The revelation that the MIT Media Laboratory aggressively sought financial support from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and tried to keep his donations secret, has left the once "prestigious future factory" in chaos. Its director since 2011, former WIRED collaborator, Joichi Ito, was forced to resign in September and the university has not yet replaced him.
At the same time that Ito's resignation was in the headlines, serious questions were raised about the research in a prominent project within the laboratory, the Open Agriculture Initiative, OpenAg for short. Several news articles (including one that I wrote for The New York Times) reported that OpenAg's fundamental research tool, a "food computer" used to grow plants in precise conditions, never really worked. Team members said they were told to put store-bought plants inside the boxes before demonstrations or photo sessions, to hide faults. In October, MIT suspended work on the project.
The joint occurrence of these crises suggested that the Media Laboratory, in general, had lost its moral course in search of money and public flattery, and amid pressure to produce new ideas that shaped civilization. However, a research report issued last Friday by MIT that documents its links with Epstein reveals that the link between the two scandals was not simply cultural. It was explicit.
Epstein's last recorded visit to the Media Lab campus, according to the report, was in April 2017 when he met with Ito, biological engineering professor Ed Boyden, and Caleb Harper, the principal scientific researcher of the OpenAg project. The topic of discussion was a possible donation of $ 1.5 million from Epstein "to support Caleb Harper's research on whether plants think and communicate." A provocative research question, no doubt, but apparently far away for Harper, an architect without any scientific training.
The report, which was written and investigated by the Goodwin Procter law firm, says in a footnote that Ito and Harper recalled that there was supposed to be another meeting with Epstein in October 2018, but that it was canceled because Ito could not attend . Epstein never made the donation and died of suicide in his Manhattan cell the following August while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges.
According to the report, Ito's decision to draw Epstein's attention to OpenAg was part of his press throughout the court to turn Epstein's relatively modest donations to the Media Lab into something bigger. From 2013, the year Ito met Epstein at a TED conference, until 2017, Epstein made six separate gifts to the Media Lab for a total of $ 525,000. As the report emphasizes, these donations came long after Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to request sex from minors.
The report lists a series of Ito proposals to extract seven-figure checks from Epstein: a center to study "deceptive design" in evolutionary biology, an interest of Epstein; a chair endowed in honor of AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, whose research Epstein had supported with a $ 100,000 grant in 2002; a $ 12 million plan to create a scholarship program in "antidisciplinary science"; and, finally, the donation of $ 1.5 million for Harper's research.
When Ito was launching for OpenAg, I had heard complaints from laboratory members about the deficiencies in the research there. Why did this make it a priority when wooing Epstein? The report does not provide an answer, but I think it is fair to say that it was not based on what research was most likely to benefit science or society.
Here is the problem in trying to understand the history of Media Lab-Epstein: some advocates of Ito and MIT argue, as the report in the introduction states, "that society is better if money from" bad "sources is used well. "And, yes, moral philosophers could surely gather fascinating arguments about whether a person who needs life-saving surgery should accept an Epstein gift, even if he did so in order to boast about it in the news."
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