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MIT Media Lab Scientist Used Refugees to Tout Food Computers That Didn't Work (ieee.org)
359 points by harrygoldstein 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 204 comments

I got caught up in this train. After watching the TED talk I saw an opportunity to leverage my product design/engineering consultancy to sell Food Computer kits and pre-assembled circuit boards. I built a website (www.openagriculturesupply.com) and embarked on building a supply chain, having PCBs and fully assembled PCBAs made and stocking kits.

After lots of investment in both time and capital I was never able to get one to work. The software stack was unsupported and after talking with everyone I could I was unable to find anyone who was able to get the software working outside of the walls of MiT.

I then worked on a related product, growcomputer (www.growcomputer.com) but ultimately there just isn't enough value in these kinds of products. As others have posted here and in previous HN posts on this topic, the A&E schools and plant scientists have long ago figured all this out, one can already purchase plant growth chambers, all manner of hydroponic and aeroponic systems, nutrients, controllers, climate controlled greenhouses, etc.

Ultimately it comes down to the economy of powering plant growth with electric lights. It just does't add up except in specific applications like mushroom farming, and very high end "foodie" niche markets. The value proposition just isn't there.

edited - formatting

In the Netherlands our main way of growing food is in greenhouses. It causes a lot of light pollution and I actually found it a quite disturbing sight when I flew over one of the greenhouse areas by night once (there are columns of light in the sky). We export lots of tomatoes, bell peppers, etc. I guess if you have space and a sunny climate the value proposition isn't there, but if you have a cooler climate, a high population density (land is very expensive), and a high-tech agriculture sector it seems to work out differently.

> I actually found it a quite disturbing sight when I flew over one of the greenhouse areas by night once

There was a link 2 days ago about aerial photography of LED greenhouses in the Netherlands : https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21327623

Wow - according to one source "The Netherlands is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the USA" [0]. Sure, it has good quality soil and high tech farming, but it's amazing that can make up for the sheer lack of space. It's smaller than all but 9 US states, and it's not rural either - it's more populous than all but 4.

[0] https://www.hollandtradeandinvest.com/key-sectors/agricultur...

Agricultural products have very, very large differences in value density, and one that Netherlands is seriously exploiting.

Ten acres of corn has much less value than ten acres of roses, so growing flowers is a major export industry for Netherlands.

That's part of it, but looks like only about €9b of €90b total [0]. Meat, dairy and vegetables are all comparable; certainly the east of the country seems to be all cows. Cereals don't crack the top ten categories, though.


They are doing it differently than the MiT systems. The key is they are using greenhouses with electric lights as a supplement to natural light, adding up to 20% yield as a result. They are not relying on electric lights for 100% of the light the plants need to grow.


To get an impression of what it looks like from the ground: https://www.google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=westland%20lichtver...

It's difficult to compare the real-life view with pictures (just like the aurora). And it isn't always as bad. But on cloudy, cold nights, it can have an apocalyptic feel to it.

> It just does't add up except in specific applications like mushroom farming

If you want to make money growing food though, mushroom farming seems like the best bet. Right now there are several edible mushroom species where, if you were to start growing them commercially, you would literally be the only person in the country offering them for sale. And some of them solve serious culinary or food science problems. E.g. right now impossible burger has been able to do a pretty good job imitating the texture of protein in ground beef, but they haven't yet been able to do a great job at imitating the texture of the fat components.

Build that whole infrastructure then pivot to magic mushrooms as states legalize

Then when the price crashes on psilocybin mushrooms, switch back the tasty mushrooms.

or keep the mushrooms!

Yes if anyone can mass produce chicken of the woods (not to be confused with hen of the woods) that would be awesome. It makes the best fake chicken nuggets. The texture is spot on, and when it's battered and fried the mushroom taste is pretty minimal.

Commercial plug spawn for chicken of the woods is widely available, and there are some small-scale producers.

Yields are unpredictable at scale though, so it's more of a farmer's market product at the moment. It's not like morels though, where even small-scale production is very difficult.

> It makes the best fake chicken nuggets.

If you're not allergic to them. I don't know that you'd really be able to sell them commercially. I don't even see them sold at farmers markets.

Which mushrooms are you referring to that are easy to grow but not available in stores?

Further prohibiting weed could be good for driving prices on that market then.

But I agree. I looked at this as a hobbyist (no, not for weed) and thought it could be helpful since senors and hardware are currently as cheap as they are. But industrial agriculture has complete different set of problems.

Aside from that plants in general seem to be quite resilient and don't require perfectly balanced control loops. One might think so, but your room plants constantly dying is probably just due to not watering them for months.

So in the end having a few seeds and a bit of water probably beats the food truck full of tech on all levels of efficiency.

Still an interesting topic to create these environments. But perhaps not the correct approach to solve food shortages or help with problems large scale agriculture faces.

people tend to forget that most plants are around because they've been able to survive for thousands of years with minimal/no human intervention.

Of course, there are the outliers (Corn is the big one I'm thinking of here) and the monocropping we tend to do is a whole different problem...

What if you could pipe enough direct sunlight from outside, into the chamber? And be able to control the intensity of the delivered sunlight? Would there still be a novelty product there to have a big enough market with a decent price point?

> What if you could pipe enough direct sunlight from outside, into the chamber?

Isn't this just called a window?

If you're at the point where you're using soil from outside and sunlight from outside, to support a tiny device, why not just use a pot by the windowsill?

You could make a whole building out of windows... Maybe call it a clearhouse or something

I think Bill Gates prefers the term Microsoft.

Or use that cutting edge tech, the field.

if you are in the business of growing anything commercial food-related, the more sunlight the better. You don't control it, you take all you can get.

light pipes do exist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_tube and I think people do use them.

