The revelation that MIT’s Media Lab aggressively sought the monetary assist of the convicted intercourse offender Jeffrey Epstein, and tried to maintain his donations secret, has left the once-prestigious “future factory” in chaos. Its director since 2011, former WIRED contributor Joichi Ito, was pressured to step down in September and the college nonetheless has not changed him.
At the identical time that Ito’s resignation was making headlines, severe questions emerged regarding the analysis at a outstanding mission inside the lab, the Open Agriculture Initiative, OpenAg for brief. A number of news articles (together with one I wrote for The New York Times) reported that OpenAg’s pivotal analysis software—a “food computer” used for rising crops below exact circumstances—by no means actually labored. Members of the group stated they had been instructed to place store-bought crops contained in the containers earlier than demonstrations or photograph shoots, to cowl up failures. In October, MIT suspended work on the mission.
The co-occurrence of those crises instructed that the Media Lab had, in a normal approach, misplaced its ethical bearings in pursuit of cash and public adulation, and amid the stress to supply civilization-shaping new concepts. An investigative report issued final Friday by MIT documenting its ties to Epstein, nevertheless, reveals that the hyperlink between the 2 scandals wasn’t merely cultural. It was express.
Epstein’s final recorded go to to the Media Lab campus, in response to the report, was in April 2017, when he met with Ito, professor of organic engineering Ed Boyden, and Caleb Harper, the principal analysis scientist on the OpenAg mission. The subject of debate was a possible $1.5 million donation from Epstein “to support research by Caleb Harper into whether plants think and communicate.” A provocative analysis query, to make sure, however seemingly far afield for Harper, an architect with none scientific coaching.
The report, which was written and investigated by the legislation agency Goodwin Procter, says in a footnote that Ito and Harper recalled that there was presupposed to be one other assembly with Epstein in October 2018, however that it was canceled as a result of Ito couldn’t attend. Epstein by no means made the donation, and died by suicide in his Manhattan jail cell the next August whereas awaiting trial on federal intercourse trafficking costs.
According to the report, Ito’s choice to carry OpenAg to Epstein’s consideration was a part of his full-court press to transform Epstein’s comparatively modest donations to the Media Lab into one thing grander. From 2013, the yr Ito met Epstein at a TED convention, to 2017, Epstein made six separate presents to the Media Lab for a complete of $525,000. As the report emphasizes, these donations got here nicely after Epstein pled responsible in 2008 to soliciting intercourse from minors.
The report lists various proposals from Ito to attract seven-figure checks from Epstein: a middle to check “deceptive design” in evolutionary biology, an curiosity of Epstein’s; an endowed chair in honor of the AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, whose analysis Epstein had supported with a $100,000 grant again in 2002; a $12 million plan to create a fellowship program in “antidisciplinary science”; and, lastly, the $1.5 million donation for Harper’s analysis.
By the time Ito was making the pitch for OpenAg, he had heard complaints from members of the lab in regards to the deficiencies within the analysis there. Why did he make this a precedence in wooing Epstein? The report doesn’t present a solution, however I believe it’s truthful to say that it wasn’t based mostly on what analysis was most definitely to profit science or society.
Here’s the rub in making an attempt to know the Media Lab-Epstein story: Some defenders of Ito and MIT argue, because the report places it within the introduction, “that society is better off if money from ‘bad’ sources is put to good uses.” And, sure, ethical philosophers might certainly muster fascinating arguments about whether or not an individual in want of life-saving surgical procedure ought to settle for a present from Epstein, even when he did it simply so he might brag about it on the information.