M.I.T. Media Lab, Already Rattled by the Epstein Scandal, Has a New Worry

Former researchers for a “food computer” initiative at the lab say the project’s leader misled outsiders about how it was going.

Comments: 50

  1. Sadly in the tech world Media Lab is know for doing great demos but not so much in terms of producing working technology. This is why they are constantly looking for new funding. If they made patent able technology they could make a fortune. As it is Media Lab is better with TED talks and slogans.

  2. I visited the Media Lab with some academic colleagues for a tour a few years ago, and it reminded me of old Silicon Valley—there was a bunch of stuff that was clearly garbage but also a sense that if even 1% of these things became hits, the lab would continue to be a sensation. I'm not surprised that, given the need for deep creativity and play, some of those in and around the lab, well, got played. So, while the Media Lab should get its house in order, I hope that the quest for new ideas still leaves room for a few charlatans and weirdos—in the end it is a small price to pay for all the incredible and valid ideas that are produced. There's fraud everywhere, what matters is the overall level, and in scientific research it is mostly tolerable in the West.

  3. @Matt What incredible and valid ideas are you talking about? I'm not being nasty. What has the MIT Media Lab produced? I've read about this for several months but never learned what, exactly, the lab produces.

  4. MIT needs to set up a truly independent visiting committees or panels of independent advisors with scientific knowledge to review claims being made in high stakes funding dependent activities such as described in this article. This review is needed before the claims are made public. News outlets should also consult independent scientists. Peer review will eventually uncover bogus claims. MIT should also allow for concerns to be raised in confidence by lab members.

  5. If there were such a thing as a completely automatic growing system, it would be too expensive to grow basil. Marijuana maybe but now that it's legal, maybe not. Energy costs money. Management costs money. It's hard enough to get automatic watering systems to work _perfectly_. Add in fertilizer, bugs and bacteria and things get a lot harder a lot faster.

  6. @MikeM I heard Harper speak earlier this year and the work sounded plausible, although I have reservations about its commercial practicality. Apples averaged 11 months in that talk, a number I know is hooey. Harper proposes taking the well-known technology of indoor controlled production (that is now producing most of the medicinal marijuana) and trying to identify the factors that produce optimim taste and nutrition of basil, tomatoes, etc. I question his quick dismissal of genetics over nurture in the flavor and nutrition result and I think that the tech will continue to be too expensive. Howitzers for squirrels. But all of these intensive ag / urban ag / hydroponic ag projects project similar implausible results. I've grown used to them over 40 years as a professional horticulturist.

  7. L. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, appears to have no oversight of the Media Lab's finances or projects. He allowed Epstein to donate vast sums (even signing a thank you note he claims not to remember), and has allowed this food-computer fraud to operate without scrutiny. Time for Mr. Reif to resign.

  8. @Umberto. This self-sustaining self-described rebel outfit is a tiny, tiny issue in the MIT world, not something that needs regular attention by the president. Not an excuse, but Reif, in his press releases, does seem to be tone-deaf on the subject, promising to have competent lawyers, just hired, investigate and report. Sorry LRR, this PR disaster isn’t a matter of law, or the Institutes policy; so don’t dig a hole to get away from it. It has everything to do with how the public understands science, and why a little almost scandal can do immense damage in a larger arena.

  9. I worked at MIT for a decade a long time ago. It was a huge, sprawling, complex place then and is even bigger now. The Media Lab is and was an outlier. You could work your whole life at MIT and never meet or interact with people from departments far removed from yours. I read about what they were doing in the Globe or campus publications just like anyone else. I can completely believe that Reif really didn’t know much about the details of any given department. Why should he?

  10. The Media Lab was predicated on this out of the box thinking (see Negroponte's One Laptop per Child initiative) but they should not jeopardize their scientific credibility while doing so. The Media Lab needs external oversight.

  11. I knew that in Holland they grow tons of vegetables in warehouses long ago and with high productivity, at least greens and tomatoes, or that is false too? With LED light..

  12. Reminds a bit of Theranos, looks great from 10m height, but up close unrealistically hard to implement with current technology-- and both with proponents that continue(d) to evangelize as the limb gets thinner and weaker.

  13. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

  14. Nobody seems to question the rampant libertarianism of tech where any means is justified as long as it supports tech.

  15. It would seem the prudent thing to do at this point is clean house at this "lab". MIT had a sterling reputation until the loose canons who run this operation were exposed. Then MIT needs to closely consider if and how this operation can move forward. It certainly needs massive oversight going forward and the current advisers like Negroponte should be sent packing.

