"The food computers weren’t even deployed at the Azraq camp"
November 12, 2019 9:10 AM   Subscribe

 
Funny how the only two successful products to come out the media lab was digital ink and guitar hero! It’s almost like actually developing new tech wasn’t the point!
posted by The Whelk at 9:19 AM on November 12, 2019 [22 favorites]


Oh that tweet thread is something: “glamour brothel of a research institute” indeed.

The Media Lab seemed bullshitty to me when I was a grad student at MIT 15 years ago, an d I like to think nothing surprises me, but wow. Just burn it down already.
posted by bumpkin at 9:32 AM on November 12, 2019 [11 favorites]


eponysterical
posted by lalochezia at 9:46 AM on November 12, 2019 [7 favorites]


It’s a simple yet potentially revolutionary idea: a portable box that can grow practically any kind of plant just by downloading a recipe and planting some seeds.
It's neither simple nor revolutionary. It's a shitty and convoluted technical answer to a socioeconomic problem.
posted by howfar at 9:49 AM on November 12, 2019 [20 favorites]


Another quick summary from Gizmodo: MIT built a Theranos for plants.
posted by dnash at 10:08 AM on November 12, 2019 [10 favorites]


These food computers don't seem even slightly like a good idea. I mean, there are some fancy-assed ones being Kickstarted at people who want to garden without ever leaving their house, but growing enough basil to make pesto every couple of weeks is not the same problem as feeding a family.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:08 AM on November 12, 2019 [25 favorites]


Taber et al. bring up a good tranche of the agricultural and consumer focused prior art -

There must be an equivalent takedown by marijuana growers, legal and illegal.
posted by clew at 10:27 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's an archaic technology being resold by tech hype men with no actual understanding of the science behind it. The best description I've seen for it is Theranos With Plants.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:28 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


Its.... a very small, not super efficient green house that uses too much electricity and doesn't actually solve a problem.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:33 AM on November 12, 2019 [9 favorites]


The Media Lab seemed bullshitty to me when I was a grad student at MIT 15 years ago, an d I like to think nothing surprises me, but wow. Just burn it down already.

It definitely needs to be "warmly and firmly embraced" by MIT until the bullshit squeezes out.
posted by ocschwar at 10:39 AM on November 12, 2019


Huh. I grow weird plants from seed indoors (Gasteria and Haworthia). I use the internet to look up requirements, bookshelves, and cheap grow lights. The setup costs about $250 for 12+ square feet of plant space. It is not terribly difficult (but it is harder than growing plants to eat) and I use no Venture Capitalist or research funding to do it.

Also it is far easier and more efficient to grow them in natural light in proper large greenhouses which is why you can buy Mexican succulents in Chicago in the middle of winter for about $3-5 and rare South African succulents for about $10 but alas I don't have room or the money to buy the room.
posted by srboisvert at 11:00 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


I thought a food computer was going to be like a Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle. Bummer
posted by Cezar Golescu at 11:07 AM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's neither simple nor revolutionary. It's a shitty and convoluted technical answer to a socioeconomic problem.

You've basically summed up the current CS and engineering mindset. In general: technology looking for a problem to monetize, rather than a problem looking for technology to solve.

I can't count the number of times I've had to ask (including to ask myself) "what problem does this actually solve?" The answer, usually, is a problem we created, imagined or appropriated to make a specific solution seem relevant.
posted by klanawa at 11:16 AM on November 12, 2019 [32 favorites]


Early in the keynote presentation video (don't watch it) Caleb Harper states that the newest food computer is the "Lamborghini" of food computers and it's probably the most honest thing he said. (we all think that Lamborghinis are unnecessary, outrageously expensive, and probably dangerous, right?)
posted by Drab_Parts at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


But the situation on the ground never matched the fantastic claims that Harper made about the WFP project in public appearances during the spring of 2017 and in briefings for corporate patrons of the Media Lab in the spring and fall of 2017. Harper and a colleague also cited the personal food computer’s successful deployment in the Azraq camp in emails to potential partners and patrons for the Open Agriculture Initiative and for Fenome Inc., a spin-off company that Harper founded in 2016.

