MIT's Media Lab has an ambitious project that purports to revolutionize agriculture. Insiders say it's mostly smoke and mirrors.

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  • An ambitious MIT project that purported to turn anyone into a
    farmer with a single tool is scraping by with smoke-and-mirror
    tactics, employees told Business Insider.
  • Ahead of big demonstrations with MIT Media Lab funders, staff
    were told to place plants grown elsewhere into the devices, the
    insiders said.
  • In other instances, devices delivered to local schools simply
    didn’t work.
  • “It’s fair to say that of the 30-ish food computers we sent
    out, at most two grew a plant,” one person said.
  • MIT didn’t provide a comment for this story.
  • Read more stories
    like this on Business Insider’s homepage.

An ambitious project that purported to turn anyone into a farmer
with a single tool is scraping by with smoke-and-mirror tactics,
employees told Business Insider.

The “personal food computer,” a device that MIT Media Lab senior
researcher Caleb Harper presented as helping thousands of people
across the globe grow custom, local food, simply doesn’t work,
according to two employees and multiple internal documents that
Business Insider viewed. One person asked not to be identified for
fear of retaliation.

Harper is the director of MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative and
leads a group of seven people who work on transforming the food
system by studying better methods of growing crops.

The food computers are plastic boxes outfitted with advanced
sensors and LED lights and were designed to make it possible for
anyone, anywhere to grow food, even without soil, Harper has said.
Instead of soil, the boxes use hydroponics, or a system of farming
that involves dissolving nutrients in water and feeding them to the
plant that way.

“We design CO2, temperature, humidity, light spectrum, light
intensity, and the minerality of the water, and the oxygen of the
water,” Harper said.

On Saturday, Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab,
resigned
following a lengthy
expose
in the New Yorker about the Media Lab’s financial ties
with late financier Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein died by suicide while
in jail and faced sex-trafficking charges.

Staff placed food grown elsewhere into the devices for demos and
photoshoots, they say

Ahead of big demonstrations of the devices with MIT Media Lab
funders, staff were told to place plants grown elsewhere into the
devices, the employees told Business Insider.

In another instance, one employee was asked to purchase herbs at
a nearby flower market, dust off the dirt in which they were grown,
and place them in the boxes for a photoshoot, she said.

Harper forwarded an email requesting comment on this story to an
MIT spokesperson. The spokesperson didn’t provide a comment.

The aim was to make it look like the devices lived up to
Harper’s claims, the employees said. Those claims, which included
assertions that the devices could grow foods like broccoli
four times faster
than traditional methods, landed Harper and
his team articles in outlets ranging from the
Wall Street Journal
to Wired and
National Geographic

Harper’s vision for the personal food computer is bold: “You
think Star Trek or Willy Wonka, that’s exactly what we’re going
for,” he said in a March 2019 YouTube video
produced by the news site Seeker.

Harper’s coworkers told Business Insider a different story. They
said the devices are basic hydroponic setups and do not offer the
capabilities Harper outlines. In addition, they simply don’t work,
they said.

MIT Media Lab Caleb Harper Personal Food Computer

‘They were always looking for funding’

Paula Cerqueira, a researcher and dietitian who worked as a
project manager at the Open Agriculture Initiative for two years,
told Business Insider that the personal food computers are
“glorified grow boxes.”

Cerqueira was part of a team that, on several occasions,
delivered the personal food computers to schools. She also helped
demonstrate the boxes to big-name MIT Media Lab investors.

During the organization’s “Members Weeks” — once-a-semester
events that drew donors
including Google, Salesforce, Citigroup, and 21st Century Fox —
Cerqueira and her coworkers would show investors how the technology
worked.

On one occasion, Cerqueira said, her coworkers were told to
fetch basil grown from a nearby location and place it into the
personal food computers to make it look like it had been grown
inside the boxes.

“They wanted the best looking plants in there,” Cerqueira told
Business Insider. “They were always looking for funding.”

In another instance, Harper told Cerqueira to buy edible
lavender plants from a nearby flower’s market and place them in the
boxes for a photoshoot, she said. Before any photos were taken, she
carefully dusted off the tell-tale soil on the plants’ roots.

The boxes simply didn’t work, one employee told Business Insider

The central problem with the personal food computer was that it
simply didn’t work, Cerqueira and another person with knowledge of
the matter told Business Insider.

“It’s essentially a grow box with some sensors for collecting
data,” Cerqueira, a dietitian who worked as a project manager at
the Open Agriculture Initiative for two years, told Business
Insider. Cerqueira left her post after becoming increasingly
frustrated with working conditions at the Media Lab, she said.

The boxes were not air-tight, so staff couldn’t control
variables like the levels of carbon dioxide and even basic
environmental factors like temperature and humidity, Cerqueira and
the other person said.

Other team members were aware of these issues, according to
several internal emails that Business Insider viewed.

One email, on which Harper is copied, also said that team
members weren’t given the chance to test the devices’ functionality
for themselves. Another person with knowledge of the matter also
described these issues to Business Insider.

‘Of the 30-ish food computers we sent out, at most two grew a
plant’

In the Spring of 2017, Cerqueira was part of a pilot program
that delivered three of Harper’s devices to local schools in the
Boston area. Initially, the idea was for the students to put the
devices together themselves. But Cerqueira said that didn’t work
— the devices were too complex for the students to construct on
their own.

“They weren’t able to build them,” Cerqueira said.

In response, Cirque’s team sent three MIT Media Lab staff to set
up the computers for them. Of the three devices the staff members
tried to setup, only one was able to grow plants, she said. That
one stopped working after a few days, however.

When Cerqueira and her coworkers would visit the school,
students would joke that the plants they were growing in plastic
cups were growing better than the ones in the personal food
computers, she said. The pilot ended shortly thereafter.

On another occasion, her team sent two dozen of the devices to
classrooms across greater Boston as part of a curriculum being
designed by one of MIT Media Lab’s education partners.

“It’s fair to say that of the 30-ish food computers we sent out,
at most two grew a plant,” Cerqueira said.

No one knew exactly what was wrong, but in general, the team was
aware that the devices weren’t functioning as they should be. In a
last-ditch attempt to make the devices deliver, Cirque’s team sent
new packages of fresh seedlings to the school. When that didn’t
work, they tried it again. No matter what, the plants just kept
dying, according to Cerqueira.

At one point, a representative from the Bezos Family Foundation,
a private nonprofit foundation cofounded by Jackie and Mike
Bezos, stopped by the school for a visit, Cerqueira said. Harper
had been hoping to entice the group to help fund a new foundation
that he was just getting off the ground. Even then, the devices
wouldn’t work. 

“It was super embarrassing,” said Cerqueira.

Want to tell us about your experience with MIT Media Lab? Email
the author at ebrodwin@businessinsider.com.

SEE ALSO: uBiome
insiders say key science at the buzzy startup was flawed from the
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MIT's Media Lab has an ambitious project that purports to revolutionize agriculture. Insiders say it's mostly smoke and mirrors.