  16. We regularly get wonderful news about carbon capture, implying that our greenhouse gas emissions will no longer be a problem. Science, like the religious right, seems to think words can shape reality. That someone like Epstein became closely related to MIT should have been an indication that something was very wrong. Oppression of any group of people for whatever reason is a sign of an organization that is no longer able to cope with reality and that that organization has resorted to propagating disillusions to hide their drifting into some fantasy world. And yes, I do think most of us spend most of our time in our thoughts and fantasies, giving them more credence than reality and making reality seem more difficult to cope with then it actually is. We will have spent all this time on nothing and pay for it dearly, personally and globally.

  17. I first read about this from a woman on twitter who did a thread basically saying that this technology is not new and also that it did not work. She also explains the whole funding game. I don't know what to search to find this on twitter but I highly recommend anyone interested in this to find it and read.

  18. @OnlyinAmerica That would be Sarah Taber. I also thoroughly enjoyed that thread.

  19. Academic labs are always in the grey area between dream and reality. Modesty is punished, exaggerations are rewarded. You have to sell your research in order to make it. The peer review and patent processes act as gate keepers for what enters the free market, and the free market has the final say on what is a real technology versus make believe. However, the examples of deliberate deception highlighted in this article are analogous to making up data points, and that crosses anyone’s line.

  20. I’m not sure Harper is the villain here... he seems like someone trying to do good, but working within a corrupt system that won’t support real research and design development unless it is a 3D printed, prefab solution to all problems.... Isn’t narrative design the entire format of the MIT Media Lab? This kind of marketing-first approach is supported by a thousand media outlets like TED, Wired, FastCo, and seeps into the NYTimes, CNN and more. It relies upon a clickbait coverage that never follows up on the product after a few years when the developers have moved onto something else. I can name a hundred similar hyped up design products that achieved funding but not real success. The question is how do we redesign the media and bureaucracy to reflect real innovation? That’s what the media lab should have been doing.

  21. Theranos II?

  22. As an MIT alumnus I am not too surprised by these developments. At heart MIT is a machine to turn someone's ideas into someone else's money, with a consistently amoral view on the larger social implications of how that is done. Note that Ito took $500,000 for the Media Lab and $1.2 million for his" personal investment fund." That speaks volumes about his actual priorities. The Institute's administration beat their breasts about how shocking it is that they accepted money from a pervert like Jeff Epstein, and yet seem perfectly content to take endless sums of money from the likes of the Koch brothers. Epstein is a criminal, for sure, but the Koch's have shown a willingness, in fact a great appetite, for trading the future of the entire human race for the next quarter's profit. They are fully aware of the reality of global warming, that is it caused by burning fossil fuels, and is likely to lead to disaster for our species, and everything living on this planet, and yet they have worked tirelessly to convince the public that the "science is in doubt." When MIT takes the Koch name off their fancy new Biology complex, then I might start to take seriously the proposition that they actually give a damn.

  23. @Charles Epstein Thank you x 100. As a licensed, registered and working architect, Caleb Harper's blatant scamming and unethical conduct is disturbing enough. But for me, the much larger sin is the rampant, and apparently rudderless ambition and spending of what I call the 'Academic Industrial Complex'. The lack of appropriate stewardship and management of these institutions extends not just across their boards, but throughout their administrations and of course, ultimately to their grotesquely overcompensated presidents whose main goal, obviously, is to solicit gifts and funds so they have even more money to spend on … yes- what exactly??? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  24. So MIT has a problem, Houston? In the the ‘70’s, it was a DoD ‘hot house’, spinning off Draper Labs and other industrial complex company products to be sold and used in every war then and now. So the war machine is now social media in elections and opinion twisting in anyway it can be sold. So now the women of MIT are growing stronger to not just get an apology, but heads rolling outside Kresge Auditorium down to Mass Ave. Watchmout Harvard the heads will start rolling west to Harvard Square.

  25. Why do I keep hearing the word "Theranos"?

  26. My thoughts exactly. Greed, smoke and mirrors passing off as true science, all under the eyes of MIT management. They too had a blind spot, and they were conned for it.

  27. MIT - stands for "Money In Transit" ...

  28. Silly people. Don't you know? More technology is always the answer! Meanwhile, I'm doing okay with my herb garden. This is not to say some advanced urban greenhouses are a bad idea, but technological overkill is just...overkill.

