Them goofy city-folk and their weird ideas


It’s a bad day for the MIT Media Lab. Hot off the resignation of their corrupt leader, Business Insider breaks a bizarre story that sounds a bit like the Theranos story: a non-functional technology turns out to have been pumped up with fake data and even faker promises. It’s something called The Personal Food Computer, which was going to revolutionize agriculture. Or maybe just urban agriculture. Or maybe just impress city-boys (excuse me: “nerdfarmers”. That’s what they actually call them) who have never seen a farm.

It’s a plastic box with some widgets under control of a computer that watch temperature and pH and lighting and spritz a plant inside it with water and nutrients. Just think, no dirt, and a computer will make sure it gets watered if you forget, and at the end of a few weeks or months, you find food inside the box, maybe a sprig of basil or a tomato! This box, and your hypothetical tomato, will only cost you about $500 to build and take up a desktop in your apartment.

(I literally groaned at Harper’s naive babbling about genetics, I’m afraid.)

Am I alone in thinking this idea, even if it worked, was ridiculously stupid? I’m living in the Midwest, in the midst of farm country. When I drive to the big city of Minneapolis, I pass through about 150 miles where all I see on either side of me is corn and soybeans, each individual plant of negligible value, growing with negligible individual care (in aggregate, it’s expensive in time and labor), without computers tweaking each plant along. It’s what plants do. Farmers don’t have the time or money to nurse each 1m2 of cropland along with personal attention and a dedicated computer. I don’t understand the point of this gadget at all. My wife planted a little circular garden in our backyard, maybe 5 meters in diameter, and right now I’m buried in somewhere around 50kg of tomatoes.

This box is the most useless over-hyped technology ever. I wonder how much Jeffrey Epstein invested in it?

That’s assuming it worked. Surprise! It doesn’t!

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.

They had to salt their demos with plants bought elsewhere. Even the one use I could imagine for them, as educational tools in schools, flopped.

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.

I like that there plastic cup with dirt technology. I’ve done that. It works. Cheap, too. Maybe “nerdfarmers” should try investing in that.

MIT isn’t exactly basking in glory lately. It’s a shame.

Comments

  1. says

    But I worked for years to set up all the media and background and press releases for this incredibly elaborate September Fools joke!

  2. says

    don’t forget, MIT Media Lab are the ones who gave Eric Drexler a Ph.D in “nanotechnology” for telling sci fi stories about impossible molecules.

  3. PaulBC says

    I’m trying to understand what you have to do to make the plant die in this thing. Isn’t it basically just a plastic cup with extra lights?

  4. PaulBC says

    The top image on that video reminds me of when I grew basil under aquarium lights in my (then) basement apartment. The plants came out scrawny because of the low light, but it wasn’t difficult. I eventually moved some up to a window where they grew a lot better.

    Food computers are here and … wait for it … they’re called plants. They have distributed algorithms for constructing so-called “leaves” that convert light into chemical energy out of self-replicating nanotechnology units called cells. They absorb appropriate mineral content from the environment to maintain these leaves and, which they are even capable of orienting to increase sunlight capture.

    Pretty amazing computers, these plants, with their astonishing algorithmic beauty. I liked plants as a kid before I saw my first computer. I think both appeal to me for the same reason. I’m lazy and get excited by autonomous processes that don’t require any help from me. I didn’t watch the video carefully, but are there people with their heads so far up their ass they don’t realize that plants grow very well without help?

    I’m also still puzzled how you fail with something like this. God forbid the same people ever try to make a tropical fish aquarium.

  5. consciousness razor says

    On the one hand …

    Harper is a National Geographic Explorer, a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) New Vision for Agriculture working group, a member of the Annenberg Foundation working group on food security, a board member of the open-source cellular agriculture non-profit New Harvest and an advisory board member of the USDA Coordinated Agricultural Projects (CAP) Smartpath.
    Harper has been an invited lecturer at the Nobel Foundation, The Royal Society, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations World Food Program, and TED among others.
    Harper’s work has been featured on 60 Minutes, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, WIRED, Forbes, Popular Science,etc and has been published, exhibited or recognized with distinction by SCIENCE magazine, The Smithsonian Design Museum, The Buckminster Fuller Institute, The Aspen Institute, National Geographic, etc.

