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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Dirty Money and Bad Science at MIT's Media Lab

The revelation that MIT’s Media Lab aggressively sought the financial support of the 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 contributor Joichi Ito, was forced to step down in September, and the university still has not replaced him.

At the same time that Ito’s resignation was making headlines, serious questions emerged concerning the research at a prominent project within the lab, the Open Agriculture Initiative, OpenAg for short. A number of news articles (including one I wrote for The New York Times) reported that OpenAg’s pivotal research tool—a “food computer” used for growing plants under precise conditions—never really worked. Members of the team said they were told to put store-bought plants inside the boxes before demonstrations or photo shoots, to cover up failures. In October, MIT suspended work on the project.

The co-occurrence of these crises suggested that the Media Lab had, in a general way, lost its moral bearings in pursuit of money and public adulation, and amid the pressure to produce civilization-shaping new ideas. An investigative report issued last Friday by MIT documenting its ties to Epstein, however, reveals that the link between the two scandals wasn’t 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, professor of biological engineering Ed Boyden, and Caleb Harper, the principal research scientist on the OpenAg project. The topic of discussion was a potential $1.5 million donation from Epstein “to support research by Caleb Harper into whether plants think and communicate.” A provocative research question, to be sure, but seemingly far afield for Harper, an architect without any scientific training.

The report, which was written and investigated by the law firm Goodwin Procter, 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 by suicide in his Manhattan jail cell the following August while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges.

According to the report, Ito’s decision to bring OpenAg to Epstein’s attention was part of his full-court press to convert Epstein’s relatively modest donations to the Media Lab into something grander. From 2013, the year Ito met Epstein at a TED conference, to 2017, Epstein made six separate gifts to the Media Lab for a total of $525,000. As the report emphasizes, these donations came well after Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting sex from minors.

The report lists a number of proposals from Ito to draw seven-figure checks from Epstein: a center to study “deceptive design” in evolutionary biology, an interest of Epstein’s; an endowed chair in honor of the AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, whose research Epstein had supported with a $100,000 grant in 2002; a $12 million plan to create a fellowship program in “antidisciplinary science”; and the $1.5 million donation for Harper’s research.

By the time Ito was making the pitch for OpenAg, he had heard complaints from members of the lab about the deficiencies in the research there. Why did he make this a priority in wooing Epstein? The report doesn’t provide an answer, but I think it is fair to say that it wasn’t based on what research was most likely to benefit science or society.

Here’s the rub in trying to understand the Media Lab-Epstein story: Some defenders of Ito and MIT argue, as the report puts it in the introduction, “that society is better off if money from ‘bad’ sources is put to good uses.” And, yes, moral philosophers could surely muster fascinating arguments about whether a person in need of life-saving surgery should accept a gift from Epstein, even if he did it just so he could brag about it on the news.

But, as the report demonstrates, Epstein’s gifts to the Media Lab were not in this category. A $100,000 grant was “discretionary,” in the sense that Ito was empowered to put the money wherever he wanted. The rest was spent supporting two researchers: one whom Epstein had introduced to Ito, the other whom Ito had introduced to Epstein. Had Epstein’s donations grown into the millions, they would again have been directed by Ito’s questionable judgment of what makes worthy science. The dubious work at OpenAg would have been a major beneficiary.

This wasn’t only about science. In another footnote, the report says that Ito had convinced Epstein to put $1 million into a private investment fund he manages, and $250,000 into a company that “was formed to commercialize technology developed at MIT.” (Ito says the money is now in escrow, according to the report.) In January 2018, according to the same footnote, “Ito also asked Epstein if he would invest $5 million to $15 million in another non-MIT fund that Ito was attempting to establish, but Epstein did not make that investment.”


This should put to rest the idea that Epstein’s donations to the Media Lab represented some sort of moral quandary regarding dirty money and social good. This was a transaction between two grown-ups thinking about what was in it for each of them. Once you see the facts this way, the agonizing by MIT’s leadership over how to deprive Epstein of any ability to publicize the gifts, and thus whitewash his reputation, seems misplaced.

Let’s agree that Epstein wasn’t donating from a pure belief in science. Each donation was negotiated, and Epstein had conditions he wanted met. The evidence in the report shows that, mainly, Epstein wanted to be known and deferred to within the Media Lab. One email from Ito in late 2017, which is reprinted in the report, refers to Nicholas Negroponte, the cofounder of the Media Lab: “I’ve also talked to Nicholas as well who had met him and he also agrees that we should treat Jeffrey with respect.”

Epstein visited the lab at least nine times from 2013 to 2017, including the day of a memorial service for Minsky, which was a dicey issue for the lab and Minsky’s family. The report, citing Ito, says “it was decided that Epstein could be at the Media Lab at the time of the memorial, but should not attend the event or reception.” The report describes the scene of Epstein being tucked away in Ito’s lab, having few visitors and interacting with no students because they “were not likely to be near his office.”

This access (restricted as it may have been at times) was what Ito was bestowing on Epstein, the donor. Clearly, Ito did not value the cost in misogyny, exclusion, and disrespect toward the women who work and study there because of Epstein’s visits, news of which would surely leak out.

So, yes, let’s study the lessons from the Epstein–Media Lab story. But they are not about extracting good from bad. The lessons are raw ones about power and who gets to wield it.

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