The MIT Media Lab is going to be getting some intense scrutiny


The Chronicle of Higher Education has now noticed Caleb Harper’s “Food Computer”. It’s a long article, and a good chunk of it focuses on the novel funding setup MIT has for the Media Lab — it’s basically a semi-autonomous unit set loose to harvest money from rich people (that’s the good part) with relatively little oversight on the quality of the work done with that money (the bad part). So while some people are screaming “You accepted money from pedophile!”, others are now yelling “And you spent it on WHAT?!!?“.

If I were employed by the Media Lab, I’d be scrambling to update my CV and apply for jobs that would allow me to run away before someone wrote a revealing article about my project to teach spiders how to solder circuit boards … which hasn’t worked once, but boy howdy did Silicon Valley like my idea of replacing small Asian children with even cheaper spiders.

Hey, isn’t that what science is supposed to be all about, skimming creamy rich money off our excess of gullible, over-hyped tech billionaires? That’s what the MIT Media Lab was all about anyway. It’s Harper’s turn to be exposed and ridiculed, but I’m wondering what other fantasy-land projects were cooking over there.

But let’s give Caleb Harper a chance to defend himself.

Harper’s optimism helps raise money, and without money he won’t be able to see this dream of an international network of food computers come true. His critics, he said, “are basically jealous because I raise a lot of funding while giving away knowledge for free.” Harper also said that he doesn’t mislead the public. He’s explained his progress in great detail in a series of Medium posts, he said. Some may have misinterpreted his vision as current reality, he said, but if they listened closely they would not be mistaken. “Can you email a tomato to someone today? No,” he said. “Did I say that in my TED talk? Yes. Did I say it was today? No. I said, you will be able to email a tomato.”

It’s true that Harper didn’t quite say that food computers can email tomatoes or apples, though you could be forgiven for thinking exactly that. He frequently leaves the impression that the project has achieved, or is on the brink of achieving, an enormous breakthrough. It’s a style that has attracted the sort of high-profile attention, not to mention corporate funding, that fuels projects at the MIT Media Lab, and his willingness to showcase food computers beset with problems feels consistent with Ito’s “deploy or die” philosophy.

So his dream is to be able to email a tomato (or more precisely, a set of instructions to a “food computer” that will allow it to replicate the exact growing conditions for a specific tomato), so he’s doing this fun thing of making an extravagant claim (“email a tomato”) while simultaneously admitting that he can’t, and is building boxes that allow him to fake emailing a tomato. It reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s SF story, “Poor Superman”, about a scientology-like cult that invents wild stories of colonies on Mars and super-technology, knowing they’re false, but justifying them by saying they have to pretend to convince people to implement the reality.

Here’s the final word from a real working crop scientist on this story:

She also labels this approach “Sugar Daddy Science”, in which you just have to court an ignorant patron to siphon off money into your pocket for your bad ideas.

Tsk.

Comments

  1. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    There’s no way that box isn’t actually designed to grow weed. It’s still a failure, but the goal makes more sense.

  2. Artor says

    @Golgafrinchian-
    There was already a box for growing weed that worked great, sans computer controls. I remember seeing those closet-sized octagonal greenhouses for sale in magazines all the way back in the 1980’s. So Professor Dip$hit didn’t even have a new idea, and failed on every measure. He re-invented the wheel, and was embarrassed to find that a million-dollar square doesn’t work as well as a circle.

  3. robro says

    Artor — Almost 30 years ago I knew a guy on a limited budget who did it in his apartment closet in San Francisco. He later moved his operation to a room in a little house he bought in Sonoma county. Took care of his needs and a few friends. So yeah, big deal.

    The Guardian has a story about Signe Swenson’s role in busting MIT over the Ito/Epstein scandal. What struck me was this near the end: “If there’s any explanation for the lapse in judgement, she says, it might be that MIT was in the midst of a campaign to raise $5bn – the largest of its history.” Five billion dollars. That’s a lot of money for stupid shit like Food Computers.

  4. jefrir says

    I don’t think it is designed to grow weed – both because that would suggest an awareness of applications that these people don’t seem to have, and because it doesn’t seem tall enough. It’s not tall enough for most tomato plants either, though, and definitely won’t fit any sort of apple tree, so who even knows.

  5. PaulBC says

    my project to teach spiders how to solder circuit boards … which hasn’t worked once

    I really like this idea. Hey, fake it till you make it. That’s how it’s done. I think soldering is the wrong approach, but could the spiders “wire” the boards with webs and then some other ??? process could convert the webs into conductors.

    This is at least as good as Elizabeth Holmes’s idea and probably less likely to kill people*. Go for it!

    *Unless the trained spiders get out and start killing people, which seems a remote possibility, but it adds to the coolness factor to point it out and present a mitigation plan.