    But on the other …

    He was educated at Baylor University (where he studied art), Washington University in St. Louis (where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture degree) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (receiving a Masters degree in architecture).

    Maybe it’s a good idea next time to pick somebody who knows agriculture? It’s probably a bad sign, when most their “credentials” revolve around being networked with the “right” people or making it into a lot of “important” venues.

  6. chrislawson says

    cr@9–

    MIT has been very educational for the students involved in the pilot. Just not about plants or computers…

  7. chrislawson says

    Jeez, I just watched that embedded video and just wow. For someone who talks up the importance of genetics to his project, Harper has no idea about the subject. Even in a brief softball tech-fanboi video, he can’t avoid revealing his ignorance. I suspect he got as far as he did by learning to spit out buzzwords like “phenome” that impress people who don’t realise he has no idea what it means. “When you take a certain set of genetics and you put it inside of a certain phenome” makes no sense.

    Creating tiny plastic boxes, lighting them, controlling the temperature/humidity, and pumping in nutrients is not good for the environment or reducing overall transport costs. We knew this more than a decade ago when “food miles” and “locally grown” collided to influence English consumers to buy strawberries grown in English hothouses that caused 10x as much CO2 to be emitted than transporting them from Spain. And that’s not even considering all the extra plastic packaging and transport costs of an international network of “food computer” enthusiasts getting their micronutrient supplies in small plastic containers via inefficient delivery vans.

    His MIT page lists a total of two papers. TWO! It looks like three, but they’ve double-copied one of them. But rest assured — he has a TED talk.

  8. methuseus says

    If it wasn’t so expensive, maybe it could be a device to see what happens when you adjust nutrients, light quality, and the like. It’s way too expensive and seems to serve no real purpose. I’m shit at growing plants indoors, but I can at least keep something alive for a week. These expensive things can’t even do more than two days.

  9. chris says

    Oh, good grief. The video started out by noting that the apple one buys can be eleven months old. Um, yeah. It takes a while to grow apples. Just about any apple grown in the Northern Hemisphere will be harvested in the next two months. If you want an apple in summer it is going to have to be stored in conditions to prevent spoiling. Which is what happens. (Oh, snap! I have four small espaliered apple trees, I need to check to see if they are ripe … I store them by turning them into frozen applesauce without anything added).

    No apple will grow in one of those boxes.

    And as far as produce being grown in out of the way places, we have been getting tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc. from greenhouses just north of the border in the Frasier Valley of British Columbia for decades. It is now becoming a “thing” with the advent of LED lighting: https://www.greenhousegrower.com/management/new-2-8-million-square-foot-greenhouse-vegetable-facility-coming-to-kentucky/

    As someone who does edible gardening, I know it is not easy. My teeny tiny orchard takes lots of maintenance. I have a small greenhouse, and if one aphid manages to enter the rest of the season is gone. All plants must be started as seeds in fresh sterilized soil. I literally yelled at hubby to get out when he entered with a basil plant he bought. Pest control is a big thing.

    I am getting too old to deal with this. I am presently converting the garden to a drought tolerate type, which fortunately does include lots of herbs like sage, lavender, rosemary and thyme… and a bay laurel tree. It also includes wisteria, which is a legume. It is a nitrogen fixing perennial, I would love to see someone turn its genetics into a tasty perennial edible veg. Turn that excessive energy into useful tasty food instead of it trying to destroy the trellis and my neighbor’s garage (along with other structures, like my house).

  10. consciousness razor says

    Well, architecture isn’t so different from composing. I do know that.
    I managed to grow a cactus in my apartment once, for a while. Technically, it didn’t visibly grow, but it did put up with my punishment for several months, until it finally gave up. I had written a much more cheerful ending in the score, but once it’s out of my hands and a performer “interprets” things however they want, then I make it habit to just blame them.
    It never occurred to me that I might put a plant into the computer. I’m pretty sure that’s not how my dad grew things on the old family farm, but it’s worth a shot I guess….
    I’m not so sure this Harper guy has ever seen a computer. So I’d really appreciate it if somebody could give me a little bit of technical help. Will I need to buy an Apple? I’ve got a Windows machine, and I tried turning it off and turning it back on again. But there’s just this funny whirring sound and now the whole room smells like burnt toast. Does that mean my food is ready?

