see himself reflected on the plant, feeling sorry for herself, meditating about his problem and hopefully, taking measures to solve it.

In other words, cropping up soon all over the place will be gardens that can diagnose a whole range of existing medical and psychosocial problems and which actually then become part of a prescribed therapeutic regimen.

Indeed, the data-gathering component of this ambient system is quite feasible in light of the following two research projects.

1) The first project was the subject of a post we wrote last summer and involves the development of an early detection system for Alzheimer's disease. In that project, a house was rigged with motion detectors to monitor changes, however imperceptibly small and wildly erratic, in the day-to-day activity of its elderly volunteer.

The theory is that as Alzheimer's begins destroying brain cells, signals to nerves may become inconsistent - like static on a radio - well before memories become irretrievable. One day, signals to walk fire fine. The next, those signals are fuzzy and people hesitate, creating wildly varying activity patterns.

Spot the tiny wobbles and wiggles and you can spot the disease early.

2) The second one we read about in an article published last year in The Economist. There, we learned that Yoshiharu Yamamoto, of the University of Tokyo, and his colleagues have discovered that “depressed people move in a mathematically different way from other people.”

In their experiment, the researchers monitored changes in the daily movement of those that were diagnosed with clinical depression and those that were healthy. To no one's surprise, they observed a difference in activity between the two experimental groups. When they plotted their data out on graphs, however, they were surprised to see the results feature the characteristic curve of a power law distribution.

The curves produced by plotting the lengths of low-activity periods against their frequency were strikingly different in healthy and depressed people. This reflects not inactivity by the depressed (though they were, indeed, less active) but a difference in the way that the healthy and the depressed spread their resting periods over the day. Depressed people experience longer resting periods more frequently and shorter ones less frequently than healthy people do.

Spot the tell-tale curvature and you can spot the disease, the research suggests.

Gathering actuatable data of any aspects of lifestyle, then, seems to be just a matter of building an in-house or external surveillance system using GIS, CCTV, remote sensing, complex algorithms, motion-activated laser beams and other cool toys mostly geared for the security industry.

So the next question is: how will all those data get manifested in plants? This, too, has been explored before, for instance, in an art installation called Spore 1.1.

But despite all these real-world examples suggesting plausibility, a working ambient system might not ever be successfully produced. But no matter, we still want to know what landscape architects will do with it.

Will landscape architects, for instance, march up to the Department of Children and Family Services with the designs for a garden that can actuate the abusive behavior of foster parents towards kids placed under their ward so that underpaid, overworked and overstretched case workers need only to drive by their houses for an evaluation? If the lawn is green or the rose bushes are lusciously flowering, then all is well inside, physically and psychologically. But if the verdancy of the hedges doesn't quite meet visual standards, then a home inspection is warranted? The suburban landscape vernacular as a measuring stick of domestic and social harmony — which, of course, isn't unheard of.

Will they instead design neighborhood parks finely attuned to the pederastic behaviors of unregistered sex offenders in the area, orchestrating a genetically-encoded series of seismonastic movements when one is detected?

Will they file patents on a rose hybrid that can actuate how much sex you're getting? If it desiccates when you're not having any, what will you do about it?

Finding that the “empathical link existing between human and other living beings” cannot be reliably counted on to spur people to take corrective measures, will they then commission the services of genetic engineers to enable the plants to produce an antidote in pollen form and to release it when needed whether one wants to be cured or not?

The possibilities are endless.

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