MIT lab’s visionary ‘food computer’ project may be ‘selling fantasy’ to millennials and donors

An agriculture project at MIT Media Lab gives a grand imaginative and prescient of tailor-made homegrown meals, however its current actuality is poorly-working know-how and a flashy present meant to safe funding from gullible sponsors, insiders say.

Imagine a world the place each household can develop recent greens in a sealed high-tech field that controls each side of the method in accordance to a ‘climate recipe’ downloaded from some personal fanatic on one other continent. And the result’s far superior to that tasteless meals you purchase in a grocery store at the moment.

That is the imaginative and prescient of Caleb Harper, head of the Open Agricultural Initiative on the Media Lab ran by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as described by himself in quite a few public speeches and media appearances. The field, or “food computer” as he prefers to name it, will be constructed from components available on Amazon, the know-how open supply and simply hackable, and the outside totally customizable to categorical the proprietor’s individuality.

This rosy promise looks like a millennial’s dream and thus far Harper’s project has obtained optimistic protection and regular funding. It may additionally be pure fantasy meant to cowl up an unsightly actuality. It appears “food computers” are simply unusual hydroponic plant bins with sensors that usually don’t work. Plants proven in images, and to potential donors given a tour of the lab, have been purchased elsewhere and positioned within the bins in order to seem as in the event that they grew there, and among the statements made by Harper have been exaggerated or just not true. At least that’s what some individuals accustomed to his work informed the media.

The underbelly of the Open Agricultural Initiative has been described by a number of exposés this month. Business Insider called it “mostly smoke and mirrors”. The Chronicle of Higher Education said Harper is “selling a fantasy” moderately than conducting real scientific inquiry. The New York Times says even a paper his group published within the peer-reviewed on-line journal PLoS One in April relies on information that some members of the project believed didn’t meet the requirements of an educational work.

The exposés are based mostly on experiences of insiders accustomed to the Open Agricultural Initiative in addition to inside communications offered to the journalists. MIT Media Lab’s management was conscious of the issues, in accordance to the Times. One of the researchers working for Harper informed the lab director that his boss had been making false statements in interviews about his group’s progress. It’s not clear whether or not the director, Joichi Ito, did something concerning the tip-off. He in flip resigned earlier this month after a scandal over an alleged cover-up of the lab’s monetary dealings with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

If the allegations are confirmed, Harper’s title will be part of an inventory of manipulators who used techno-babble and media hype to enrich themselves. The best-known instance of that was Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of the now-defunct firm Theranos. She stated she may revolutionize blood testing and for a time was a poster baby for Silicon Valley’s promise of salvation via innovation. Now she is awaiting trial for defrauding traders, docs, and sufferers.