  11. microraptor says

    Boy, talk about finding the most expensive and complex solution possible for a simple, cheap problem.

  12. lochaber says

    These were made for pot, right? the food angle was just a bit of plausible-deniability, right?

    Even so, I don’t think they’d be great at growing pot, but I imagine they could still sell a lot of them to people who didn’t know any better.

  13. wzrd1 says

    What I see is actually rather old. They took a prospectus, presented like what happened right before the dot bomb bust, sold vaporware hydroponics, with a magical computer, which I could have ginned up with less components using linear electronics and electrochemical mechanics, stuck a new sticker on and called it new.

    Most of what was done and actually worked, done by NASA and its contractors back when the presenter was in high school (and I’m being overly generous).

    Unknown, what spectra the illumination actually is at, as the cameras used aren’t designed to measure that. What mineral content is being monitored, as there are a hell of a lot of minerals and miss the right one for a specific plant, it’ll not produce and potentially, not even survive.
    I could go on and on, such as humidity control, what all is being monitored, as the claims are astonishingly broad, beyond the capabilities of what that box could produce.

    If someone showed me a presentation like that, without full, detailed specifications on what has been completed in different mechanisms for the life support of the plants in question, I’d simply ask why I shouldn’t push the presenter down, tie their shoelaces around the nearest lab rack, as I’m quite certain that they’d starve to death before they could figure out a simple square knot and deserve it for wasting six minutes and twenty one seconds of my life blowing artificial and dim sunshine and unicorn farts at me.

    But, oh, I know! It’s digital!
    And all shiny, with mirror finished floors showing even more department waste.

    BTW, there was an excellent light source that was ideal for plant growth in an indoors environment that was surprisingly bright and energy efficient for its time. Microwave excited sulfur lamps, can’t recall the specific brand now. Satellite radio held them up until they froze sending any such device to the US and Asia and parts of Europe get to enjoy the devices. Rotating quartz globe, tiny chunk of sulfur, the microwave energizes it, light that NASA tested to grow plants in the ISS was emitted and quite bright.

    BTW, now that Ito has proved that he cannot abide by policies of his host organization, who will hire him?
    Oh wait, this administration most certainly doesn’t have problems in hiring morally bankrupt individuals and groups.

  14. komarov says

    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.

    Sounds less like a joke and more than a straight-forward observation, which would at least be scientific.

    The video is wonderfully waffly and tells us next to nothing about a concrete, scientific hypothesis or objective. What are they looking for? What parameter are they optimising? Because it sounds suspiciously like the answer might be “taste” or “deliciousness”, which must be tricky to quantify objectively. The fact that everything is supposed to be stuffed into neural networks / AI to interpret only makes it worse. Now you have a black box telling you how to optimise something for a goal that wasn’t well-defined to begin with.
    Apparently they figured out which variety of hazelnut tree will do well in which climate – well done – but that doesn’t take a future tech that looks like it’s imitating the neon/bright light school of thought on what the future should look like. All that takes is the classic experimental design approach, someone with a clipboard and a water bucket and indeed some plastic cups. Well, trees might require something larger. It doesn’t sound like those computer can work unsupervised, so it’s not like you’re gong to save money on the experimenter. Instead of maintaining the plants they’ll maintain the machines.

    Oh, and the apple example at the start is really odd and misplaced. (What do you call a non-sequitur when it’s right at the start of your argument?) It seems to frame the whole project as if it was about speed or efficiency, which then doesn’t come up again. With that intro, I’d have expected a conclusion that the magic box produces more apples in half the time, or something among those lines. A farming revolution is also strongly implied at the start, only to dial it back to “pharmacy” levels (what?) at the end.

  15. says

    As someone who has extensive experience growing food, I thought this must be a joke. I won’t watch the video, I have better things to do to waste time. I do not understand how anyone with even the tiniest knowledge of agriculture can consider this to be an idea to take seriously.

    Read this: it is not possible to grow any meaningful amount of food for yourself in your apartment, and especially not in a box this size

    The students observed quite correctly that plants in cups on windowsill fare better than in this overcomplicated gizmo.

