Shortly after last year’s presidential election MIT alum and research affiliate Sam Ford attended a laboratory demonstration by MIT roboticist Daniela Rus. She showed off a prototype of a dime-sized origami robot made out of meat byproducts. It’s designed to be swallowed, then be guided through a patient’s stomach to patch up internal wounds. At the typical MIT demo, visitors ask researchers questions, but Rus had one for Ford, who had come up from his home in Bowling Green, Kentucky: Was his state marked by the bitter pessimism evident in other parts of Middle America? “It’s hard to be excited about the future of work,” Ford says he told her, “if you don’t think you’re in it.”
This chance encounter between Rus and Ford sparked a push to bring a little of MIT to rural Kentucky, and vice versa. Rus is the director of MIT’s famed Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL. Ford created the Future of Work Initiative while an executive at Univision, and since leaving the company has continued it in collaboration with MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. He has persuaded Rus and a few other high-profile academics at both MIT and the University of Southern California to get involved. He wants them to help bridge the gap between America’s coasts and its interior, as the former hurtle toward a digital, globally linked future, and the latter seems mired in an industrial, isolated past. In the last eight months some of the leading futurists from these storied universities have found themselves attending bluegrass hootenannies and community dinners, while their Kentucky counterparts have come to Cambridge to acquaint themselves with the latest advances in machine intelligence, which they rightly suspect threaten a state already rated 44th on a list of US state economies, and 48th for job seekers.
This emergent working group aims to change a culture, Ford says — and not just Kentucky’s. “Kentucky has a lot to learn from MIT, for sure,” he says, “but our whole premise is that MIT also has a lot to learn from Kentucky.”
One thing MIT might learn is why people seem to be losing faith in technology. We have, as a country, placed blind trust in technology as a force for social progress. That trust shapes everything from tax policy to research grants. But our polarized political climate comes in part out of a sense of betrayal fostered by technology’s unevenly distributed fruits.
It’s certainly clear America can’t leap into a digital, automated future if most of its citizens can’t find their footing in the present. In almost every respect rural Kentucky embodies that dilemma: The industries that once sustained it, coal mining and agriculture (notably tobacco), have been decimated by consolidation, regulation, changing social mores, and a changing energy sector. What jobs have come to Kentucky — in manufacturing, long-haul trucking, and order fulfillment (Amazon alone has four distribution centers in the state) — are also those most likely to be automated in the near future.
Kentucky has its own divide: There’s a golden triangle from Lexington to Louisville to Covington (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati), and then there’s the rest of the state. Ford’s working group met Jared Arnett, the founder of SOAR, or Shaping our Appalachian Region, an innovative nonprofit dedicated to economic development in the region. “I’ve read every plan to help Appalachia written since 1960,” Arnett says, “and they all tried to fix the present by figuring out what we should have done 10 years ago. We need to be looking at what we should be doing 10 years from now.” That’s where MIT and Ford’s working group can come in. “Coal miners and laid-off line workers don’t need ‘job reskilling,’ ” Ford says. “They need to learn to think differently. They need to realize that they possess unique aptitudes that can be applied to 21st-century jobs.”
One case in point is already here: In 2014 SOAR gave a seed grant to create BitSource, which took out-of-work coal miners and taught them how to code. One of its first clients was a trucking company that needed a Web-based application to solve logistics and distribution problems. It turned out that almost everyone in the BitSource office in
Pikeville, Kentucky (population 7,000 or so), also had experience in long-haul trucking, which gave them a clear edge over hotshot coastal desk jockeys. BitSource’s cofounder Rusty Justice, himself a former miner, notes that code is not the only thing his employees have learned; they’ve also discovered “coal is not the soul of who they are.” Justice believes that what he calls “re-imagination training” is ultimately more helpful than simple “job retraining.”
Mark Twain once cracked that “I want to be in Kentucky when the end of the world comes, because everything there happens 20 years after it happens anywhere else.” What’s happening in Kentucky right now is, if we’re lucky, 20 years ahead of what’s going to happen elsewhere. Huge numbers of Americans, including those in booming coastal cities like Boston, are going to need help re-imagining themselves. We all need to hope MIT learns as much as it can from Kentucky.
Jeff Howe is a Cambridge-based writer and author whose most recent book, co-authored with Joi Ito, is “Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future.” Send comments to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.