MIT Built a Theranos For Plants

The prestigious multidisciplinary MIT Media Lab built a “personal food computer” that worked so poorly that demos had to be faked Theranos-style, per a weekend report in Business Insider. Word of the project’s troubles comes as the Media Lab’s attempts to cover up its extensive financial ties to late financier and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein have seriously damaged its credibility and led to resignation of its director, Joichi Ito.

According to Business Insider, the project—a plastic hydroponic grow box filled with “advanced sensors and LED lights” that would supposedly make it possible to replicate crop conditions from any part of the global—was a sham, with MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative director Caleb Harper resorting to faking demos:

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… 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.

All told, Business Insider’s sources said, the “personal food computers” amounted to hydroponic boxes that don’t work. Dietitian and former Open Agriculture Initiative project manager Paula Cerqueira told the site that the devices she worked on were “glorified grow boxes… with some sensors for collecting data,” and that on multiple occasions staff filled them with store-bought plants that had to be washed of dirt before presentations with funders. The boxes also weren’t air-tight, Cerqueira added, meaning that users couldn’t control for things like carbon dioxide levels or temperature and humidity.

Cerqueira told Business Insider that out of dozens of units sent to schools in the Boston region, only a handful ever worked. On one occasion, the Media Lab sent 30 of them to schools, and “It’s fair to say that of the 30-ish food computers we sent out, at most two grew a plant,” Cerqueira told the site. On another, the Media Lab couldn’t make the boxes work in time for a demo with a representative from the Bezos Family Foundation, something Cerqueira told Business Insider was “super embarrassing.”

In other words, this sounds a hell of a lot like Theranos, the disastrously failed startup that also promised a magical technology box (though in their case, it was fake blood-testing technology that helped the company achieve a valuation of $9 billion.) The food computer certainly doesn’t come anywhere the scale of Theranos, but Harper touted it with similarly grandiose claims: In a March 2019 video by Seeker, Harper stated that “You think Star Trek or Willy Wonka, that’s exactly what we’re going for.”