Open Agriculture Initiative Shuttered Amid Scandal

The MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) promised to revolutionize urban farming with their Food Computers: essentially miniature automated gardens that could be installed in racks to maximize growing space. Each unit would be provided with a “Recipe” that allowed it to maintain the ideal environmental conditions for the species it contained, which meant that even the novice gardener to produce a bumper crop no whether they lived in the Arctic Circle or the Sahara.

With such lofty goals, success certainly wasn’t assured. But we still didn’t expect to hear that the program had to be permanently closed after a string of startling accusations came to light. From engaging in scientific dishonesty to setting off a minor ecological disaster, the story just gets worse and worse. Who could have imagined that one day we’d have to report on an open source project having direct ties to Jeffrey Epstein?

Food Computer v3.0

According to reports, MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito and OpenAg principal researcher Caleb Harper attempted to secure $1.5 million in funding for the program during a 2017 meeting with the disgraced financier. Epstein apparently wasn’t impressed by what he saw, and no money ever changed hands. Given the information we now have about the project, this might actually be the least surprising part of the story.

It has since come to light that the Food Computers never worked consistently, and indeed never made it past the prototype stage. This despite the fact that Harper claimed that functional units had already been deployed to refugee camps during presentation to potential investors. A scientist working with the project has even come forward with claims that staff were instructed to place plants brought from local garden centers into the prototype Food Computers prior to tours of the lab so visitors would think they had been grown in the devices.

A former researcher working on the OpenAg program, Babak Babakinejad, also went public with his concerns over the environmental impact of dumping waste water from the Food Computers. The lab had a permit to pump nitrogen-infused water into an underground disposal well, but according to Babakinejad, internal testing showed the nitrogen levels in the water would occasionally top 20 times the stated limit. After his concerns were ignored by Harper and other MIT staff, he eventually took his concerns directly to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection which led to an investigation and ultimately a fine of $25K.

We first covered the Open Agriculture Initiative back in 2016, and readers expressed doubts about the concept even then. While we certainly don’t relish making an update like this about a project we’ve featured, it’s an important reminder that honesty and integrity can’t take a backseat to technical achievement.

Original Zork MDL Source Code Has Been Released

Though mostly known for its releases on countless 8-bit personal computers from the 1970s and 1980s, the game of Zork began its life on a PDP-10 mainframe. Recently, MIT released the original source code for this version of Zork. As we covered a while ago, the history of Zork is a long and lustrous one, a history that is based on this initial version written in MDL.

To recap, MDL is a LISP-derived language that excels at natural language processing. It was developed and used at MIT’s AI and LCS (now CSAIL) departments for a number of projects, and of course to develop games with. The use of MDL gave Zork as a text-based adventure a level of interaction that was far ahead of its time.

What MIT has made available is the source code from Zork as it existed around 1977, at a time when it was being distributed to universities around the US. For purely educational purposes, obviously. This means that it’s a version of Zork before it was commercialized (~1979), showing a rare glimpse of the game as it was still busily being expanded.

Running the game will take a bit of effort, however. These files were retrieved from an original MIT backup tape that was used with their PDP-10 machines. Ideally one would use a 1970s-era PDP-10 mainframe with an MDL compiler, but in a pinch one could run a PDP-10 emulator as well.

Let us know whether you got it to run. Screenshots (ASCII or not) are highly encouraged.

What Does A Dependable Open Source Ventilator Look Like?

Ventilators are key in the treating the most dire cases of coronavirus. The exponential growth of infections, and the number of patients in respiratory distress, has outpaced the number of available ventilators. In times of crisis, everyone looks for ways they can help, and one of the ways the hardware community has responded is in work toward a ventilator design that can be rapidly manufactured to meet the need.

The difficult truth is that the complexity of ventilator features needed to treat the sickest patients makes a bootstrapped design incredibly difficult, and I believe impossible to achieve in quantity on this timeline. Still, a well-engineered and clinically approved open source ventilator might deliver many benefits beyond the current crisis. Let’s take a look at some of the efforts we’ve been seeing recently and what it would take to pull together a complete design.

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Navigating Self-Driving Cars By Looking At What’s Underneath The Road

When you put a human driver behind the wheel, they will use primarily their eyes to navigate. Both to stay on the road and to use any navigation aids, such as maps and digital navigation assistants. For self-driving cars, tackling the latter is relatively easy, as the system would use the same information in a similar way: when to to change lanes, and when to take a left or right. The former task is a lot harder, with situational awareness even a challenge for human drivers.

