iPhone Versus Plant – Rematch (Continued)

Are Plants Smarter Than Smartphones?

We’re back for Round 2 of the iPhone vs. plant rematch: Which is more intelligent, an iPhone 6 or a plant?

If you missed Rematch, Round 1, here it is. (I think the iPhone 6 clearly took the first round.)

By the way, this contest mainly has to do with the question of which is better at sensing its environment, an iPhone 6 or a plant?

As previously mentioned, intelligence is often defined as an entity’s ability to adapt to a new environment or to changes in the current environment. So, here we’re using complexity and versatility of environmental sensing as a measure of relative intelligence.

They’ve Got The Touch

This second round has to do with “touch ID”.

This is not “touch” as it relates to feeling or stimulation, but “touch” as it relates to identity.

Thus, we’re NOT talking about “touch-sensitive” plants, for instance, such as the Venus flytrap or Mimosa.

Instead, we’re talking about surface-to-surface contact as a means for specific identification. (Think fingerprints, for example.)

Such “touch ID” is useful for security reasons, such as for determining friend versus foe. In a biological context, it’s also a way to determine self from non-self at the cellular level, especially in regard to innate immunity.

I think that most people would expect that plants would possess much more complex and versatile environmental surface-to-surface sensors for recognizing “friend” versus “foe”, or self from non-self, than a smartphone, even the iPhone 6.

But let’s take a look at what the iPhone 6 can do in this regard before we award Round 2 of this rematch to the plants.

iPhone Fingerprint Recognition

The iPhone 6 Touch ID is a security technology that this smartphone uses to identify a unique individual via fingerprint recognition.

“Touch ID is Apple’s biometric fingerprint authentication technology. A capacitive ring activates the scanner on contact which then takes a high-resolution picture of your fingerprint. That fingerprint is then converted into a mathematical formula, encrypted, and carried over a hardware channel to a secure enclave on the Apple A7 chipset. If the fingerprint is recognized, a “yes” token is released. If it’s not, a “no” token is released.” (from: imore.com)

Briefly put, the iPhone “Touch ID” works by first taking a picture of a finger’s surface and then comparing it to previously-taken pictures of the owner’s (“self”) fingerprints. So, in reality, it’s just comparing two-dimensional digital images. There’s no actual mechanical surface-to-surface contact involved in unlocking the iPhone, such as with a key in a lock.

The “lock and key” analogy does, however, apply for how “touch ID” works in plants, albeit at the molecular level rather than at the mechanical level. And it’s most likely to occur in 3-D rather than in 2-D.

But – you may indeed be wondering – why would plants need something like “touch ID”?

Self/Non-Self Perception In Plants

This is a big old complex subject, with many facets, so I don’t want to wade in too deep here. Let me just briefly tell you about four examples of why “touch ID” is very important in the life of plants.

  • 1. Self-Incompatibility – About one half of all flowering plant species are “self-infertile” (a.k.a., “self-incompatible”), that is, the flowers of such plants are able to distinguish between self and non-self pollen (hint: proteins on the pollen surface may play a role), and they reject their own pollen.

    Why would a plant do this?

    Such self-incompatibility (SI) promotes outcrossing, which typically increases genetic diversity. (And this is a very good thing, evolutionarily speaking.)

  • 2. Disease Resistance – In a previous post, I asked the question Do plants have an immune system?. Briefly, the answer is yes, plants have a rudimentary immune system, but it’s much less complex compared to the mammalian immune system, for instance.

    One of the things that plant and animal immune system’s have in common, however, is that they have cellular receptors that can detect foreign substances occurring only in microorganisms and that, when activated, trigger defensive reactions.

  • 3. Symbiosis – I think most plant scientists would agree that plants were able to colonize the land thanks to symbiotic partnerships with certain soil-dwelling fungi, which we call mycorrhizae. And many plants are able to thrive in nitrogen-poor soils thanks to nitrogen fixation resulting from a symbiosis with specific soil bacteria.

    But in order to form such symbiotic partnerships with such “friendly” microorganisms, plants must first turn off their defensive responses. That is, they need to be able to distinguish between “friend” and “foe” when it comes to bacteria and fungi.

  • 4. Kin Recognition – “Several lines of experimental evidence suggest that roots have ways to discriminate non-related roots, kin, and—importantly—that they can sense self/non-self roots to avoid intra-plant competition.” (from Ref 2. below)

    These are four examples of different sorts of “touch ID” in plants. From this, I think it’s clear that plants are much, much more sophisticated than an iPhone 6 at answering the question: “Who Are You?*

    Bottom Line: The winner, and still champ, at environmental sensing and response is the plant. Thus, plants are more intelligent than even the iPhone 6. (But don’t stop trying Apple.)

    *Look for more information about HOW plants answer the question “Who Are You?” in future posts.


    1. Sanabria, N. M., J.-C. Huang and I. A. Dubery (2010) “Self/nonself perception in plants in innate immunity and defense.” Self Nonself, Vol. 1, pp. 40-54. (Full Text)

    2. Depuydt, S. (2014) “Arguments for and against self and non-self root recognition in plants.” Frontiers in Plant Science, Vol. 5, p.614. (Full Text)

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  • One Comment

    1. Thank you, plantguy. As a Botanist i get interest in reading this article. you compare plant to iPone to reveal which is more intelligent, an iPhone 6 or a plant? Wonderful! The tropic you wrote here would be more fruitful if you add some plant picture, especially about Self-Incompatibility and Symbiosis.

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