  29. Let’s close the MIT media lab. Channel it’s endowments towards Boston’s poverty-stricken or something.

  30. Amazing how much untruth can be concealed behind academic gibberish.

  31. Scammers have to scam, whether at your local used car dealer or the MIT Media Lab. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. End of story.

  32. This kind of careless and exploitative project is one of the reasons people begin to turn away from science. A real shame.

  33. I think that MIT should shutdown the Media Lab. The lab is way too Hollywood.... Glitz, glitter, eye candy, and celebrity. MIT is meant to be about cutting edge science or rigorous, well engineered technology.

  34. Academic scientists over-exaggerating their research in order to secure funding? In other news, water is wet and the sun is hot.

  35. Big surprise. Vague blue sky ideas, lots of money sloshing around. There were probably people at the start saying it would attract snake-oil salesmen, shamans, and other pathological characters. Well, if such people there were, right they are.

  36. As a Fin Tech entrepreneur myself following a long career in banking, I am often astounded by the level of charlatanism, for the lack of a better world, there is in Tech. Rough estimate, for one truly serious and competent entrepreneur, you will find 9 that, deep down, have no clue what they are talking about. Their core skill set is make other people believe they should entrust their money to you, it really is not engineering or creativity.

  37. We practice the gospel of 'Fake It Till You Make' It here in the States. What is not our president if not a charlatan?

  38. If you wish that perennial to grow again, you'll need an annual subscription! (thats a joke. Perennials aren't annuals!)

  39. Institutions and universities like MIT destroy science and technology by allowing anything as long as it brings in money. As a scientist, I am utterly enraged not just by this particular situation, but by the larger structural relationships that foster this kind of scamming. Many of us scientists who work conscientiously and creatively do not have the resources to do what we could do for society and for the earth simply because we are honest. The rampant dishonesty and unethical behavior of these scammers also erodes public trust in such matters as global climate change, vaccination against childhood diseases, and reproductive health. Melville in Moby Dick had this observation: "For be a man's intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the world's hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the masses." The path to resources and position mimics that which elected our present President. Institutions that should be guarding the unbroken chain of knowledge and protecting the public have rotted.

  40. Ease up, kids. The Media Lab may have been, since the beginning, a showboating enterprise embarrassing to many scientists, even at MIT, as most of us strongly believe in credibility, as in fact, our careers depend on it. However, for this embarrassed alum of these hallowed halls, the sad truth of science in this country is that the vast bulk of less-applied research money dribbles down out of the federal government, our largest tech companies have dropped in-house research, and exaggerating claims on proposals is a necessary fact of life. Can’t tell you how many unrelated, abstruse proposals I’ve seen that somehow have the words ‘cure cancer’ built in. The real cancer, the one making me concerned, is that, politically and culturally, we have so damaged research at all levels, that we have driven it into Hollywood, Kickstarter, and fantasy modes, with the ML leading the way, and our most serious, existential issues, like climate change, health, environmental insult, have to go begging. So, if you’re reading garbage PR items in the press, it’s a symptom of a rough time. It will take a massive change to do anything about it.

  41. Think of academic researchers as you would a politician. Both have ideas. Both must raise money on a continuous basis. Both have a veracity quotient of ? At least some of the money goes to the research assistants and others who badly need it and occasionally a breakthru is achieved, and a significant amount of knowledge is gained by failure --- if only they would report it.

  42. The only product of the media lab in 34 years has been media attention. Nothing else. A couple of old have-beens, Minsky and Negroponte, scammed the institute and the donors. The institute should have known better. But the money ...?

  43. Giving science and research a bad name. Just when we need it the most.

  44. Ah, the age of the "pitch". Charisma run amuck.

  45. Let's agree to abolish TED nonsense. It's all hype, and charlatans pose like serious scientists and engineers. Let's make science and engineering boring again, so serious people can make serious advances!

  46. “Boring,” (meaning, not sexy,) and supported!

  47. Enough with the “cool” jean / sneakers CEOs, “groovy” TED Talks, “chronically intellectual balloons” of the Aspen Ideas Festival which all sound like the annual “Renaissance Weekends”, the Clinton’s used to go to. Bill Clinton, too, cooked the economy when he abolished the FDR era Glass-Steigall Act that gave us the 2008 Global Recession and overnight billionaires. We need a little bit more ethics and morality and a bit less of “faux brilliance” and overconfidence.

  48. The root is culture of celebrity - kill the media lab, and start from zero!

  49. Change the E in TED to mean "Education". (Currently it stands for entertainment).