In order to maintain this awareness, self-driving and driver-assistance systems use a combination of cameras, LIDAR, and other sensors. These can track stationary and moving objects and keep track of the lines and edges of the road. This allows the car to precisely follow the road and, at least in theory, not run into obstacles or other vehicles. But if the weather gets bad enough, such as when the road is covered with snow, these systems can have trouble coping.

Looking for ways to improve the performance of autonomous driving systems in poor visibility, engineers are currently experimenting with ground-penetrating radar. While it’s likely to be awhile before we start to see this hardware on production vehicles, the concept already shows promise. It turns out that if you can’t see whats on the road ahead of you, looking underneath it might be the next best thing. Continue reading “Navigating Self-Driving Cars By Looking At What’s Underneath The Road”

Teaching Robots Workplace Etiquette

Most often, humans and robots do not have to work directly together, instead working on different parts in a production pipeline or with the robot performing tasks instead of a human. In such cases any human-robot interaction (HRI) will be superficial. Yet what if humans and robots have to work alongside each other? This is a question which a group of students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have recently studied some answers to.

In their paper on human-robot collaborative tasks (PDF), they cover the three possible models one can use for this kind of interaction: there can be no communication (‘silent’), the communication can be pre-programmed (state machine), or in this case a Markov model-based system. This framework which they demonstrate is called CommPlan and it uses observation data from human subjects to construct a Markov model that can integrate sensor data in order to decide on its next action.

In the experiment they performed (the preparation of a meal; see the embedded video after the break), human subjects had to work alongside a robot. Between the three different approaches, the CommPlan one was the fastest, using voice interaction only when it deemed it to be necessary. The experiment’s subjects expressed hereby a preference for bidirectional communication, much as would occur between human workers.

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MIT Ventilator Designed With Common Manual Resuscitator; Submitted For FDA Testing

In many parts of the world the COVID-19 pandemic is causing shortages in hospital space, staff, medical supplies, and equipment. Severe cases may require breathing support, but there are only so many ventilators available. With that in mind, MIT is working on FDA approval of an emergency ventilator system (E-Vent). They have submitted the design to the FDA for fast track review. The project is open source, so once they have approval the team will release all the data needed to replicate it.

The design is actually made simple by using something that is very common: a manual resuscitator. You have doubtlessly seen these on your favorite medical show. It is the bag someone squeezes while the main character struggles valiantly to save their patient. Of course, having someone sit and squeeze the bag for days on end for thousands of people isn’t very practical and that’s where they’ve included an Arduino-controlled motor to automate the process.

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Wall Panels With 3760 Antennas Can Increase Wireless Range

Most of us know that to get the best possible WiFi signal, you want there to be as few walls as possible between you and the Access Point. But that might soon change, as researchers at MIT have found a way to make surfaces increase signal strength. Called RFocus, the technique uses a wall panel covered in simple antennas to dynamically focus or reflect RF energy towards a intended receiver.

The normal methods to increase wireless range usually involve increasing the transmitter output or adding larger, more efficient, or directional antennas to the receivers and transmitters. But these techniques are limited when you need to the reduce power consumption and size of the devices. The MIT teams approached the problem from a completely different angle, by optimizing the environment.

The wall panel in question consist of 94 PCBs, each containing 40 passive antenna elements in the form of copper rectangles. Each element is a quarter wavelength long (125 mm for 2.4 Ghz), and on its own it doesn’t have any real effect on the signals, allowing it to pass through the panel. Between the ends of elements are small RF switches, that can close to combine two antenna elements into single half wavelength antenna, creating a reflector. When this is applied across the panel in different patterns it can effectively beamform the signal to focus it at different points in space.

The RF switches are connected to shift registers, which are all controlled via a single SPI bus with an Arduino. Each RF switch is activated in a pseudo-random sequence, changing the configuration of the panel 10,000 times in 100 ms. The signal strength at the receiver is reported to the panel controller for each configuration, allowing the controller to select the best configuration for any single transmitter. In a scenario where multiple low-power sensor nodes are deployed, this can allow the receiver to “focus” on each node in turn. The full paper is a very interesting read, downloadable as a PDF.

RF is generally considered the black magic of electronics, but it can all become a bit clearer with a basic knowledge of antenna theory and modulation schemes.

Thanks to [Qes] for the tip!