I agree. Why pay for the energy to grow food when you can get the enegy for free by putting it out in the sun? This is an example that some scientifically minded people forget an important aspect in the world: economics. Can your New Way of Doing It^{TM} do it cheaper than existing solutions? If not, it most likely does not have a future.

> Why pay for the energy to grow food when you can get the enegy for free by putting it out in the sun?

For many reasons: 1) Using vertical space rather than surface area; 2) Producing closer to population centers; 3) Producing year around irrespective of seasonal changes; 4) Not having to use pesticides.

3) and 4) are easily solved with glass or transparent polythene, as is already done commercially on a vast scale.


1) and 2) are essentially irrelevant, because the fundamental limiting factor on both agriculture and sustainable energy generation is surface area. Plants are effectively photochemical solar arrays that turn light and CO2 into food energy; nobody would be crazy enough to propose a "vertical solar farm" where LEDs are used to illuminate photovoltaic panels, but vertical farms are exactly as bonkers.

> nobody would be crazy enough to propose a "vertical solar farm" where LEDs are used to illuminate photovoltaic panels, but vertical farms are exactly as bonkers

This isn't true: at least in theory, you can take white sunlight, produce electricity by the photovoltaic process and power LEDs in a spectrum optimized for plant growth (blue and red light instead of green). In practice the LED efficiency (150-200%) doesn't yet make up for the inefficiency of the best commercially available solar panels (25-30%), but the idea is not fundamentally ridiculous.

And solar power is not always the cheapest form of electricity, or even necessarily competitive. Consider Iceland, with abundant cheap renewable geothermal energy but a shortage of sunlight, and LED-illuminated farms make even more sense (and are already operating at scale).

> Plants are effectively photochemical solar arrays

You are right here, however, not all plants are created equal. The value of a plant in not tied to how much energy they produce.

1) and 2) round to “transport costs” economically and freight is cheap except in areas where people don’t have enough money to be worth selling to, like Afghanistan.

Freight might be cheap, but what about the carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint of growing tomatoes in the wrong climate is like 4x higher than growing it in the right climate and transporting it. Heating is one of the most power consuming activities in the world. The research has been done. The result can also be estimated numerically, carbon intensity of transport and of heating are well known.


Thanks for the link. The results presented surprised me.

WRT. tomatoes, I'm not an expert, but in colder climates, don't they grow in greenhouses? Greenhouses should have zero operational carbon footprint.

In colder climates you must heat the greenhouse, which probably generates CO2. I say "probably" because a heat pump run on renewables is possible, but not likely.

Yes, heating is the key issue. While elaborate setups are possible, there are more productive ways to apply that effort.

I would love to see a carbon analysis on the CO2 from the LED lighting vs the CO2 from freight transport of food.

Me too. Especially one accounting for all emissions end-to-end, and over a time frame of decades of use. While LEDs themselves are as dirty as the power source they're hooked up to[0], this doesn't count the energy used to produce and transport those LEDs and all other equipment. It's especially important because equipment breaks down, and a lot of it is designed to break down fast[1].


[0] - My mind races to imagine vertical or subterranean farms powered by a nuclear plant.

[1] - Also known as planned obsolescence. People are assholes.

1) I assure you that industrial LEDs are not 'designed to break down', their longevity is a key consideration for people buying them

2) What's the fetish with vertical farming? Productivity of a greenhouse is 10x to 100x of a conventional field. The key limitation is capital costs. Unless you are growing small plants like basil/strawberry, vertical farming doesn't make any sense. It balloons your CapEx, increases power consumption (sunlight) and you save land, which you have saved a lot of anyway just by going to greenhouse farming from normal fields. Do most folks not appreciate that most of the farmland we have is open field, we are not running out of space for greenhouses?

RE 1), I didn't mean that LEDs themselves would break down (unless soldered badly). But their controllers, or power converters, just might. Like with LED lightbulbs - most of them break very quickly due to cheap power & control components and/or bad soldering job causing thermal damage.

RE 2), fair. In my mind, I grouped vertical and rooftop farming together, and find them desirable in the sense of bringing back more plant life into the cities (and reducing last-mile transportation footprint). But you're right, in terms of general food production, they're not all that interesting or useful.

We'd need to see an analysis of both traditional agriculture vs vertical farming.

Is anyone aware of comparison by the numbers?

There is no more energy efficient method of transport than oceanic freight. Rail freight is very efficient too and truck transport isn’t as good but it still beats growling locally in almost all cases in agriculture.

If you care about carbon footprint campaign for a carbon tax. Most of the carbon footprint of transportation is now and shall always be in the last mile, whether that’s Amazon delivering it to your door or you driving to Walmart or Whole Foods.

Capitalism is extremely good at reducing transport costs and since those costs are basically denominated in hydrocarbons it already does a better than half assed job of reducing carbon footprints. But a tax would be much better and more general.

> There is no more energy efficient method of transport than oceanic freight.

Yes. But no transport at all is more efficient than even the most efficient method of transport. And food doesn't get straight from the docks onto the tables. There's usually lots of trucking involved. As you also say below.

> If you care about carbon footprint campaign for a carbon tax.

I do.

> Capitalism is extremely good at reducing transport costs and since those costs are basically denominated in hydrocarbons it already does a better than half assed job of reducing carbon footprints.

Capitalism is also extremely good at making the costs disappear, and reappear elsewhere, usually very diffused and paid by people not being parties to the transaction. That's why I am an advocate of carbon taxing - because it puts those costs front-and-center.

