When a new and cool gadget makes its way to the market, people often throw away their old gizmos and form long waiting lines outside stores or preorder online — henceforth, the discarded appliances on the other side pile up as our toxic e-waste and pollute us environment.

E-waste has emerged as a big global problem, with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimating that every year 40 million tons of new e-waste is produced globally, because of our “get new and throw away old” lifestyle. But a team of scientists from the Human Computer Integration Lab at the University of Chicago (UC) has proposed a unique solution to this problem. They have developed a smartwatch that is essentially a mold pet.

Slime mold growing inside the smartwatch. Image credits: Human Computer Integration Lab/University of Chicago

Apart from displaying the time, the watch also comes with a heart rate monitor function which is powered by a living slime mold — yes, really. The smartwatch has a side panel where a slime mold lives and grows. The heart monitor works only when the slime mold is in perfect shape, and to ensure that it works properly, the user is required to feed and take care of the slime mold.

The UC researchers believe that humans throw away their old gadgets easily because they don’t have any emotional attachment to those objects. With this approach, they say, people can develop an attachment to their gadgets and try to use them longer.

As human beings, we are naturally sensitive to life. Once we are emotionally attached to any living being, we can’t just discard it from our lives as we discard our gadgets. The slime-mold smartwatch also works in the same way. Users wearing the watch will be carrying a living being on their wrist and this might change the way they perceive the gadget — many people would think twice before throwing away such a smartwatch.

“As new devices are released, millions of outdated devices are thrown out in piles of e-waste —“a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste in 2019, up 21% in just five years. Many researchers, thinkers, and policy makers argue for a different relationship with our devices. (We) have been exploring how to create alternative, more caring relationships & attitudes in the hope that by changing the relationship, users might connect more responsibly with their devices and thus extend their devices’ lifetimes,” the researchers note.

The slime mold smartwatch needs care

The slime mold smartwatch has an attached transparent panel that contains two enclosures connected to each other via a narrow tube-like structure. One enclosure comes occupied by the slime mold species Physarum polycephalum (also referred to as ‘blobs’). These acellular organisms are electrically conductive, meaning that they allow electricity to flow through their bodies. Some previous studies have shown that slime molds can even work as self-healing electric wires.

“The smartwatch is designed to have a small acrylic enclosure clip into it,” Jasmine Liu, one of the study authors, told ZME Science. “This enclosure is where the slime mold grows and is fed. When the enclosure is clipped into the watch, it allows the slime mold to connect to the watch’s electronic circuit. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first everyday device that was made using slime mold but previously researchers and artists have made various artworks, robots and sensors.”

The internal structure of the smartwatch’s transparent panel functions like an electric circuit. The heart-rate monitor will function only when this circuit is complete. For this purpose, a user is required to regularly feed oats and water to the enclosed slime mold. So that it stays healthy, grows, and spreads over to the second enclosure.

Once the tube and second enclosure were also occupied by Physarum polycephalum, the organism acts like an electric wire transmitting electric signals and making the heart monitor sensor active. Now a user can check his or her heart rate on the watch’s display anytime. The slime mold needs regular care like a pet. If a user fails to provide the required nutrition, the organism suspends its activity, becomes dormant, and the heart monitor stops functioning.

A slime that can change your behavior

In order to check how an electronic device with life can influence human-technology interaction, the study authors conducted an interesting experiment. They observed the behavior of five participants wearing the slime mold smartwatch for two weeks. The participants were also asked to write down their feedback and write answers to some questions in a journal. Researchers were curious to see whether this could make users more inclined to care for the slime-gadget.

“Our device is meant to foster discussion about how we care for our devices and is less of an envisioned consumer device for everyday life,” Liu explained in an email. The issue of e-waste is a huge problem for our society and is really complex. There have to be interventions on multiple fronts in order to alleviate the impact of e-waste. One challenge is to change the relationship we have with our devices. Rather than acting solely as consumers or users of our devices (which might allow us to carelessly throw them away), we hope that our devices can inspire other designs that encourage care for the devices.”

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In the first week, the participants fed and took care of the organisms by themselves, and in the following week, they were suddenly asked to stop nurturing the slime mold. Most smartwatch users find it difficult to do so. They also admit to feeling attached to the slime mold and developing a sort of connection with the organism. When asked if this connection is the same as what people feel with virtual characters or digital pets? The participants argued that it was even stronger, more like what is generally seen in a real human-pet relationship.

One of the authors and an assistant professor at UC, Pedro Lobes said:

“People (participants) were shocked; almost all of them were like, ‘Really? I have to do that?’. There were very human responses. Some people were sad, some people really felt like the connection was broken.” He further added, “When discussing their experiences with normal smartwatches, Fitbits, or other wearable devices, people say they only use it for an explicit purpose. And with this device, it feels more like a bi-directional relationship because they have to care for it. They also have some sort of attachment to it because it’s living, and they feel like they can’t throw it away, or just put it in the closet.”

The researchers successfully demonstrated that by adding an element of life they can change the way humans interact with technology. They hope their slime mold smartwatch will encourage gadget makers to come up with devices that promote “caring” instead of the usual use-and-throw behavior in humans.

The study and the slime mold smartwatch were presented at ACM Symposium 2022.

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