    If you have a bit of spare place and you want to grow your own food, then go ahead. Plant a tomato plant in a big pot. Or a potato in a sack of compost. A tamarillo can prosper in a pot and it is a perennial plant. You can grow figs or oranges in this way, even apples (but those are more difficult). If you fear you will forget to water them, there are automatic watering kits for 10€ on the market, 1/50 of the costs of this monstrosity which completely needlessly wastes resources and magnifies your carbon footprint.

    However it takes at least an area of two football fields to feed one person, and you won’t get that in your apartment no matter how high you stack your pots vertically. You might get a few kilos of very tasty fresh food per year – self-grown veggies and fruits do taste great, so go for it if you can – but just do not expect to save money or environment, you won’t do either.

    With a garden, you have better chances of helping the environment and saving some money, but full self-subsistence is a myth even then. Even if you had those two acres of arable land, taking care of that big area is a full-time job – and you still would need to pay your electricity bill and buy petrol for your tractor (and you will need one!).

  16. cedrus says

    Also, the device in question already exists. Go to Amazon and look up “desktop hydroponic kit” – you’ll find a range of options, from under $20 to a few hundred bucks. Some of them probably work. None of them are anything other than a novelty item.

    In other news, I’ve invented the Fabric Computer. You’ll need a sheep, and sheep food, and…a few other things…and then clothes magically appear in your house!

  17. isochron says

    clickandgrow.com

    A water tank, wicks and some lights on a timer. I have had one for a couple of years to let me grow fresh herbs in the dark days of Swedish winter and it works pretty well.

    Not hydroponic but far more effective than their silly, overdesigned and seemingly ineffective, expensive box.

  18. says

    Shit like this makes me angry. Think about how much energy and resources had to go into something that would still be useless if it worked exactly as advertised. As Charly said, use pots with dirt. I think that gardening is good for you, even if it’s just pots on a windowsill. I used to grow shit on a tiny balcony because I wanted to teach my kids about growth and some basics like “how do potatoes grow”. But as Charly and chris noted, you’re not going to grow your own food in a meaningful way. My grandparents used to have a subsistence garden where they grew a lot of their food because they were poor and paying off a mortgage. By the time I was a kid it was no longer necessary but a good old habit they kept up. The rabbits had been long gone by that time, but when my mum was young those would supply meat and an occasional bit of money. The lower part of the garden was split in two, one side for potatoes, the other for peas, beans, beets and carrots. The upper part of the garden was an orchard. Harvest time would mean weeks of harvesting, cleaning, cutting, freezing and canning. It still didn’t get us through the year.

  19. A. Noyd says

    I live in a small city in Japan which is dotted with large-scale personal food gardens and small-scale commercial produce fields that grow rice, soybeans and a variety vegetables. The fields and gardens are used throughout the year, with crop rotation based on seasonality and maintaining soil health.

    There are dozens of agricultural cooperatives throughout the city to help distribute the produce and provide services and machinery to the farmers. They even have 24-hour, automated rice-polishing kiosks.

    I’m sure there are loads of other places in the world with their own mixed urban and agricultural systems. Maybe we should look into what already works and invest in infrastructure rather than wasting time and money inventing shit like this.

    #########

    chris (#15)

    [Wisteria] is a nitrogen fixing perennial, I would love to see someone turn its genetics into a tasty perennial edible veg.

    Some Japanese people eat both the seeds and the flowers, though it’s uncommon enough that the average person doesn’t realize they’re edible. For those in the know, it’s common knowledge that too many of the seeds will give you diarrhea, however. Also, tempura seems to be a popular way to prepare the flowers. You might give that a go the next time you have a good crop of them.

  20. stroppy says

    I don’t get it. Anyway I thought the ‘nerdfarmer’ demographic would be more inclined toward the refrigerated freight container farm thingummies.

    Theranos? Maybe Goop…

  21. lumipuna says

    I’m trying to understand what you have to do to make the plant die in this thing.

    I guess nothing, as in letting the machine to run autonomously for days or weeks, if it’s meant to be able to do that. Depending on how the watering system works, even a fairly brief procedural jam could kill the plant.

    These were made for pot, right? the food angle was just a bit of plausible-deniability, right?