Now I'm not against shipping food, and I recognize the oceanic freight efficiency. I have two reasons for being interested in "alternative", more localized farming techniques: one, the ecological footprint (not just carbon) that's not accounted for, and two, robustness. I have this feeling that with current systems, we're one or two big accidents from a large humanitarian crisis. I feel it would be better if smaller groups of people could meet their basic sustenance needs with local produce - and ability to grow anything anywhere would definitely help with the varieties available.

The ecological footprint argument is for greater industrial concentration and more efficiency. The US has returned farmland equal in area to Washington state to wilderness over the last twenty years because it became uneconomic to farm it. This while basically every measure of how much did the US produces goes up. This is part of a more general trend of doing more with less resources in the developed world. There’s a book on this More from Less , Andrew McAfee.

Robustness and efficiency are at odds with one another. Any highly robust system will be very wasteful indeed compared to an efficient one; any system with lots of slack just isn’t efficient. Obviously if you think a large decline in standards of living is an acceptable price to pay for that robustness that’s a political position you’re free to support but good luck getting the votes for it.

Ability to grow anything anywhere requires energy. If you’re assuming civilization hasn’t collapsed anyway these farms in a box are either solving a non-problem or one with limited applicability.

Fair. I'm a person who frequently comments here that centralized systems beat decentralized on efficiency, so I understand that point.

RE More from Less, I need to buy and read that book. I remember an article promoting it being discussed recently on HN, and from it I got a distinct impression that US "doing more from less" is just an artifact of not accounting for embodied energy and material waste during (outsourced) manufacturing. I.e. if copper imports go down and electronic components imports go up a bit and consumer electronics production go up even more, it doesn't mean the US is better at using less copper for consumer electronics; it means you're not accounting for copper China wasted manufacturing components.

Anyway, that's my initial impression; I'll have to read the book to see if it goes into any more details to support its conclusion.

There’s a recent episode of Econtalk that’s an interview with the author of you’re a podcast listener. If you put in the work to have an informed opinion please share it with the world somehow, whether in a review, a Twitter thread or an email to me.

Thanks. I put it on my todo list to send you an e-mail when I read and think through the book; about sharing it with the wider world, we'll see then.

>But no transport at all is more efficient than even the most efficient method of transport.

You can't make a general statement like that because it ignores the geographic advantages of the locations you are transporting from. If a certain location has a high concentration of copper for instance then its local abundance might be 1000x higher than the location you are transporting it to. Simply looking at the transportation cost doesn't capture the whole picture.

The sun is free, but not all plans will grow everywhere. In many cases, there just isn't enough sun, or the climate is wrong. The economics of growing, say, pineapples in England don't work out, in part because it's so expensive to grow them there (if that's even possible in a highly climate-controlled room), but also because transportation costs are so low.

It is possible to grow them in English greenhouses: wealthy Britons with skilled gardeners had them in the 18th and 19th century, and the growing middle class often rented pineapples to display at fancy dinners. As you said, cheap transportation is what ended UK domestic pineapple production.


>Plants tested included cucumbers, basil, and baby lettuces.

Not the best plants to grow especially in a tight space. Cucumbers will take over everything especially close together. The bush varieties are good for container gardens but the tendrils will attach to other plants. I have to keep them off of other plants or provide a trellis to grow. Last year I got an infestation of cucumber beetles. Tomatoes grow like weeds and don't latch on to neighboring plants. Both grow from seed like wild fire.

Lettuce and basil do not provide enough nutrition for this kind of setup. Enough said. Arugula is more profitable than most but will bolt with heat.

>But despite all this money and brainpower, things soon went awry in Jordan. Schroeder, in a phone interview, told Spectrum that the conditions at the NCARE site were harsh, with a very dry desert climate and high indoor temperatures. The power frequently failed, which shut down the building’s air conditioning and the food computers’ LEDs. When the air conditioning conked out, it sometimes reached 45 °C (113 °F) inside the lab.

>Worse, the Wi-Fi was unreliable. A Wi-Fi connection was necessary to remotely monitor some of the parameters inside the grow chambers, which were equipped with cameras and sensors that measured temperature, humidity, and pH levels.

I am in the Deep South and that temperature is not going to work at all. Temps in the 90s will stop my plants from growing, cause flower drop and stop fruiting but humidity here is also a factor, not a factor in Jordan.

Stable power and wifi in a refugee camp? Keep dreaming. This part should be automated with sensors and a solar battery (or backup batter in case of power loss).

I am planning a couple projects with my Raspberry Pi's to collect data and do some automation for my plants. Once I have something going I will submit a few things to HN.

Let me know if anyone wants to know more or has any questions.

Growing herbs like Basil is a great way of getting started however. Not because it actually provides nutrients, but because tiny amounts of basil (just a few leaves) can grossly change the flavor-profile of your food. A small amount of Basil goes a long way in cooking.

Basil is also very easy to grow, so its a great beginner plant.

Sounds like a fun project, happy gardening!

I am really having trouble understanding this project... how would this be a good way to feed people? It has so much technology to produce so little food, and requires consistent power and internet... can anyone explain why this would be a good idea?

As a recent twitter rant against the Media Lab food computers went[1] - massive indoor farming operations basically already work this way and have in fact ironed out most of the bugs. There just happens to not be so much cross-pollination between traditional A&M schools and the Media Lab.

It should be noted that land grant schools were solely set up all over the country a hundred and fifty years ago to tackle exactly this domain of problems and not without some irony that MIT is one.

[1] https://twitter.com/sarahtaber_bww/status/117189565787294105...

>There just happens to not be so much cross-pollination between traditional A&M schools and the Media Lab.

MIT's Robotic Bees will solve that problem.


If you mark such posts with <humor> it will be easier for users to down vote them.

