- 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. The original version of this story misidentified an MIT Media Lab manager who allegedly instructed staffers to place store-bought plants in the devices. It has been corrected.
- 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.
'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 she worked with were "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."
Cerqueira said in another instance, she was told by another MIT Media Labs manager 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, Cerqueira'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, Cerqueira'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.
Correction, September 9, 2019: This story initially reported that Cerqueira said Caleb Harper instructed her to place store-bought lavender plants in a food computer for a photo shoot. It has been updated to reflect the fact that Cerqueira says another MIT Media Lab manager, and not Harper, issued the instruction. Business Insider regrets the error.
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