Your Spinach Is Watching You

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Axios sums it up like this: “Researchers at MIT have devised a way to allow chemical signals from spinach plants to transmit an email.” What would you want your spinach to email you about? The presence of explosives, apparently.

The new technology allows spinach roots to detect certain substances and then transmit a reading to an infrared camera. The camera can be pre-programmed to send off the alert.

The underlying aim of the research is to leverage the existing capabilities of plants by creating ways for them to communicate with us. With our existing technology, at least.

Mother Nature, the Terminator films’ Skynet and Big Brother have formed an alliance to monitor you. Who needs CCT when you’ve got spinach?

All that’s the bad news. But if you look back, today’s epoch would probably terrify people too. The speed of cars hurtling through cities. Invisible WiFi signals transmitting information through us. Foreign food on our shelves. Vaccines that only took months to test.

Terrifying stuff… not so long ago.

But these days, they’re practically a necessity.

Although I’m still not so convinced about this spinach thing…

Then again, it’s tough to know how innovation will create products that need it. Innovation usually happens the other way around. We know what we want, but can’t quite get the tech to make it happen.

That’s not always how it works though. Computers and the internet were once considered useful to only very few people. Now we’re busy turning spinach into a computer just to make it more useful.

In Dubai, cell phone towers are dressed up as suspicious-looking palm trees. What if palm trees could be cell phone towers?

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have launched a competition on how to help astronauts make food. Spinach that can tell its future beneficiaries whether it needs more or fewer nutrients and watering would be rather useful in that environment. Or perhaps the spinach could optimise its own supply of nutrients. A farm where the food farms itself. Much better than having astronauts do the weeding on Mars. There are probably better things to do. I assume…

My own favourite application of all this tech is a long-time libertarian bugaboo. It’s all about “how to save the whales”. Most people want governments to make laws to protect animals like whales. They imagine the Royal Navy blowing Japan’s fishing fleet out of the water to protect Moby Dick.

But what if you sold the whales instead?

What if the green movement could buy whales, thereby making them their property. Then fishermen couldn’t catch them. It’d be stealing.

By protecting whales and making them out of reach of the private sector, governments simply encourage those who are willing to ignore this designation.

But technology could dramatically resolve this. The whales could be owned and marked as such, finally making it possible to sell them in order to preserve them.

The commercial applications are probably far more interesting to you. The line between wild and farmed seafood could blur. And why stop at seafood?

Another bugaboo I have is painfully low-tech solutions to simple problems. You’d think we’d have mastered how to find leaks in mains pipes, right? But a few weeks ago, the city of Sydney began using sniffer dogs to find water leaks.

Sniffer dogs to find hidden water leaks in mains pipes?

I know this is sounding more and more absurd. Spinach that finds explosives and sniffer dogs that find broken pipes, but it’s supposedly true. “Winnie, a highly intelligent Cocker Spaniel, and Ziggy, an energetic English Springer Spaniel,” are on the prowl.

But what if the water pipe itself sent us an email instead? Sydney’s water management company, I mean. You probably don’t want to know about a leak in Parramatta.

The Internet of all Things (IoT) is often sold as some sort of consumer electronics revolution. To make your life easier. Which makes me a bit sceptical. I like to adopt the technology once everyone else has ironed out the kinks.

That can be a flawed strategy, of course. I’m in a house with no heating or insulation and it’s snowing outside. Yet our toilet has 36 buttons and a heated seat. That’s a normal combination in Japan.

Back in London, my Japanese wife and even more Japanese sister-in-law couldn’t comprehend that heating the floor would heat the room too. I blasted the central heating just to prove a point.

Meanwhile, my tech-obsessed friend Sam Volkering, whose home is presumably kitted out like the Starship Enterprise, once described the chaos which power outages caused on his home. It was a great article about the consequences of too much tech.

So, there is no optimal strategy when it comes to tech adoption. You’re in for a rough time no matter how you kit out your home, or avoid doing so.

The thing is, what if the 5G and IoT revolution aren’t just about the world around you? What if it does far more revolutionary things that you never even find out about?

Car crashes could become a thing of the past. Energy and resource waste could be drastically cut. Traffic flows optimised so well they feel seamless. Mines could operate without people in them, so nobody risks their life to provide you with manganese. Queues could become non-existent too unless we make a law to keep them for cultural reasons.

These changes wouldn’t be comparable to your fridge or toilet talking to you, as many tech savants like to suggest. (If you think that’s weird, our bath here in Japan already does talk.) I’m talking about changes you barely even notice. Like when 3G became 4G on your phone.

Of course, investors would still be profiting from this radical shift. If they own the stocks that make it happen and the stocks that benefit most from the shift.

And so I’d like to introduce you to Nikola Tesla’s final prophecy

Nick Hubble
Editor, Fortune & Freedom

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