    I don’t think pot needs high technology any more than various other popular windowsill herbs. The main difference is that some people want to home-grow pot efficiently and/or in a large scale and/or discreetly (that is, in a windowless room). That’s why cheap DIY home greenhouse setups (with lights and automated watering) became first associated with pot growers.

    Nowadays there’s market for these tiny factory-made tabletop greenhouses with people who like to grow ordinary windowsill herbs. Some fairly simple systems probably even work, and run autonomously for long periods. It’s still expensive and mostly pointless and certainly not for serious pot growers.

  22. PaulBC says

    I just had a flashback to a children’s book I read in the early 70s that explained (among other things) how we would be turning to algae for food in the future. The coming Malthusian crash was a big part of the Zeitgeist at least in kids’ books, and it certainly shaped my worldview, though things turned out almost entirely different (and sadly dependent on still-cheap-and-abundant fossil fuel). On the other hand, these ideas were probably just ahead of their time.

    I can imagine having an autonomous contraption like this one for growing edible algae (not seaweed, but the single-cell kind, and I forgot what it was called, but the book suggested we would be making cookies or mixing it into pasta instead of spinach).

    But I’m still wondering how you make this energy-efficient. You could power it with rooftop solar. In that case, maybe you’re better off growing soybeans or other high-protein plants and cutting out the middleman. This was pre-TMI, so maybe the idea was to use all that too-cheap-to-meter nuclear power. I really couldn’t tell you, but I was convinced that we’d be surviving on green algae cookies by now if we hadn’t been nuked into oblivion (and not the kind “made out of people”, call me an optimist).

    The example of an “apple” is extremely silly. I think even the city kids know those grow on trees that don’t fit in the box, right? But some kind of autonomous algae farm to green cookie maker might be the wave of the future if we can just find a good power source.

    Then there are Fidel Castro’s miniature apartment cows who would eat “grass grown in drawers under fluorescent lights” and produce milk. That’s a win on cuteness factor if not feasibility. Who wouldn’t want tiny cows in their apartment? (Though wouldn’t goats work better for this?)

    Anyway, not sure where I was going with this. I think the point is that these ideas aren’t even very original. Everyone would love an indoor food-maker. The trick is actually getting it to work, and that is very hard.

  23. stroppy says

    Replicators! Now if they had come up with replicators like on StarTrek, that would be something. I could really go for a jumbo cup of raktajino.

  24. unclefrogy says

    I really have a hard time seeing how this thing could have been so poorly designed and built that it simply killed the plants.
    the idea has some merit not a maybe such a tiny box. that would be something that might be better aimed like a little home science experiment for school kids like Edmond Scientific used to sell.
    Now if the box they were developing was the size of 40 foot shipping container it might kind of work but still not be very practical though you could stack them pretty high

    there is a huge amount of data on greenhouses at all levels from small home or lab setups to huge commercial enterprises supplying winter veg and cut flowers and plants for the florist industry that detail how to set a greenhouse up so you wont kill the f’n plants in a couple of weeks.
    this sounds like a scam from the start. or they are really that incompetent.
    uncle frogy

  25. birgerjohansson says

    If high- tech people are going into food production, I suggest they work on this problem instead:
    When the wolf-rayet star WR 106 goes supernova in a hundred thousand years it will send a gamna-ray burst in our direction, with the potential to destroy the ozone layer.
    All plant life will be the first to die, resulting in Bad Stuff Happening.
    So maybe they should work on how to make food plants radiation-proof or something, instead of scamming people for $$$?

  26. Joseph O says

    Just wanted to reply to some of PZ comments. I preface this reply by stating a few things.

    I am a fan and follower of PZ’s blog and do not wish to offend in any way.

    I have been following and using the MIT Open Ag group’s software and hardware designs for years but don’t know anything about the group’s inner workings. I don’t condone lying and non-transparency. I have no idea what went on at the lab but if they did do something unethical I would hope they would own up to it and take an appropriate sanction or penalty.

    I have grown lettuce and basil in grow devices based upon the lab’s designs and they do work, at least for me. The lettuce and basil grow fine.

    I’ve interspersed my observations within PZ’s text below. My comments are included in brackets [].

