Caleb Harper: Teaching the World to Farm with Technology

Harper is the Principal Investigator and Director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab

In his early 20s, Caleb Harper made his living as an architect of environments: designing massive, climate-controlled data centers. At the end of his work days, though, the 9-to-5 left him feeling empty.

In 2011, after a visit to Japan, he finally made a career pivot—returning, quite literally, to his roots.

By blood, Harper is a farmer: dating back to the late 19th century, everyone in his family has farmed. Harper’s father was determined this tradition end with his son, to whom he issued the vague but emphatic directive: “Go do something in technology.”

And he had. Technology was, of course, integral to building controlled environments. But after he witnessed the unsettling reality that many people in Japan were unable to feed themselves following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, he realized technology could also be the thing to save a growing global agricultural crisis.

Building a Farm… in a Computer
In 2012, Harper started the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT’s Media Lab where he and his team developed a platform for sensor-controlled agriculture systems. Dubbed “The Food Computer,” the platform uses both hardware and software to facilitate an opensource ecosystem meant for experimentation, education and production of food. 

The Food Computer looks something like an old desktop monitor: inside lives a plant.Built into the environment around the plant are a series of robotic mechanisms, which respond to signals from the software. The software contains a “recipe” for each plant: a careful balance of climate, phenotypic information and microbiologic data. 

Because the platform is open-source, users around the world can populate the software with data points that provide knowledge about how to properly grow plants in controlled environments. With enough data, Harper hopes to develop a database of recipes for future farmers to produce nutrient-rich, delicious food—from anywhere, in any environment, including space (think The Martian).

Forget Soil, It’s All About the Data
Harper is leaving no stone unturned in his effort to produce these data-driven recipes faster: partnering, for one, with artificial intelligence company Sentient Technologies. Sentient hopes to work with Harper to train computers to predict which combinations of elements will create the best broccoli or tomato. Harper’s team will soon launch version 2.0 of the Food Computer that will be distributed to schools across the U.S. The kids’ experiments will both support their learning and generate the data necessary to make Sentient’s recipe-crunching AI more intelligent.

“I’m happy every single day that I have 2,000 plants in my life and that I’m learning about them,” he continues. “I’m creating a brain that lives in the cloud so that the next kid
that comes behind me who wants to do some of this doesn’t have to start from scratch.”

In the multi-part feature with WIRED Brand Lab, Lenovo looks at six extraordinary innovators who work relentlessly to move their field forward. Check all six stories from the series here.

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories program.