Tech bros with tech woes at MIT Media Lab

In today’s New York Times Noam Cohen writes about another scandal, other than the Epstein money, bubbling along at M.I.T. Media Lab. But it’s related, since the vector in the Venn diagram of this project should be colored with your “ambition” and “recklessness” Crayolas:

At the center of the project — the Open Agricultural Initiative, called OpenAg for short — is the development of a device known as a personal food computer, a high-tech, climate-controlled mini greenhouse meant to allow crops to thrive in thin air, without soil or sunlight.

The project is led by Caleb Harper, an architect listed as a principal research scientist on the Media Lab website. 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 until this month, when he resigned under pressure after the disclosure of his efforts to conceal his financial connections to Mr. Epstein, the financier who killed himself last month after being indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges.

Terrific idea, right? Could revolutionize food production!

But there is one hitch. The machine being produced by the OpenAg folks — who have pulled down major corporate funding for the project — is that it doesn’t work. They seem to have faked their lab results, allegedly to keep the money rolling in. “Four researchers,” Cohen writes, “who worked on OpenAg said in interviews with The New York Times that Mr. Harper had made exaggerated or false claims about the project to its corporate sponsors, a group that included the retail giant Target, as well as in interviews with the news media.”

Said researchers told the Times that “the food computers did not work as well as Mr. Harper said they did, adding that he often presented speculative claims as scientific truths while raising funds. In a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Harper defended himself against that accusation, saying that he had not misled anyone and that his statements about the project were meant to describe his vision for its future.” This included, apparently,  buying regular plants  from a nearby store, brushing the dirt off the roots, and putting them in the machine, in order to “demonstrate” visually that the machine worked.

Oddly, I am right now listening to “The Dropout,” a terrific podcast done by ABC News about Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, who pulled off a similar grift for over a decade, using similar methods, including firing people who told her the research was not bearing out, threatening their careers, and making them sign NDAs. Holmes sucked down many millions of dollars in VC funding (including a reported $100 million from the DeVos family, a bright spot for listeners like me) to develop a blood testing machine that supposedly ran over 300 tests on a single drop of blood taken from a finger.

Unlike the M.I.T. Media Lab, however, Holmes managed to persuade a circle of wealthy Republicans who included Henry Kissinger, Bill Frist, and George Schulz that a woman who had taken exactly two semesters of chemical engineering at Stanford before leaving school was capable of pulling off a project that people with MD/PhDs thought was improbable. Democrats Joe Biden and Bill Clinton proclaimed Holmes a genius. Attorney (and champion of the gays) David Boies was retained by Holmes to sue the hell out of those who questioned the integrity of the research. Essentially, none of these people had any idea what they were looking at, but kept networking Holmes into funding, ignoring doubters who knew what they were talking about, and protecting Holmes reputation. I know we are right to be upset about President Donald Trump steering millions of federal dollars to his properties, and enabling Jarvanka’s accumulation of wealth, but like most things Trump, these are kind of petty grifts in comparison to the political heavyweights who got behind the Theranos scam.

In addition, the Theranos project was pretty dangerous, since people often take blood tests regularly because they are ill, or think they are ill, and — wait for it — Walgreen’s actually bought the damn thing and put it in stores in a way that circumvented FDA approval.

But another takeaway: a lot of scientists in the Theranos lab (almost everyone, actually) knew that the machine was fraudulent, and that research was being faked, and fingers seem to be pointing in that direction at  M.I.T. too. This is the story by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carryou that launched the Theranos investigation: this more recent story shows that, despite being exposed, apparently Holmes is still at it.

Which leads me to my final point: the arrogance of scientists, pinned to the arrogance of investment capital and the legitimizing power of universities, is just toxic: why are these relationships not better regulated?

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