MIT Media Lab’s Food Computer Project Permanently Shut Down

Close-up photograph of a Personal Food Computer v3.0 sits on display at the Cooper Hewitt museum.
Photo: Harry Goldstein

By: Harry Goldstein

MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative, led by principal scientist Caleb Harper, was permanently shuttered by the university on 30 April 2020.

“Caleb Harper’s last day of employment with the Institute was April 30, and as he led the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, it is closed at MIT,” Kimberly Allen, director of media relations, told IEEE Spectrum in an email.

As for the fate of OpenAg’s Github repository and the OpenAg Forum (which is no longer reachable), Allen said only, “Any legacy digital properties that may be hosted on Media Lab servers will either be closed or moved in time.”

The OpenAg initiative came under scrutiny following the departure in September 2019 of Media Lab director Joichi Ito after revelations that he had solicited and accepted donations for the Media Lab from convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In a report [PDF] commissioned by MIT and released in January, the law firm Goodwin Procter LLP found that Ito had “worked in 2018 to obtain $1.5 million from Epstein to support research by Caleb Harper, a Principal Research Scientist at the Media Lab.” The report states that the donation was never made. The report also notes that Harper, Ito, and Professor Ed Boyden met with Epstein at the Media Lab on 15 April 2017, just days before 15 of 17 employees at Harper’s start-up Fenome were dismissed.

OpenAg and Fenome designed, developed, and fabricated personal food computers—enclosed chambers the size of a mini-fridge packed with LEDs, sensors, pumps, fans, control electronics, and a hydroponic tray for growing plants. Harper mesmerized audiences and investors around the globe with a vision of “nerd farmers” growing Tuscan tomatoes in portable boxes with recipes optimized by machine-learning algorithms. But the food computers never lived up to the hype, though they did make an appearance at the Cooper Hewitt Museum’s Design Triennial in the fall of 2019, where the photos for this post were taken.

Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research at MIT, led an internal investigation following allegations that Harper told MIT staff to demonstrate food computers with plants not grown in them and that fertilizer solution used by OpenAg was discharged into a well on the grounds of at the Bates Research and Engineering Center in Middleton, Mass., in amounts that exceeded limits permitted by the state of Massachusetts. While that investigation was being conducted, OpenAg’s activities were restricted.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) concluded their review of OpenAg activities at Bates on 22 April, according to a letter dated 11 May [PDF] to the Bates community from Boleslaw Wyslouch, director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and the Bates Research and Engineering Center. MassDEP, Wyslouch said, “fined MIT for discharging spent plant growing solution and dilute cleaning fluids into an Underground Injection Control (UIC) well in violation of the conditions of the well registration terms.”

MassDEP originally fined MIT US $25,125, but according to a post on the Bates website detailing the MassDEP review, upon the permanent closure of the OpenAg Initiative, MassDEP “suspended payment of a $10,125 portion of the fine, leaving MIT responsible for paying $15,000.”

The discharge was brought to light by a scientist formerly associated with OpenAg, Babak Babakinejad, who in addition to blowing the whistle on the chemical discharge at Bates also alleged, in an email to Ito on 5 May 2018, that Harper had taken credit for the deployment of food computers to schools as well as to “a refugee camp in Amman despite the fact that they have never been validated, tested for functionality and up to now we could never make it work i.e. to grow anything consistently, for an experiment beyond prototyping stage.”

subsequent investigation by Spectrum substantiated Babakinejad’s claims and found that Harper had lied about the supposed refugee camp deployment to potential investors and in several public appearances between 2017 and 2019.

Harper, who for years had been actively promoting the food computer on social media, has been mostly silent since the MIT investigation started last September. His LinkedIn profile now states that he is executive director of the Dairy Scale for Good (DS4G) Initiative, “working to help US Dairies pilot and integrate new technology and management practices to reach net zero emissions or better while increasing farmer livelihood.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 17 May 2020.