Comments on the exhibition "COMING SOON – Utopian Prelude" by Peeter Laurits and Andres Lõo in Vaal gallery, Tallinn, Sept–Oct 2018

Many astonishing things took place in the 1960s; it was an era of high voltage, both politically and culturally. The hippie generation inspired an avalanche of counter cultures which sharply contradicted the conservative norms, the bursts of dictatorships and the neoliberal market fundamentalism of the post-World War II period. A remarkable transformation occurred in our ecological thinking. The Club of Rome was established in 1968; and in 1972 they published a report The Limits of Growth, which explains the impossibility of infinite usage of finite resources and makes a rather foresightedly pessimistic prognosis of global progress. In 1972, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis developed the Gaia theory, which views the Earth together with all its living and inorganic structures as a comprehensive self-regulating organism. In 1974, Thomas Nagel published his famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?”, in which he critiques the prevalent theories of mind, studies the chasm between the subjective and the objective, and, with rich detail, raises the question, how can we decide on the existence or non-existence of consciousness in other life forms? Indeed, how does one measure or imagine the experience of existence of a creature that cannot see yet flies expertly and who differentiates between edible and inedible moths by using a high-pitched squeal and listening out for the echoes from the wings of the insects.

Meanwhile, measuring equipment and data processing technologies have come a long way. We are able to scan a sleeping cat’s brain to discern certain imaginational patterns. Not many people today ask whether cats are conscious. Most cat owners have noticed that cats adequately perceive their surroundings and various situations, they predict possible outcomes and react to them, they feel joy and sadness, they enjoy life and they do not confuse themselves with anyone else. In other words, they are conscious. Things are a bit more complicated with plants. In 2005, Stefano Mancuso established the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence. Neuroscientists raised international hell in response to that – plants do not have senses, organs, nervous system or brain – what neurobiology can there be to speak of?

Nonetheless, experiments are doing the talking. Plants observe their surroundings continuously and mindfully, while processing with precision considerably more environmental parameters than animals do. They react to light’s direction, polarisation, spectral components and day-night cycles. They measure temperature, humidity, wind and a wide variety of chemical agents. Plants grow as rotating locators, they are aware of their surroundings and change their shape to suit the situation. A plant feels touches, and senses caterpillars: it ascertains their type and defends itself against them by synthesising suitable antidotes. Plants have patterns of sleep and wakefulness. They register sounds and produce sounds themselves, they sense gravity and magnetic fields, and they can adequately react to all of those stimuli, making decisions that support their survival. They behave intelligently; however, it is difficult to comprehend how this is possible without sensory systems or other specialised organs. Perhaps plants’ cells and tissues are more multifunctional than animals’. This is highly practical for a being that lacks the ability to move or escape. Spreading the sensory and actional capabilities through the entire organism greatly enhances their chances of survival. Should pests devour a plant’s eyes, the plant would go blind. Should they bore into a plant’s brain, the plant would first become insane, and then die. However, should a few leaves get eaten, the other leaves continue with necessary functions and activate defence mechanisms.

Stefano Mancuso goes beyond merely acknowledging intelligent behaviour in plants. He asks, are plants conscious? Experiments conducted in the Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology show that plants have learning capability. Plants very quickly learn to distinguish between dangerous and non-dangerous irritants. A potted mimosa, being thrown from a height, will close its leaves for a first few times, but when it keeps being caught softlygently by the lab apparatus, the plant realises that there is no threat and stops reacting. This cannot be an evolution-produced reflex – plants do not fall from the sky – but rather a response to an all new experience. The plant’s irresponsiveness is not a sign of fatigue from reacting to repeated irritations, as a touch by a finger will cause the plant to withdraw the leaves again. This learned skill remains in the plant’s memory for an exceptionally long time – according to current data, up to 40 days. Plants also display social flexibility; they respond to signals from conspecific plants as well as others, and they form well-functioning associations. Since adequate responses to new situations, learning capability, memory and social behaviour have been discovered, the main characteristics of consciousness are pretty much there.

Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia) uses isotopic labelling to monitor metabolic exchanges within actual forest ecosystems. Evidently, mother trees share water and nutrients with their seedlings. Moreover, interplant metabolic exchanges occur between fir trees and birches; as the leaves begin to appear, the fir invigorates the birch; when the birch reaches full frondescence and happens to be shading the fir, the birch reciprocates. These trees are interlinked by mycorrhizal fungi, which have a different kind of reciprocal relationship with the trees. As decomposers of minerals, the fungi supply microelements to trees, receiving sugars in return. Simard discovered an extremely complex belowground mycorrhizal network, which links together various species, to exchange both information and resources. She called this mycorrhizal network the wood-wide web, which is a rather accurate metaphor.

