If popular culture is to be believed, there are a few great divides that are immutable. Yankees versus the Red Sox. Android versus iPhone. Technology versus nature. Never the two shall meet.
But that last one? Maybe we should stop taking it for granted. A new Dutch exhibition called Robotanica is exploring how technology and robotics in particular might play a collaborative role with the natural world. The curators have picked 11 different projects from designers, scientists, and artists that imagine how technology could blend with, and ultimately benefit, nature.
Some are real research projects or concepts, while others are more like conversation pieces. But all of them are fascinating ideas. Check them out below.
1. One big idea seen in multiple exhibits — could robots mimic, or even replace, natural animals?
The Delfly Explorer, for instance, is a small, robotic dragonfly that can flap its wings, control its height, and even see and avoid obstacles. Can you picture a bunch of these guys skimming across the surface of a pond?
2. Swarms of the Vessel robots could paddle across the surface of water.
3. The Woodpecker Project could even mimic the sounds of a disappearing species.
The Woodpecker Project uses speakers to recreate the sound of an endangered bird species. It’s not just for show — the calls help keep insects away that’d otherwise hurt the tree.
It’s not a perfect solution. “We maybe better focus on protecting the biological woodpeckers,” exhibit curator Arjen Bangma told Fast Company. But the mechanical version might be able to help out while the natural population recovers.
Other projects outside the exhibition, like the robo-bee, have also looked at using robots to help replace natural animals.
4. How about living cyborg insects that could be controlled via computer? Could they be used to help find people after a disaster?
5. On the other hand, maybe we could use technology to shape the world to our liking. How about a coat that breathes along with us and that could alert us to air pollution?
6. The Cloud Machine imagines a sky full of weather-making machines to help control the climate.
Geoengineering and climate engineering are real concepts, though many people are scared of unexpected consequences basically turning the Earth into a Hollywood disaster movie.
7. The Weather War examines whether we could use machines to help redirect tornadoes.
The exhibit is based on the 2012 documentary of the same name.
8. What would robotics do to the animals we keep? Would the lives of farm chickens improve if we placed them in a virtual reality simulation of nature?
9. What if we released herds of wild rolling tumbleweed-bots to collect data about desertification?
Just imagine seeing 20 of these coming over the horizon.
10. Or released rolling, autonomous sunlight-seeking gardens onto our streets?
11. And, in this brave new world, will we need simulations to remember old-fashioned things like the night sky?
Whether or not these inventions and ideas come to pass, they raise a good point.
Technology doesn’t have to come at the expense of the natural world. Scientists can use devices like GPS systems to help monitor animal populations; robo-animals can help documentarians get amazing shots of wildlife; and efficient appliances and cleaner energy can help us reduce our environmental footprints.
While you might have a hard time selling chicken farmers on those teeny-tiny virtual reality helmets, perhaps technology and nature don’t need to be so divorced after all.