Even as Harper took the stage in Georgia, it was clear to those working with the food computer at the World Food Programme (WFP) and at Fenome that the project wasn’t progressing as the team had hoped. Indeed, in September 2017, the WFP project officially ended without any of the machines having completed a single grow cycle, according to the official in charge of the project. The WFP’s personal food computers weren’t even deployed at the Azraq camp, home to some 35,000 Syrian refugees, but rather at a facility run by Jordan’s National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension, in Mafraq, an hour’s drive from Azraq.
This is like Lysenkoism, but with "socialist utopianism" replaced by "tech utopianism".
posted by J.K. Seazer at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2019 [9 favorites]


(we all think that Lamborghinis are unnecessary, outrageously expensive, and probably dangerous, right?)

And adored mostly by younger men who have no real concept of just how much of a hassle they could be to possess.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:00 PM on November 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


Its.... a very small, not super efficient green house that uses too much electricity and doesn't actually solve a problem.

...and it needs WiFi! Because of course it does!
posted by jquinby at 12:04 PM on November 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


Data from food computers all over the world would be fed to machine learning algorithms to optimize recipes and help people grow, say, the most flavorful basil (the subject of this peer-reviewed PLoS-One paper authored by Harper et al.)
What a perfect storm of bullshit.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:13 PM on November 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


From the spectrum article:
Moore [a high school teacher] says that she and her students continued to experiment with their food computers, uploading plant recipes to the OpenAg open source forum. They also set up an experiment to see which equipment grew microgreens more effectively: a food computer or a basic UV light bank shining down on plants potted in soil. Moore’s team found that the conventional indoor setup grew microgreens at four inches per week—twice the rate of the food computer.
This was not a waste - her students learned how to do a nice experiment to show that this intervention is not as effective as the current technology, and therefore not worth pursuing.

Maybe MIT can hire the students to do basic pilot studies for them.
posted by jb at 12:24 PM on November 12, 2019 [36 favorites]


The Personal Food Computer: feeding the world, one salad at a time.
posted by mach at 12:27 PM on November 12, 2019


Harper, who holds a master’s degree in architecture from MIT and is a member of the World Economic Forum and a National Geographic Explorer, managed to parlay the exposure from his TED talk into a lucrative side gig as a speaker. He earns $20,000 to $30,000 per talk, according to his agent’s website.
Flames on the side of my face etc.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:30 PM on November 12, 2019 [12 favorites]


"On its face, the project sounds like one of the most ambitious and altruistic uses of high-tech agriculture you could imagine. "

No, on its face, it sounds like giving refugees a chia pet and expecting them to survive a growing cycle on a handful of sprouts.

Seriously, what am I missing here? It looks like it's about the size of a dorm fridge. So it grows let's say a half dozen small summer squash, and then you start it over again, and about 60 days later you've got another half dozen summer squash. Or more correctly, the new refugees who take over after you've starved to death get another half dozen squash. (That won't do much more for them than yours did for you.) I'm pretty sure it takes a lot more arable land than that (even perfectly computer optimized arable land with its own Internet connection) to sustain a human being.

I mean fuck, why not just say it can cure cancer or modify the equine genome to make miniature flying rainbow unicorns? The Syrian refugees can sell those for pets and buy all the food they need!

And back to totally serious. I'm a layman. Am I missing something, or is whole concept utterly ridiculous regardless of their execution?
posted by Naberius at 12:50 PM on November 12, 2019 [19 favorites]


Looks like an expensive nano version of something like a Conviron Plant Growth Chamber.

Those Convirons (they work! they're expensive AF!) have been around, what, 50 years?
posted by porpoise at 12:54 PM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I worked at the Media Lab back in the early/mid-90's as an undergrad. It's always been flash without much rigor, but some really interesting demos.