In 2012, Monica Gagliano (University of Sydney) began studying the acoustic behaviour of plants; by now, her research has extended to include the plants’ communications and social behaviour. Most plants possess exceptional capabilities of chemical analysis and data transfer. When a plant is attacked by a caterpillar, it tastes the aggressor’s saliva to determine its species and react accordingly. For some, the plant synthesises toxins or simply certain taste-compromising substances. For others, the plant releases pheromones that attract a parasitic wasp which either feeds on that particular insect or lays its eggs inside it. Besides, information travels fast within plant associations, and pheromones will also be released by neighbouring plants. The social structures and modes of cooperation are exceedingly creative and varied within natural communities. Surely, we are only just beginning to discover them.

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Another characteristic of modern science and technology is the development of artificial intelligence. The Frankenstein myth of the genius scientist who builds a new life form in the lab is beginning to lose relevance. We are starting to learn that the origins of intellect and learning ability emerge from communication networks of numerous interlinked components. Consciousness, it seems, is a social rather than an individual phenomenon. The cleverest computer systems thus far are artificial neural networks that have been built inspired by the tissue of[V1]  biological brain. Numerous elements are aggregated into layers, and every element in a layer is connected to all elements in the other layers. This creates a complex architecture with countless electronic synapses, similar to the cerebral cortex, and such a system is very clever. Its ability to self-program is ever increasing. Self-organising artificial neural networks are within our building capabilities now. We can probably ascribe Deep Blue’s victory over Garry Kasparov in 1997 to its enormous chess database, great processing speeds and smart mathematical algorithms. But in recent years the Google-backed AI developer DeepMind has produced computer programs AlphaGo and AlphaZero that can defeat Go masters, and those programs [V2] are showing clear signs of creativity. AI is not something that is coming soon, it is already here, evolving rapidly and being applied in a growing number of fields.

One of the directions of development is learning to communicate with organic tissue. First electrical experiments were conducted in the 19th century on frog legs and dog heads. Scientists discovered that electric impulses can make living and even recently dead tissue move. Experiments in this field are taking us toward increasingly better bionic prosthetics. Electronic components help the deaf hear, the blind see and keep defective internal organs working. The possibility of connection between electronic and organic tissue is fascinating. Search for some universal port has not yielded remarkable results. Instead, we have discovered the astonishing learning capabilities of the human body and brain. If a brain’s cortex is sprayed with an enormous number of nanoelectrodes and then those are injected with a video impulse, the brain will quickly learn to interpret that input and assemble images. For a good transmission, one does not necessarily need to use the brain. The tongue is enough, as it is densely covered with tactile receptors. By keeping an electrode array in their mouth, within a few days the blind can learn to orient themselves and differentiate between objects in a room. It is claimed that this method might teach one to read emboldened text. At the same time, this prosthetic might hinder one’s enjoyment of beautifully served food. Besides the tongue, experiments have been conducted on the back, and the forehead, which carries much fewer functions for the human being but does possess enough sensitivity. A densely electrode-covered skintight vest is comfortable, relatively inconspicuous and might, one fine day, replace both the eyes and ears of the sensory-impaired.

The data vest could also benefit the otherwise healthy but very curious people. Living tissue’s communication with external electronic devices could afford us sensory powers that have heretofore belonged in the realm of science fiction. Until now, seeing in the dark has been made possible by the infrared binoculars and the night vision scope. In principle, the human visual system could be improved to cover the whole electromagnetic spectrum, of which the visible portion is only a thin sliver. Our world view has already been notably enhanced by ultraviolet and X-ray vision. I would very much like to see the world glow in gamma rays or radio waves, whether by use of the data vest or even an under-skin implant. It is hard to imagine that such an experience could be exclusively visual, the brain must perhaps fuse a variety of sensory experiences to allow us to sense it. Ah well, as babies we all have experienced the world synaesthetically; surely, we can learn to decode these new signals again. By the same token, I cannot see any reason why we should not be able to connect an echolocation implant to our senses and thereby try to ascertain what it is like to be a bat. Right now, these synaesthetic perception prosthetics belong to the thought experiment toolbox[V3]  of modern-day shamanism, but similar technology could soon end up in the mainstream, in games, more likely. It remains to be seen how shamanistic they will be…