  6. PaulBC says

    So his dream is to be able to email a tomato (or more precisely, a set of instructions to a “food computer” that will allow it to replicate the exact growing conditions for a specific tomato), so he’s doing this fun thing of making an extravagant claim (“email a tomato”) while simultaneously admitting that he can’t, and is building boxes that allow him to fake emailing a tomato.

    Millions of people globally depend on dialysis to survive and would greatly benefit from either a compatible natural kidney or an implantable artificial replacement. (I’m not one of them, but I have my reasons for caring.) There’s actually a modestly-funded project at UCSF for an implantable artificial kidney and there have been vaporware announcements for decades about “3D printing” kidneys from stem cells, growing non-rejecting kidneys in transgenic pigs, etc.

    I won’t hazard a guess on when any of these solutions will be ready for clinical practice. However, this is both easier than “emailing a tomato” and actually a lot more useful to people who could just go to the store and buy a damn tomato there (even a nice greenhouse tomato with the stems still on it if they know where to shop).

    Well, I hesitate to encourage bullshit artists to extend their false promises to things that actually matter to people, but the fact is that I am personally offended at the idea of even legitimate work* going into a blue-sky project like a “food computer” when there is in fact, not low but lower hanging fruit in the area of difficult but not inconceivable medical technology that really will make a difference to people.

    *I am a big believer in following your passion, but seriously, emailing a tomato seems a laughably ambitious goal for a nearly negligible gain in utility.

  7. says

    I love “Poor Superman” and wish it was better known; it perfectly skewers the cargo-cult “rationality” so beloved of Valley-bros, the “Intellectual” “Dark” Web, and the rest of the STEMlords who think their skills in their chosen field of expertise magically translate to all human endeavour.

    Fritz Leiber was something of an outlier in the SF scene of his day: a child of actors as well an actor himself; also, a poet and playwright in addition to being a writer, his background was very much the humanities compared to the STEM backgrounds of a lot of his contemporaries. I’ve often wondered if “Poor Superman” was a deliberate satire of the pretensions of the SF community with their self-serving “fans are Slans” attitude, and those of editors like John W. Campbell using their magazines to push woo like psi and Dianetics

  8. PaulBC says

    As someone who lives and works in Silicon Valley, I feel that the only “accomplishments” of the past decade or so have been figuring out how to turn everyone into an unregulated motel manager (Airbnb) or a gypsy cab driver (Uber, Lyft). And while these developments appear cheaper and more flexible to the end consumer (and are popular), the only really “new efficiencies” that have been discovered are the conversion of skilled work to unskilled work (the Uber driver, for instance, can use a GIS system unavailable to the cab drivers of bygone days) and some clever skirting around laws that regulated these businesses in the past.

    There have been real technological developments, but they follow existing trends (Moore’s law still holds for now). Even cloud computing strikes me more as a cultural shift than an improvement, though it does enable the creation of startups with even less tangible investment. I would love to be proved wrong in this view, but there’s a reason we have the term vaporware.

  9. says

    Sugar daddy science? This reminds me of a tale about Diogenes and Plato. It’s probably apocryphal, but if it didn’t happen then it should have.

    The story goes that Plato and friends were visiting Syracuse. They were walking along a river towards the tyrant’s palace, where they expected an evening of food, wine, music, and philosophical discussion.

    Then who did they see, knee-deep in the river’s icy water, but Diogenes the Cynic. They asked him why he was there. He was washing cabbages. And why was he washing cabbages? Because he needed the money.

    Plato said, “Poor Diogenes! If only he knew how to flatter the tyrant, then he wouldn’t have to wash cabbages!”

    Diogenes replied, “Poor Plato! If only he knew how to wash cabbages, then he wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant!”

  10. chrislawson says

    This is Caleb Harper doubling down on a stupid promise. Emailing a tomato is never going to happen without replicator-level Star Trek technology. Emailing instructions for growing a tomato was achievable as soon as email existed (1971).

    Plus, this absolutely contradicts his sales pitch about personalising food. If I’m meant to tailor my tomato to match my genome, how is emailing someone else’s tomato going to help? Harper probably doesn’t realise it, but this is the path from ambitious folly to outright scam.

  11. mailliw says

    @11 PaulBC

    There have been real technological developments, but they follow existing trends (Moore’s law still holds for now). Even cloud computing strikes me more as a cultural shift than an improvement, though it does enable the creation of startups with even less tangible investment.

    Of course some people have taken Moore’s Law and falsely assumed from it that all technology is advancing exponentially. Thus you end up with nonsense like the singularity.

    Because software definitely isn’t advancing exponentially, to maintain the myth of frenzied innovation the tech industry has to keep remarketing old ideas under new labels. “Cloud computing” already existed in the 1960s. The difference is that in those days it was called “time sharing”.

    There is also the problem that a great many people working in tech labour under the delusion that they are far cleverer than the rest of humanity. After more than 30 years of working in IT I have witnessed an overwhelming body of evidence that thoroughly refutes this hypothesis.

    As a mathematician friend of mine put it “computer scientists are like teenagers, they think they know everything already”.

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