When things were restricted to say futuring entertainment, music, interfaces, story-telling - that's fine. When you're making wild ass promises about things for crisis situations - that's not fine.
posted by drewbage1847 at 1:16 PM on November 12, 2019 [8 favorites]


I have a Master's degree from the Media Lab (1998) and am still proud of my work, much of what I learned, and much of the work of my other students. But there's always been a bunch of stuff that was more flashy demo than real research and the occasional outright fraud. Even so, I bet I'm more mad than you at this Caleb Harper scandal. It's a real embarrassment and also significantly more harmful than some grad student doing something that just looked cool and wasn't good research.
posted by Nelson at 1:34 PM on November 12, 2019 [8 favorites]


Naberius: No, on its face, it sounds like giving refugees a chia pet and expecting them to survive a growing cycle on a handful of sprouts.

Even better: they were wi-fi-enabled Chia pets. Also, they stop working if there's no wi-fi.
posted by mhum at 1:53 PM on November 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


This is the sort of BS I think of when people talk about terraforming Mars.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:29 PM on November 12, 2019 [13 favorites]


...and safe self-driving cars.
posted by j_curiouser at 3:26 PM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's well known that a family of refugees can survive on the caloric output of a single countertop AeroGarden. All they eat are chives and oregano.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:36 PM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


...and it needs WiFi! Because of course it does!

Yeah, I think at this point in the development of IoT one can safely say that if your project requires adding wifi to a type of device that does not already have wifi, it is a bullshit idea and you are a bad person who should feel bad.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:17 PM on November 12, 2019 [19 favorites]


I bet these food computers didn't even say "Share and enjoy" when dispensing their wares!
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:19 PM on November 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


I never understood how their reputation survived selling a bunch of overhyped badly made computers to developing countries with struggling education systems.

It's not quite Nestlé causing malnutrition by pushing infant formula in developing countries but it's in the same ballpark.
posted by zymil at 10:46 PM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


I think either me or the world is slowly going insane. I mean, this is a box with wifi and some led lights promoted as a solution to agricultural problems.

Now I'm as urbanised as the next fellow but I spent all my childhood summers in my great uncle's farm. It had acres of wheat, cows, sheep, all the rest of it. Like, you know, a farm.

And everybody looked at a box with a cpu on it and said, yup, that'll solve whatever the problem is, and who knows how food is made in bulk anyhow?

Like. Am I missing something like Naberius also said above?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:44 AM on November 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


I guess the bit I struggle with is: an adult needs, what, around 2000 calories/day, give or take. So you've got 2 adults and say 2 children and I'm spitballing about 6800 calories daily. There are good high-cal crops, but everything needs inputs of some kind, so maybe you can grow sweet potatoes, legumes, some sort of cereal (quinoa?), but you'll need a whole shitpile of those machines to generate anywhere close to this and have these folks never tried actual gardening before? In something larger than a single pot or square-foot frame?
posted by jquinby at 6:50 AM on November 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think the point was to offer morale boosting "extra" food, with the main caloric needs met by cereals and the like farmed on a large scale.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:08 AM on November 13, 2019


Wow, who expected an investigative piece by IEEE Spectrum? Makes me feel my dues haven’t been entirely wasted.

I thought from the article that the idea was to germinate in the Grow-O-Tron and then transplant outside. I guess my misconception was based on the idea that this was—you know—MIT, and the people implementing it must have at least rudimentary knowledge of physics.

On the up side, I now have license to imagine my failure to rise to the pinnacle of the heights is not because I didn’t go to MIT.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:21 AM on November 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


"what problem does this actually solve?"

The gross injustice of money being under the fatuous control of anyone but the wise tech inventor.

see also Bill "I'm too clever to be taxed by government" Gates: still not smart enough to use his billions in trust to ‘solve’ poverty in Africa
posted by scruss at 8:08 AM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think the main failure here, as with many other failures of philanthropic intervention, is ignorance of economics. A tiny box that purportedly solves the problem of raising any kind of plant from start to finish with no human intervention is a device that only makes sense if your limiting resource is human attention and knowledge of horticulture, so it's a perfect gizmo for a highly compensated Westerner who already has plenty of food and doesn't want to have to care about one more thing. It would never make sense for someone who's experiencing real food insecurity, as they would already be maximally motivated to pay whatever attention and learn whatever knowledge is necessary to get more food.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 9:20 AM on November 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


This story also makes me wonder if the David Mitchell farmer character might be the only educational resource offering the degree of bold simplicity that people at MIT need to understand the basic principles of agriculture: "Corn comes out of the fucking ground!"
posted by howfar at 1:47 PM on November 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


they would already be maximally motivated to pay whatever attention and learn whatever knowledge is necessary to get more food

Heh, my burnout stoner friend is exactly like this, but with weed. He is kinda-sorta broke (it varies), but he's got a moderately successful closet grow room. Which is literally what this food computer is, except his is larger and has a lot more sketchy wiring. And his actually grows plants.