    Am I alone in thinking this idea, even if it worked, was ridiculously stupid?
    [Your initial reaction is negative. I encourage you to ask your students about the concept of the food computer and vertical farming and see what they say.]

    I’m living in the Midwest, in the midst of farm country. When I drive to the big city of Minneapolis, I pass through about 150 miles where all I see on either side of me is corn and soybeans, each individual plant of negligible value, growing with negligible individual care (in aggregate, it’s expensive in time and labor), without computers tweaking each plant along.

    [I’m pretty sure that one of the main goals for the food computer is meant to be an experimental and hobby system for knowledge acquisition. I live in St. Louis and toured the Danforth Center recently. They have chambers that they rent out to researchers for conducting grow experiments. These chambers are very simple. If memory serves they control the time that the lights are on, the humidity, the temperature and not much else. The tour guide says they are over subscribed in their rentals of these chambers. These chambers are nothing more than a food computer]

    [One would use the food computer to learn how to optimize some aspect of a plant or how to grow a new kind of plant. Then with that acquired knowledge one could in theory figure out how to optimize field grown, or greenhouse grown, or indoor farm grown plants.]

    [The food computer teaches automation. One learns how to control actuators and read sensors, how to send data to the cloud and receive commands back. How to design control loops. When one abstracts the technology of the food computer one has a platform to implement cloud controlled IoT devices. This knowledge can be applied to all sorts of things such as outdoor farms and large indoor farms or drones that capture rare spiders alive or underwater drones that follow deep water squid, or no! they are deep water squid!]

    It’s what plants do. Farmers don’t have the time or money to nurse each 1m2 of cropland along with personal attention and a dedicated computer. I don’t understand the point of this gadget at all. My wife planted a little circular garden in our backyard, maybe 5 meters in diameter, and right now I’m buried in somewhere around 50kg of tomatoes.

    [Agreed! I think there is a passion that arises in some people for hydroponic growing under artificial lights. Some have it and some don’t. Sort of like beer brewing. For the hobbyist there is no money to be saved, quite the contrary. I happen to have the passion but I would never argue that indoor growing in one’s house is efficient or cost effective.]

    [Farming is becoming very computerized. When one plants a billion plants then even a 10% improvement in yield can be huge in the aggregate. In the age of drones and robots and remote internet access I’m seeing more and more on-farm automation. The farmers don’t have the time but their drones and robots may]

    [I think the food computer is more intended to grow leafy greens and herbs then to become a source of macro-nutrients that will replace Minnesota farmland. The comparison might be better to make to the central valley in California, or the greenhouses in Arizona, or the farms in Mexico and Central America.]

  27. unclefrogy says

    [One would use the food computer to learn how to optimize some aspect of a plant or how to grow a new kind of plant. Then with that acquired knowledge one could in theory figure out how to optimize field grown, or greenhouse grown, or indoor farm grown plants.]

    that states the naivete of this proposal. It approaches the subject of growing plants and doing it in a mini-greenhouse the box and calls it a plant computer without acknowledging that we have been growing plants for some time and growing them in greenhouses as well there are a wealth of most of the plants we use generally for food. there are data on how greenhouses work, on how much light and the wavelengths, temperature range and water and CO2 needed along with the rates of fertilizer needed. Is there really a need for a learning computer program for every new “plant computer” to start out ignorant?
    Why not simply have a data base of all the controllable perimeters for all the plants that fit in the thing, just put the plant seedling in shut the door go to the menu and select the plant and click the button to start the program. sounds like these people know nothing about plants nor how people use computers. no one uses MS office to try and figure out how to write a letter nor invent a spread sheet you go to a macro or spell the words without spell check.
    uncle frogy

  28. voidhawk says

    I don’t understand this. Apart from the obvious solution of just growing a plant in the ground, we already have quite decent indoor-growing technology with hydroponics and aeroponics. What is this ‘solution’ offering?

  29. blf says

    What is this ‘solution’ offering?

    More energy consumption, a thinner wallet, and a dead plant.

  30. lumipuna says

    I guess this solution is trying to offer the kind of sophisticated climate control and light quality control that many plant research labs would be jealous of – if it worked reliably.