I thought the same thing when I saw them start that at the ML a few years back... but in following this fracas, I've learned massive indoor growops are doing something related but different: They're optimizing growth cycles for efficient crops, as opposed to diversity. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just food computers are more about synthesizing a climate to grow pathologically diverse food. It's not a bad idea. Caleb Harper just did bad things.

My impression is that it wasn't exactly pitched as a substitute for food aid, but more as a recreational project to provide moral support for the refugees, and perhaps some micronutrients on the side. Overall it's not too bad for a concept but the execution clearly prioritised asethetics over utility.

It does tick all the boxes for an attractive startup though:

- Disruptive tech

- Charismatic (?) founder

- Peer-reviewed research

- Open source

- Internet of things

- Benefits the environment

- Contributes to world peace

- $insert_random_progressive_agenda_here

As impractical as it is, nobody should be surprised by the fact that it got so much traction over the years. Even more far fetched projects such as roads paved with solar panels[0] and various kinds of atmospheric water harvesters[1] are still being actively funded and developed as we speak, despite overwhelming evidence that they are never going to be economically viable.



As a recreational project with "perhaps some micronutrients" as a side, gardening without the box would work too.

Yeah, but how do you turn "perhaps refugees would enjoy gardening" into a TED talk?

And how do you turn it into money to pay yourself and your lab nice salaries? Which is of course the point of the TED talk, it's marketing. For you, not for refugees. Refugees can garden without paying American academics six figure salaries to pretend to help them do it. Helping refugees sounds nice, but if it doesn't result in very comfortable salaries for non-refugee Americans, what's the point of that? Much preferable to pay American academics to pretend to help refugees -- get your priorities straight man!

It's a great idea, if you do it right, and scale it up, which is what industry had been doing for decades. The problem with the MIT version is it was a toy, that also didn't work, and was developed by people who had no grasp of the problem space.

If you look at a Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven, it would be easy to discount "ovens" as a good way of cooking food. They're too small, and the incandescent bulbs don't produce enough heat. How could anyone thing this was a good idea?

It is...unfortunate...that the MIT name was attached to a group of people trying to pass off shoddy malfunctioning knockoffs of toys as new innovation.

The premise of this project was that it would allow farmers to run parallel experiments to discover optimal growing conditions. The "food computers" were meant to inform large-scale production, not replace it.

The problem is this sort of matter is of course already studied by agricultural departments around the world, with a lot more competency. There is already a ton of research into, e.g. the effects of soil pH on potato production. Media Lab's food computer seems like a case of NIH, and probably wouldn't have happened if MIT had an agricultural department.

"It's the white man's burden to take care of these uncultured peoples and give them the science to feed themselves."

Your words are a bit incendiary but the gist is right. This guy thinks he’s redeeming himself and is a good man because he came up with a cockamamie idea that on first blush could seem altruistic, but, my word, you have to be worse than tone deaf to propose something as impractical as this as some kind of actual solution. Incredible! Usually people on LSD might conjure up something like this but come back to reality when it wears off.

Same, I just don't see a viable ROI. I'm not a farmer but it looks like their "food computer" could produce the calorie equivalent of one meal per month at most?

I'm starting to get the feeling that a large number of industry (Tech & VC, let's say) names with which I'm familiar are just scamming, at least among the "announcement -> vaporware -> incredible journey" publicity pipeline participants. If this is true it would really undergird the possibility that the top of the industry is just a bunch of guys who went to the same kinds of schools, universities, and fraternities, and just keep recycling each other over and over. It's not failing-up, it's the glass-floor.

This is much more prevalent in academia.

In industry you _eventually_ need to show result and earn money, it never get to that part in academia.

beginloop People publish papers that are practically useless but can be cited by other people in the same position, which then improves their standings endloop

Tell that to Theranos, Fyre Festival, WeWork, the counterfeiters on Amazon, the myriad of shady ICOs, and on and on. Unfortunately, scammers are rife in industry. Let's not fool ourselves.

Your examples seem to support the point you were replying to. Theranos is a perfect example of a scam unravelling because eventually the scammer needs to produce results, and not just self-referential research papers that never quite go anywhere.

I wonder how many more years it will take for uBeam to give up the ghost. Dave Jones has so thoroughly dismantled that one, it should have been over years ago.

There's a sucker born every minute and a skilled con man can exploit that unfortunate truism to keep a scam for quite a while. Moller's skycar is an example of a flagrant scam that lasted for decades.

I provided several top of mind examples. It doesn't take long to think of entire industries that are shady, from payday lenders to cigarette companies.

> In industry you _eventually_ need to show result and earn money

> It doesn't take long to think of entire industries that are shady, from payday lenders

I trust you aren't arguing that payday lenders don't earn money!

There's a huge difference between "I don't like what this industry is doing" and "this industry is fraudulent, can never produce the goods/services claimed, and will never turn a profit for the investors".

I don't see much of a difference between these companies and the person in the article. Both are taking advantage of a vulnerable population for some personal benefit.

If you have completely terrible credit and have a minor emergency, a payday loan may be your only option. If you take one, you’re supposed to pay it off with your next paycheck or 2, so the interest isn’t that outrageous. It certainly beats losing your job because you can’t drive to work.

The original point was that people scamming investors get discovered because the investors are invested enough to follow up on their claims. Less so in academia.

The immorality of Pay Day is very much known, and it is not relevant because Pay Day is scamming their customers, not their investors.

Both those examples produce bucketloads of cash for their shareholders. They're not defrauding the people who bankrolled them, they're taking advantage of the vulnerable, which is an entirely different problem.

No, both are dependent on cheating people. One cheats people who can fight back, and is thus considered criminal. The other cheats people who cannot fight back, and is profitable.

I think your examples help prove the parent comment's point. Each of those companies faced a reckoning when they weren't able to deliver on their promises.