That's something that annoys me, beyond the fraud. Setting aside the economics and calorie capacity, but you're telling me their piece of shit hardware couldn't even grow any plants?. How can you MIT engineers fail that badly that you can't even build a small indoor grow op from plans on the internet?
posted by ryanrs at 2:01 PM on November 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


Which is literally what this food computer is, except his is larger and has a lot more sketchy wiring. And his actually grows plants.

There's a huge difference here, though: your stoner friend cares a lot about the weed he's growing, he knows exactly how his grow setup works, and I assume he observes the plants and makes adjustments on the fly as needed. He is still investing lots of time and attention into his setup, just in a way that allows him to grow a lot more weed than if he were focusing on a single potted (heh) plant. These "food computers", by contrast, were envisioned as a set-it-and-forget-it total solution to growing any kind of plant without needing to know anything about growing plants. The reason this reminded me of Lysenkoism is that the whole idea boils down to the notion that we can replace generations of accumulated agricultural and horticultural knowledge with pure ideology.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:45 PM on November 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


My brother invested in a similar Kickstarter called Replantable and gave us one of their units for Christmas. It is a pretty little bamboo and aluminum box with grow lights, and their hydroponic system was simple (capillary action only) and effective. They are no longer in business. I'm glad he didn't waste his money on one that had pumps and required wifi access. This thing will at least continue to grow plants in the future.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:56 PM on November 13, 2019


This is the sort of BS I think of when people talk about terraforming Mars.

I don't mind daydreaming about would-be space colonies, but I think we have to consider that people up there would need a vast amount of human labor, goods, and resources in order to start out their existence in a some sort of new wild west.

So they're thinking they're getting away from people they consider to be Other as bootstrapped rugged individualists, but not so much really. And worried more about clean drinking water up there than down here.

Gil Scott-Heron's Whitey on the Moon and all that.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:44 PM on November 13, 2019


some sort of new wild west.

Right. And I think that it helps to remember that the "Wild West" wasn't the end in itself. It was a colonial project that exported its produce to the mothership: Eastern North America and Europe. Exporting produce from Mars will be... tricky. At least until the Trans-ContinentalGalactic RailSpaceroad is built.
posted by klanawa at 12:42 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Now I’m thinking, if they had a plausible business plan, it was to record the refugee’s knowledge of how to grow specialized crops - knowledge that could be replicated without the people. So pretty Wild West, yeah.
posted by clew at 8:09 PM on November 14, 2019


The reason this reminded me of Lysenkoism is that the whole idea boils down to the notion that we can replace generations of accumulated agricultural and horticultural knowledge with pure ideology.

There's a mentality in the tech community that their skills are the only important ones, and everything else is meaningless.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:08 AM on November 15, 2019 [4 favorites]


Am I missing something, or is whole concept utterly ridiculous regardless of their execution?

The latter. The credulity with which members of the press and TED Talk audiences swallowed this whole thing is frankly embarrassing. People always talk about how removed from agriculture the US population has become, but it's weird to see it illustrated so profoundly - I'd be shocked if anyone who's ever grown a plant for food or spent a week without plumbing would buy any of this.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:14 PM on November 17, 2019



There's a mentality in the tech community that their skills are the only important ones, and everything else is meaningless.


Tbf, a mentality found in many groups of people. I’ve had a Central Valley farmer tell me universities were useless, and when I mentioned space science he dismissed that - this was less than a minute after boasting about his GIS-enabled combine.

No idea if he knew GIS depended on satellites. There are so many above the Valley and the Bay that you don’t have to think about them.
posted by clew at 7:44 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


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