    High tech growth chambers make perfect sense in plant research and agricultural research. In mass greenhouse production, growth chamber-like facilities are becoming increasingly economically feasible, at least for specialized purposes. Generally, agricultural production is becoming increasingly tech heavy and computerized while operating in more or less natural environments.

    Now, home gardening generally only makes sense as a hobby, and using a home growth chamber gives an impression that your hobby is technology rather than gardening (my dad would be so into this). Either that, or you’re misled about your motivations.

  31. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    Jesus Tap Dancing Christ. What sort of shit for brains thought this thing was a good idea? Every single bit of control electronics mounted to an absurdly large PCB completely exposed to the interior of the grow chamber without any potting or conformal coating. No wonder this ridiculous ‘personal food computer’ dies and takes the plant along with it.

    The Tree Computer seems somewhat useful for testing suitability of any given plant strain to a given location, but that is nothing new. Plant breeders / seed producers already do that sort of suitablility/hardiness testing for reasons that should be painfully obvious.

    @Joseph O
    Remote sensors and/or drones monitoring conditions in sub-units of very large fields (or greenhouses) to reduce wasted resources and effort in applying water, fertilizer, or pesticides – that is precision agriculture. Despite their claims to the contrary, none of this MIT OpenAg ‘personal food computer’ bullshit is effective at engaging students or providing any practical solutions to insuring food security for even a tiny population. The cube is too small, too expensive, too complicated, and too unreliable – a cup/bucket placed by a window is many times more effective, reliable, and engaging.

    There is practical work at many institutions on building robots to prowl fields (or greenhouses) while monitoring plant health and soil conditions, visually searching for pests, etc. There are even some efforts to treat pest infestations as they are found primarily using non-chemical methods. Those usually involve capturing insect and/or plant samples using an arm with sucker or a stronger arm to pluck or shake a branch over a catcher/conveyor. There has even been research on using lasers to delay growth and/or kill weeds as they are emerging instead of spraying herbicides or having a person going round plucking them out. Other than non-specific ‘machine vision’ claims, none of that is going on at the MIT OpenAg project. The ‘personal food computer’ is just TechBro bullshit all the way down.

  32. PaulBC says

    chris@15

    As someone who does edible gardening, I know it is not easy. My teeny tiny orchard takes lots of maintenance. I have a small greenhouse, and if one aphid manages to enter the rest of the season is gone. All plants must be started as seeds in fresh sterilized soil. I literally yelled at hubby to get out when he entered with a basil plant he bought. Pest control is a big thing

    I half meant to follow up on this and forgot about it. Anyway, the end of my fling with growing basil in a Baltimore rowhouse apartment was a massive whitefly infestation. I don’t know how they got in, but they took all the joy out of it for me. I’m not sure they even damaged the plants all that much.

  33. komarov says

    Re: unclefrogy(#38):

    I really have a hard time seeing how this thing could have been so poorly designed and built that it simply killed the plants.

    I’m not sure that’s necessarily down to poor design, but might just as easily be a case of operator error by setting unsuitable conditions to maintain. If the technical side isn’t complete rubbish it would probably excel at doing exactly what the user asked for on account of being a computer. Arctic conditions for this sprig of basil? Yes, Sir! Freezing everything now, Sir. Liquid water? Of course not, Sir. Doesn’t appear to be going well, Sir, but my sensors have uploaded all the squiggles to the cloud. I’m sure we’ve made a valuable contribution. Well done, Sir! Please put the hammer down, Sir.

    If the box was to genuinely contribute it would need the ability to reseed itself and a user knowledgeable enough to set reasonable boundary conditions. Then, assuming the overall system was reliable enough, you could get something out of it. Just have it run for a few months – unsupervised! – or so and get a data set showing how the plant was affected by all sorts of different factors. But again, that’s just basic experimental design and optimisation and it’s probably been done to death for most plants, so there’s little left to learn.
    Exploring extreme conditions might actually the only useful application left for such a device. Instead of wasting someone’s time the box could try out all the variations of arctic environments to see if basil can’t do somthing interesting in some of them after all. For a given value of “useful”; I wouldn’t expect any surprises. But clearly the food computer is not that box.

  34. komarov says

    It looks like the video has disappeared now. Either YT is being quirky or maybe someone decided that getting too much attention might not be that great after all.

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