WeWork had its valuation cut and the founder walked away with $1B+. Where can I sign up for this reckoning?

It is very possible that there will be action against Mr. Neumann. Any court of competent jurisdiction would likely rule that he was in breach of his fiduciary responsibility. There are even richer people who are not happy with him, who can hire even bigger armies of lawyers to make his life hard. I'm guessing they'll wait until they've got the company locked down and him out, then start going after him.

I wouldn't be visiting any Saudi embassies if I were him.

True, the founders can make out like bandits if they time it but the company itself will go down in flames if it's built on bullshit

Given this just happened, I don't think it is over yet.

What is Elizebeth Holmes' net worth before and after Theranos? Are we sure she did any real reckoning?

Supposedly she stopped paying her lawyers, so she might actually be broke.

Not the Amazon counterfeiters, yet.

Citing legendary scams from the last 10 years is not exactly a way to show that an entire industry is fraudulent.

Three more examples

The rideshare industry famously doesn’t make a profit.

Neither does the electric scooter industry.

The meal in a box industry has retention problems, because eventually their customers learn to shop and cook.

Those aren't necessarily inherent flaws, they're bad execution. Ride-sharing _can_ be very profitable, but it's also supposed to be very low-overhead. SV startups don't do low-overhead.

Electric scooters are a little iffier, as they take significantly more capex and there isn't much data on market acceptance (Or, at least, none of which I know.)

Meal-in-a-box is not a bad idea either; new people are showing up every day whining about how, "Adult-ing is hard." The fact that people eventually "graduate" is not an issue so long as more people are being born. It's just not necessarily something Joe Six-Pack is going to buy.

If you've noticed a common theme here, it's that the idea of hyper-scaling can be flawed. The above all have significantly lower threshold for market saturation than they believe, if you ask me.

Ride-sharing can be successful, but may not take over the world. Electric scooters can be successful, but may not take over the world. Meal-in-a-box can be successful, but may not take over the world.

SV gets stuck in the pareto trap of scaling past economies of scale and to the point where that next 20% of your customer base takes 80% of your capital. You can push scaling, but the market only moves so fast.

Ride sharing is only viable if the market shrug off all the externalities (insurance, traffic management, personal data security, etc) and keep pumping money into it in the hopes of fully autonomous vehicles becoming a reality within the next decade. Indeed if this type of hyperscaling were profitable we should have seen major regional taxi operators like airlines in developed countries a long time go, but alas there never was because it was not a good idea then and now.

Ditto for electric scooters - I rarely see anybody use one but it is somehow already costing my country millions in medical costs.


The housing mortgage crisis, dot com boom and bust, payday loan industry, for-profit universities, fad diet companies, supplements with no scientific basis, cigarette manufacturers... There are whole industries and periods of time where large numbers of shady companies are rising and falling.

dot com boom and bust?

Like Whole Foods or broadcast.com?

Like pets.com. It turns out shipping 30 lb bags of dog food via FedEx isn't such a good idea.

Edit: Not such a good idea in 1999, when operating without economies of scale and scope, and with high transportation costs.

and yet now i receive dense boxes of cat litter from amazon.

Seems to work for Chewy.com & Amazon.

This was an issue of bad timing, not a bad business model. People weren't really mentally at the point of buying such thing on-line, and pets.com burnt through their cash so quickly that it couldn't wait for people to start adopting it. As pointed out by others, Amazon made it work; however, they are very smart about diversifying, re-investing, and not being profligate with cash-on-hand.

You forgot Solar Freakin Roadways and the water from air bottle, but yes them and the billionaire banksters who nearly bankrupted most of the world who are the biggest scammers, like Dick Cheney, who didn't serve a day in prison for their crimes. (Too big to fail. -> Too big to jail.)

Most research is useless. It's almost inevitable.

But this is stupid levels of over-hype, and it has nothing to do with academia / business. It has everything to do with overbranding and rushing the hype.


At what point should we say "lying" instead of "over-hyping" or "overbranding"? I think they crossed that point. They were just plain lying.

I think the point is much, much earlier. It's just that it makes so much money that people are reluctant to call it for what it is - exploiting your fellow human beings.

In academia it's even worse. There's a glass floor that's also a glass ceiling. There's one group of people making tons of money publishing worthless material. There's a second group doing all the work in the false hope that they'll someday get to join the first group. I was lucky enough to learn this lesson as an undergrad and didn't get tricked into going for a PhD.

By the way, the "research" about texting while driving you might have read about or heard discussed on NPR is just highly plausible bullshit.

Who is “making tons of money publishing” anything, let alone “worthless material”?

Sure, Springer is making money, but I never met — nor heard of — anyone in academia making money through publishing. The truth may come as a surprise to you, but publishing articles, reviewing articles, editing journals, all of that is done for free.

You might make some money through consulting, but publishing? No. Not even when you write a textbook.

Consulting is where the big buck is, and a lot of times the income is warranted.

But _sometimes_ it’s entirely not warranted, the party just wanted the name attached. Just like how company brings in a consulting firm to confirm its existing decision.

That’s the story of every consultancy since the beginning of time.

Eh, there's also usually a lot less money on the line in academia. I would bet that this particular type of problem is positively correlated with potential commercializability.

Not necessarily, a lot of people are willing to sacrifice a lot in order to jump in the tenure wagon.

Which sometimes buffles me because it doesn't reward particularly well for a position reserved to people with strong intellectual prowess, it merely prevent people from being fired for doing nothing.

There are definitely people in academia that are driven for truth, but I don't know if that's the majority or a minority.

It's not about the money. Tenure makes you king of a small kingdom for life.

As someone whose going up for tenure next year...you vastly overestimate the benefits of tenure.