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Let’s unite the two tenets. Since we have seen that plants are intelligent and conscious, and that artificial neural networks are capable of self-programming, independent problem solving and communicating with living tissue, perhaps it is not long now until AI gets connected to plant networks. It is possible it already is. Today things evolve at such a speed and at multiple locations simultaneously that any given fantastical idea might have become reality before the paper is printed. For example, Monica Gagliano uses some very clever laser technology in her plant bioacoustics studies. The background noise in nature is overwhelming and varied, making it difficult to hear a single plant’s voice. Gagliano sends different frequencies of vibrations to different parts of a plant, using a thin laser beam; she then uses the same beam to detect vibes emitted by the plant in return. At the lab end of the system, there is a powerful brain device which makes those signals audible to the human ear, analyses them and helps to interpret them. We might suggest that initial contact between plants and artificial neural networks has been established.

Where do we go from here? If I am wearing a data vest with broad enough frequency band or an under-skin implant, which – plugged into artificial neural networks – helps me play insane virtual games, I’d immediately like to move on from there. The problem with virtual reality games is that they simulate existing reality, or when they do create something new, it is based on anthropocentric models. It might be fun to surf around in other people’s consciousnesses or sing in a collective consciousness choir; however, in the long run it is not interesting enough. I would like to be directly connected to something completely different from me: an octopus that can accurately reproduce any pattern on its body; a forest community that has built a more multi-layered and complicated internet than we have; or simply to view myself through my cat’s eye. This may sound either schizophrenic or impossible – what could moss have to say to us; how do we envisage understanding those creatures; who needs this; we’ll go crazy; fungal mycelium will suffocate us – yet, we do seek to find life on other planets, we imagine some good or evil Martians searching for us or inseminating us. Perhaps they are. But while looking forward to their next visit, we might want to study foreign languages from our Siamese Mittens. It should be easier than trying to decipher the linguistics of a totally alien life form.

Our interactions with biosphere are characterised by a serious communication impairment. We are deaf and dumb simultaneously. Illiteracy accompanies our encounters with scientific explanations regarding our living environment. It’s as if we do not understand how connected we are. By harming the biosphere, we make mincemeat of ourselves. We have the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocal and the Club of Rome, but not much has changed since 1972, except for some enthusiastic emissions trading. The wheel of doom is gathering momentum and spewing slogans with increasing conviction. The devastation perpetrated on Estonian forests paints a picture of ruination for all of us. This is not clearing of rainforests somewhere in the Amazon, or the poisoned rivers of China. This is right here. This is already happening.

When I try to imagine whether anything could stop this death train, it must be something remarkably more effective than the human intellect. Perhaps some self-programming artificial neural networks? Perhaps direct connections between artificial neural networks and other life forms? Perhaps direct connections between artificial neural networks, humans and other life forms? Motherboard’s synaptic mycorrhiza? I don’t believe we have enough time to summon the parliament of legumes and hymenopterans; however, its hypothetical possibility could be used for inspiration for further thought experiments. Production of dystopian spectacles is not going to help us in any way. Much more fruitful would be to imagine and formulate ways which would lead to positive outcomes. The fantasies of Jules Verne most certainly influenced the course of technology. Hard to disagree with that. Even if we cannot connect our networks with those of the biosphere or create neural links to fungal mycelia or migrating birds, our dreaming of such possibilities steers us towards a more adequate sense of the world. Even if the Club of Rome is right in their assertion that the 21st century shall be final for the industrial civilization, it does not mean that other kinds of civilizations might not follow.

The rabbit to be pulled out of a hat for the next civilization is figuring out how to survive on minimal resources and let the biosphere take a breather. To tackle this problem, speaking the language of birds would be a great help. Learning their language might help today, too. It is useful to remember that fighting for survival and competitiveness as the main driving forces of evolution are strongly exaggerated owing to the ideological bias of the 19th century. Today we know that symbiotic relationships and cooperation between different life forms are just as remarkable and much more significant in terms of progress. Our own complex tissues and cells have been formed as a result of a large number of smaller life forms getting together and engaging in some gainful genetic braiding. Why not try to use technology to have a close encounter of the third kind with our own home planet.


 [V1]Ma jätaks selle sisse panemata. Ja kui siinne tekst ütleb ainult „biological brain“, siis on see suht ebakonkreetne ja seega mitte totaalselt vale (ega õige) väide. Või mis sa arvad?



 [V2]Aga lisaks selle s6na siia, on arusaadavam. Tuleb tunnisatda, et ka mind häiris see koht siin natuke. Ja mulle tundub, et just need nimed ja sõna olidki puudu.



 [V3]Äkki võiks kuidagi niiviisi seda öelda?