The M.I.T. Media Lab, an unconventional analysis middle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been below scrutiny since August, when its monetary ties to the convicted intercourse offender Jeffrey Epstein turned public. Now researchers who labored at the lab say that one among its high-profile scientific initiatives was promoted with deceptive claims.
At the middle of the undertaking — the Open Agricultural Initiative, known as OpenAg for brief — is the improvement of a system often known as a private meals pc, a high-tech, climate-controlled mini greenhouse meant to permit crops to thrive in skinny air, with out soil or daylight.
The undertaking is led by Caleb Harper, an architect listed as a principal analysis scientist on the Media Lab web site. Advisers for OpenAg have included Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the Media Lab, and Joichi Ito, who was the lab’s director from 2011 till this month, when he resigned under pressure after the disclosure of his efforts to hide his monetary connections to Mr. Epstein, the financier who killed himself final month after being indicted on federal sex-trafficking expenses.
Four researchers who labored on OpenAg mentioned in interviews with The New York Times that Mr. Harper had made exaggerated or false claims about the undertaking to its company sponsors, a group that included the retail big Target, in addition to in interviews with the information media.
Mr. Harper, the undertaking’s chief, got here to prominence with a 2015 TED Talk by which he made the case for the meals pc. That lecture has racked up greater than 1.eight million views on YouTube. Recently, the textual content abstract on YouTube describing the lecture was revised to incorporate a assertion from TED: “This talk is under review by TED’s editors.”
The M.I.T. Media Lab can be wanting into Mr. Harper’s undertaking. An executive committee of college and workers members shaped to guide the lab after Mr. Ito’s departure mentioned in a assertion on Thursday: “We are aware of questions raised about certain research conducted by the Open Agriculture Initiative at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Research integrity at M.I.T. is paramount and we will take all appropriate steps to address any concerns raised.”
Mr. Harper, who didn’t reply to requests for remark, has mentioned that his innovation would assist usher in a “fourth agricultural revolution,” with individuals utilizing the climate-controlled units to find and observe the optimum circumstances for numerous crops. Farmers with meals computer systems may then share the knowledge — what OpenAg calls “climate recipes” — with fellow meals producers round the world, who would have the ability to use that data to enhance yields from their very own meals computer systems.
As the chief of an initiative at the Media Lab, which has greater than 90 firms as “member companies,” Mr. Harper has been personally answerable for elevating funds. In addition to the backing from Target, which led to 2017, OpenAg has acquired monetary help from Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, and Welspun, a conglomerate based mostly in Mumbai, India, based on copies of contracts reviewed by The Times.
The former OpenAg researchers mentioned that the meals computer systems didn’t work in addition to Mr. Harper mentioned they did, including that he typically offered speculative claims as scientific truths whereas elevating funds. In a latest interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Harper defended himself towards that accusation, saying that he had not misled anybody and that his statements about the undertaking have been meant to explain his imaginative and prescient for its future.
Babak Babakinejad, a Ph.D. who was previously the undertaking’s lead researcher, detailed his issues about how OpenAg was offered in an electronic mail to Mr. Harper. He mentioned he had despatched the electronic mail, which he shared with The Times, after his contract with OpenAg was not renewed.
“You seem to think endlessly reiterating untrue claims will lend them credibility, but it won’t,” Dr. Babakinejad wrote to Mr. Harper. “By persisting in this course of action, you have been putting M.I.T. and everyone associated with you at risk and I think it’s time that you were made to face up to that and take responsibility for it.”
The 4 former researchers mentioned that those that labored on the undertaking have been typically advised to make the meals computer systems seem to work higher than they did throughout promotional photograph shoots or visits from the lab’s sponsors or the information media.
Paula Cerqueira, a former particular initiatives supervisor at OpenAg, mentioned she had been advised to purchase a lavender plant from a retailer close to the OpenAg facility earlier than images have been taken. She brushed grime off the plant, she mentioned, and positioned it inside a meals pc earlier than the shoot.
“When it comes to academic research, because you are seeking funding all the time, there is always a line between projecting vision and misleading people,” Ms. Cerqueira mentioned. “I think that line was stepped over a number of times.”
The meals computer systems, which researchers have envisioned promoting to the public, are supposed to supply crops with simply the correct quantity of sunshine. But when the mild operate was not working, one other member of the OpenAg staff mentioned, talking on the situation of anonymity to explain delicate occasions, an engineer manually rigged the system in order that mild would shine at the appropriate stage throughout an vital demonstration.