On planet negative interest rates, the time horizon for showing results in business is getting longer and longer. It may be the early stages of post-scarcity but it sure is weird.

Are you saying this as someone who's in industry or in academia?

Personally, both. And I'd say something like... industry projects eventually have to actually be profitable or it gets cut or eventually called out as fraud. Same is true of academic projects, except the currency is reputation and hopefully application. Once a field is believed not to be fruitful, those projects stop getting funded.

But academic projects are inherently closer to aspirational, so I'm not sure it's fair to conflate aspirational with fraud. This episode sounds like fraud. Aspirational is claiming your novel magnetic media "could" enable a terabyte per centimeter storage density when you know perfectly well it couldn't hit that in a real application. I dislike the rhetorical overreach and would not use naive statements like that, but it is a different thing entirely to take claim for work that wasn't even done.

Both. I finally feel useful to the society, I don’t regret academia though, a lot of random project that I coded for didn’t go anywhere but trained my coding skill.

>If this is true it would really undergird the possibility that the top of the industry is just a bunch of guys who went to the same kinds of schools, universities, and fraternities, and just keep recycling each other over and over. It's not failing-up, it's the glass-floor.

This is true for every major industry and the political class and has been true for decades.


If it has a TED talk it's pretty much guaranteed to be vaporware

I wonder whether the Media Lab is going to be shut down after the recent revelations, or the MIT administration is going to pretend that nothing happened.

I believe Media Lab is more than a "lab", it's also a place where students can build their own degree.

Eric Drexler, the "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology" author, got his PhD at the MIT Media Lab.

>His Ph.D. work was the first doctoral degree on the topic of molecular nanotechnology

>nanotech/grey goo, space colonization, cryonics, super AI

>futurist thinktanks/institues and similar

Sounds like a good fit for media lab since it's all fluff.

>> nanotech/grey goo, space colonization, cryonics, super AI

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. All of the things on this list are desirable and somebody has to do research for us to ever achieve them. The problem still is people trying to misrepresent the state of the art, whether in academia or in the industry.

media lab has a motto "demo or die", i don't think that's conducive to research in any way

From afar, the Media Lab has always appeared to me personally to be a place where engineers who are not good at engineering and artists who are not good at art get to burn through cash at astounding rates.

I may be wrong.

lol this is around 1% of the projects going on at any given time in the Media Lab.

It says something that one of the most well known and highly-praised media lab projects is basically a sham. What does that say about the other 99% of projects that aren’t even worth mentioning?

I don't know about the other projects. To me, it says that the funding model has eaten the reason for the Lab existing.

Feeding the hype machine that generates donations is considered more important than the work (not to mention the truth-seeking function of academia) the donations are supposed to fund.

There needs to be some serious house-cleaning if they want to be considered an actual research lab of any repute. Ito was a problem, but he quite clearly was not the only one.

MIT grad here. This is just one more reason I have stopped giving money to the Institute.

Academic donation seeking is a much easier thing to disconnect from real world ROI than most businesses can get raising capital. And 99.9% of businesses are not the 5 unicorns you read about in the media.

I think to a certain extent that's actually fine. An academy should not be run as a corporation; I think that notion is part of what is causing problems.

What academia should not be divorced from is knowledge and truth seeking. I don't mean that in some wooly, idealistic sense: if that isn't the focus, you're hucksters and frauds, not academics.

Possibly that they aren't as overhyped and thus look less impressive.

They have been a major proponent of various overhyped blockchain projects. I don't claim to know everything they do but my image of MIT have already been tarnished long before the Epstein connection came to light.

I would like to point out that the Media lab isn't all of MIT. We do some really incredible research (LIGO, Black hole imaging, poverty research, to just name a few recent achievements). Incidentally, the media lab has a reputation within MIT as a place for often impractical ideas that never pass the demo stage. That said, the way in which a number of members of the MIT community (including outside the media lab) were associated with Epstein is troubling to say the least.

[ETA: a large number of media lab projects are still really good, as the other commenter mentioned]

Absolutely. My apologies if the comment above came across as disparaging to the whole institution. I come from academia myself and the MIT name still carries unparalleled prestige with it. But this only makes it more heartbreaking to see the brand diluted by a small yet highly visible section ran by a former nightclub owner.

Some Media Lab projects are quite real, like Scratch.

> What does that say about the other 99% of projects that aren’t even worth mentioning?

At least one other major project, the OLPC from media lab and the infamous Negroponte gang was a total failure. Negroponte was back in the news recently due to the whole Joi Ito-Jeffrey Epstein pedo funding debacle.

I don't think this was one of the most well-known or highly-praised projects before this scandal. Certainly I can think of at least 10-20 other projects from the same time that were more well-known to me.

But can you name a single one that wasn't TED talk friendly nonsense?

And most of the other 99% are vaporware and media hype, just like this one.

Source: I was there for the worst two years of my life.

And of the recent revelations? [0]

"Why MIT Media Lab thought it was doing right by secretly accepting Jeffrey Epstein’s money"

[0] https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/11/20860717/mit-me...

TED talks are getting to be a counter-signal of credibility.

TED Talks lost their luster long ago when they turned into regional self-hosted events with less and less quality checks and more speakers doing sales and promotions.

I thought that was supposed to be the difference between TED and TEDx. TEDx being the one lacking most any credibility.

TEDx isn't really about credibility though.

The talks I've seen out of TEDx tend to be more "this is interesting" rather than "this is 100% the truth about ____". I think most TEDx events take themselves less seriously, which results in fewer speakers that think they are the end-all-be-all of some topic. Where as TED events seem to try to get the "foremost expert on ____", even if the entire area of _____ is mostly quackery.

Though really I think the pompousness is proportional to size and has (almost) nothing to do with TED vs TEDx. Anecdotally, the fairly large TEDxGlasgow had a lot more wankiness than the quite small TEDxUbud.

I feel like they've been that way for over a decade at the very least. While I may be ignorant of such, I know of no outcomes of TED talks that led to new developments or progress or breakthroughs. The astronomical cost of attendance allows some wealthy people to intellectually slum when --given their resources-- they could already be involved in remarkable efforts.

TED talks were never a good signal of credibility.

They've been that way for over a decade now

I only still remember one TED talk I watched. The rest vanished from memory.


I actually think this sounds like a dope project and I would love for it to succeed.

BUT, come on folks, refugees are not your fucking PR opportunity. I can't imagine how insulting it must be to need food, shelter, and a source of income, and some clueless techbro from across the globe sends you a malfunctioning Raspberry Pi grow tent. How disconnected from reality does one have to be to think this is a good idea.

The food computer idea was one that industry had working a decade before under the name growth chambers.

https://twitter.com/SarahTaber_bww/status/117189568344985600... https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=industrial%20growth%20...

This whole thread is gold and I was going to post it here (especially the items before the tweet about the "food computer")

But this "food computer" is what happens when you think smart people are smart with everything or that they know everything. They aren't and they don't.

"MIT Built a Theranos for plants" is a headline that's true in a lot of levels (further down in the thread)

(Not to mention all the stuff about reputation laundering)

Ahh, but those things didn't have the MIT name associated with them.

I really can't stand the elite university system. It's not that these schools are bad, just that many others are also good but don't have the brand.

Are the stories about how awesome places like MIT were in the past wrong, or is it just that these days they're riding on the reputation earned in the 70s?

Neither. MIT was and is awesome. That the Media Lab had a lot of people gifted with PR skills does not detract from the outsized contribution MIT faculty and graduates make in terms of publications, research or economic impact.

Ah, OK. My contact surface with MIT is through a) various old lectures of theirs I watched, and b) the "hot stuff" that I read about (which I guess is mostly from the Media Lab). The former was awesome, the latter not so much.

I'd like to add that most (not 100% that all of it) of the functionality is available for commercial greenhouses, with hydroponics, micro-climate, leds, etc. We are talking about a massive building that puts amazon warehouse to shame. That's how you make a return on this technology.

Now, most of it is proprietary, expensive, and the control systems are fairly basic, so there is scope for an open source project, for improvement, for openness and usability.

That tweet is snarky, but it's also wrong. Growth chambers have indeed been commercially available for over 50 years, but a "food computer" appears to be a little different, because it also includes the plumbing and reservoirs for growing plants hydroponically.

Are you familiar enough with the high-end growth chamber market to make informed statements about "food computer" features not being available?

Or are you just saying that low-end growth chambers also exist that don't include "food computer" features?

The difference is that it's too small to grow a meaningful amount of food. Nevermind the required energy inputs.

These people have no ethics, if it furthers their narrative they will spin any tangentially relevant story.

Unlike Engineering, there is no Board of Engineers to hold you (or your company) to account for lying about the capabilities of your core product or whether its actually working for the vulnerable people used in a company's marketing :c

Not even the first time the Media Lab does this. See: One Laptop Per Child.

I still want the lenticular display to be a thing.

We know categorically that hand cranks do not work, although I think Thad Starner (also from Media Lab) had already proven that when the project started.

They were trying to make them homogenous, when probably a pair or trio of devices would have worked better and had higher survivability.

I hope someone more sober tries again.

The object is a good idea. The PR and selling around it isn't. Everything in the story belies the main claims of the article, and that's the only problem I see - the difference between hustle and reality.

This is exactly the ethos of move fast and break things that will make the right things happen. They shipped to real customers in real environments. They used technology to address problems. They iterated on the design. All just like you're supposed to do for any successful product.

Where they screwed up is claiming to "make the world a better place" before they really did it. They're still in product-market fit phase, not techbros save the world phase.

The step you left out is "pretend the existing industry doesn't exist and ignore hard-earned folk knowledge". A lot of these supposedly revolutionary ideas are wasting money learning things that e.g. agriculture or finance or whatever industry figured out ages ago.

> This is exactly the ethos of move fast and break things that will make the right things happen. They shipped to real customers in real environments.

Or, they wasted fuel, energy, manpower and hopes.

> They used technology to address problems.

Except they didn't, beyond noticing the problem exists.

> They iterated on the design.

Everyone does that.

> All just like you're supposed to do for any successful product.

The first rule for a successful product is, or at least should be, that it does something useful. The second, that it does it economically in context of available alternatives.

"Make the world a better place" is cringe-inducing, but reducing the message slightly is still bullshit marketing. For me, this already ruined any trust I had in the past in MIT ML, TED talks, and countless of startups "saving the world", "improving lives", etc.

(Also, a thing I learned from observation: if you want to improve the world, you probably don't want to take VC money.)

Even worse, the techbro is getting paid a FINE salary by pimping you, and you don't get shit.

It's absolutely disgusting to make a living for yourself by pretending to help refugees and lying about it.

This might sound hyperbolic but I'm almost getting Theranos vibes from reading this story.

Using refugees to push your nonfunctinal product is slimey to say the least.

Dope is about the only useful thing it can grow.

China has some program providing greenhouse monitoring to its poorer citizens, but it does a lot more than this.

I hate that this is called a "food computer." I know what they are now from reading the article, but it's totally non-intuitive. Why are publications using this in headlines? They're mini grow labs. Pretty straightforward.

I was around when they built the first one (I was taking an IAP class on bio-entrepeneurship) and the big idea was that the computer would (1) make the food more nutritious (2) "democratize" agrifood commodities regardless of geography and (3) be fully automatic.