“This sounds more subtle than taking dirty plants and washing them off, but it actually is more fundamental,” the former member of the undertaking mentioned.
The Media Lab was created in 1985 to encourage flights of fancy. As a signal that it favors innovation above all else, the lab refers to itself as “anti-disciplinary.” During his tenure as its director, Mr. Ito enormously elevated funding and mentioned that lab initiatives ought to have some usefulness to the exterior world — an strategy he known as, in a 2014 TED Talk, “deploy or die.”
The OpenAg undertaking acquired media consideration, normally in the type of mild function tales, from the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” The Wall Street Journal and different shops. A Boston Globe headline summed up the tone of the protection: “MIT Researchers Hacked Agriculture to Create What May Be the Tastiest Basil on Earth.”
The “60 Minutes” section, a broad have a look at the Media Lab known as “The Future Factory,” first aired in April 2018. It included an interview with Mr. Harper, who mentioned that his units would permit individuals to develop tomatoes equal to these in Italy, in addition to grapes to rival the produce of vineyards in California and France.
“Tuscany in a box,” he mentioned. “Napa in a box. Bordeaux in a box.”
After the “60 Minutes” broadcast confirmed cotton crops, which have been grown in bigger containers known as meals servers, Mr. Harper mentioned, “We’re growing on average three to four times faster than they can grow in the field.”
In a assertion to The Times, “60 Minutes” mentioned that it was conscious of the claims that Mr. Harper might have overstated the talents of the meals computer systems and that the present was “reporting on it.”
Dr. Babakinejad, the former lead researcher, additionally had issues about a tutorial paper written by Mr. Harper and 5 others that appeared in the peer-reviewed on-line journal PLoS One in April.
The paper, “Flavor-cyber-agriculture: Optimization of plant metabolites in an open-source management setting via surrogate modeling,” mentioned that the OpenAg staff used meals computer systems, together with machine studying know-how, to find the supreme mixture of sunshine, vitamins, temperature and water to develop the most flavorful basil. Dr. Babakinejad mentioned the paper exaggerated the precision of the units’ climate-control know-how, and emails shared by Dr. Babakinejad present that OpenAg researchers questioned whether or not the knowledge collected by the meals computer systems met the requirements of a tutorial paper.
Thomas Bjorkman, a professor of plant science at Cornell University, mentioned there have been rising containers that would do what the OpenAg paper claimed, however they’re costly to function and require 24 kilowatts of energy, the equal of 240 100-watt mild bulbs glowing at the similar time.
Commenting on the paper’s scientific worth, Mr. Bjorkman mentioned, “The state of the industry of controlled-environment agriculture is so much more advanced, it would have little influence on horticultural research or practice.”
In an electronic mail alternate with Mr. Ito, Dr. Babakinejad expressed his concern about what he mentioned have been Mr. Harper’s false claims in a draft of the tutorial paper, the “60 Minutes” interview and lectures.
“Up to now,” Dr. Babakinejad wrote, “we have not been able to achieve a ‘controlled environment’ nor been able to create an atmosphere (Climate control) as he leads people to believe in his talks. His claims about developments such as implementations of image processing, microbiome dosing, creating different climates and collecting credible data from bots across the world are not true.”
Mr. Ito wrote in his reply: “Can I say that you have concerns about whether the food computers have been able to create a controlled environment which would put into questions some of the claims we make about the data and outcomes?”
Dr. Babakinejad replied in the affirmative, and the alternate ended.
In addition to their complaints over how the undertaking was offered to these exterior the lab, the researchers had one other concern: Mr. Harper’s behavior of repeating a seemingly tangential declare about grocery store apples.
“Eleven months — the average age of an apple in a grocery store in the United States,” Mr. Harper mentioned at the begin of the 2015 TED Talk, explaining the want for extra native meals manufacturing. In a more moderen lecture, he mentioned the common age of a grocery store apple was 14 months.
No one from the lab may discover the supply of that quantity, the researchers mentioned, including that that they had tried repeatedly to steer Mr. Harper to cease citing the statistic, to no avail.
To discover out if the statistic had a foundation in actual fact, Dr. Babakinejad despatched an electronic mail to an official at the United States Department of Agriculture who had experience in the Pacific Northwest apple business and acquired this temporary reply: “The statement is not accurate for the PNW apple industry.”