Sounded like a cool idea... too bad Caleb is a scammer.

> "democratize" agrifood commodities

By "agrifood commodities" do you literally mean "vegetables or cereals"? People all over the world have been practicing agriculture for thousands of years. Generally it's more effective using things like spades, sickles, etc. than a 3D printer-looking nonsense.

Nah, more like "grow mangoes in your Boston home in January instead of paying the seasonal upcharge" type thing. I feel like the original intention was to make a cool gadget (the original name was Personal Food Computer), not solve hunger. Got blown way out of proportions.

High Times has been advertising those things for decades, just not for food.

I find it amazing how people think that "farming box machines" (which in my book includes hydroponics) are somehow better than just ploughing a furrow, watering it, planting and then proceeding to water and fertilise as needed. Hydroponics does make sense if you grow cannabis.

There is also a misconception about "shade plants". All of the major plant crops that I know of want full sun. Sunburn in avacodos (for example) is due to pruning or exposed stem/bark and the reason why paint (er, sunblock) is applied is an efficiency measure; the exposed stem also stimulates fruit formation so you don't want too many leaves (which naturally would prevent sunburn).

it's not only weed, I worked in the space, and tomatoes, cucumbers, and some speciality plants can achieve insane yields in a hydroponic greenhouse. A significant percentage are now grown that way. That being said we are talking about large-scale greenhouse, not a tiny box with more electronics than grow space

This is assuming you live in an adverse climate. If the climate is good outside then the costs involved don't justify it.

Nethouses (vs. Greenhouses vs. Glasshouses) are common in areas with a good climate (such as Almeria in Spain) but they are not always the optimal solution. The further requirement to justify nethouses is space as a limiting factor (or water).

But I would categorise Nethouses still as being "outside farming". They don't even stop rain from getting through.

I have not come across penthouses, but I believe part of the yield improvement comes from the hydroponic setup, rather than climate control. My astronomy knowledge is very basic thou.

One might think that in a controlled environment you can be more efficient- less water, right amounts of fertilizers and so on, but I stopped at

> the size of a dorm-room refrigerator

It's simply a joke or a hobby for rich westerners in a city apartment.

MIT's reputation is going down the tubes. First the Aaron Swartz persecution, then Epstein links now this.

MIT's reputation will be fine don't worry. The main thing people need to realize is that there are shitty and not so smart people everywhere, even at prestigious places like MIT.

And shitty and very smart people. Remember, nazis built the u.s. space program.

But the real question is: to what extent is this a systemic issue? In other words, does the current system/ environment select for these types of these PR over engineering people?

Back when I was at MIT, the shiny Media Lab building was right across the street from my room. We told a lot of stories about it, usually starting with some variant of "as you all know, the Media Lab is the coolest place in the world". That was its reputation, but I always thought there was something off about the place, and avoided anything associated with it.

The fake it till you make it mantra looks like has gone too far in this case. Screwing with people's food supply, especially refugees who're in no position to push back, is just beyond merely questionable.

Be relieved that it all ended with some junk boxes strewn around some labs and schools this time.

Next time these cons will sell 'save the planet with geo-engineering' to another gullable audience and we'll all be screwed big-time.

There is obviously some attempt to invoke anger here but it's hard for me to understand exactly at what.

Another title could have been: Nonprofit sends food growing technology to refugee camp. That's a pretty generous use of the word "used".

Should they have intentionally kept silent about the fact that they were actively working with refugee camps until they had peer reviewed proof that it worked?

No one here did anything wrong. The technology failed. They will either iterate or decide the idea isn't worth pursuing. No outrage necessary.

Does anyone know of any data on the rate at which "technologists" (sorry) lie about or otherwise entirely misrepresent their accomplishments?

I suspect it's highly correlated with TED talks.

The Media Lab is starting to look like a liability for MIT.

At some point it seems like MIT as an institution is going to have to start cutting their losses and save face somehow to retain their academic reputation. The Media Lab seems like a logical first choice for a lab to be axed.

> Moore’s team found that the conventional indoor setup grew microgreens at four inches per week—twice the rate of the food computer.

I’m very happy to read that some science teachers in the US get it right.

It's disappointing seeing such behavior from individuals from what I've always considered one of the most respectable institutions in the U.S. There'd be no surprise from me if this sort of thing came from any one of the other myriad startups scattered around the company selling empty promises and snake oil. But scummy scam-like behavior? From MIT?? I was shocked when I came across the claims saying that researchers were made to use outside plants with the PFC during demonstrations.

Media Labs has been a white elephant for long. Refer to OLPC.

It amazes me how things were easy to get moving in 1993.

Imagine that applied to today.

Well, today, it would be a start up claiming to have secured telnet, with a webapp, carry over session between mobile and desktop, and gathering telemetry between each connection.

(apologies, this has turned into my yearly rant of "make protocols, not apps!")

Is this the first time a TED Talk has been put "under review"?




I wouldn't be surprised if there are more, just with a different phrase.

Hey, Does anyone knows what sensors are used for detecting humidity in range RH 85-95%? Popular Chinese ones, BME/DHT/HTU are glitchy and brakes easily at high humidity values. Is there are anything else on the market?


So it's an overly complicated space bucket that doesn't even work?

Why was the MIT Media Lab doing an ag school project, anyway? Badly.

Think of how much better the world would be if half the money that went to funding this bs just went straight to refugees.

If only he'd called it WeAg or WeFarm and spruiked it to SoftBank he'd be a billionaire by now.

It boggles my mind after all the farces and scandals that MIT still refuses to disavow the Media Lab.

No ecological solutions under capitalism.

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