What MIT Researchers And Coal Miners Are Teaching Each Other About The Future Of Work

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 4:02 pm

A chance encounter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology between an alum from Kentucky and an MIT researcher has led to a unique partnership. It’s focused on the future of the work in a part of the country where the coal industry has been hemorrhaging jobs.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young discusses with Jeff Freilich, associate director of alliances for the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), and Rusty Justice, coal miner and founder of the software firm Bit Source in Pikeville, Kentucky.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated the encounter was between a University of Kentucky alum and an MIT researcher. We regret the error.

Interview Highlights

On Rusty Justice’s transition from coal mining to software

Rusty Justice: “To coin a phrase one of our developers used, it was motivation through starvation. We just had a, you know, a collapse of our industry. We owned a company that did engineering work, and the actual excavation construction work, primarily in the energy space, and most of that in the coal industry although we have an oil and gas industry here as well. And all of our customer base just ceased to exist, they went out of business within about a 12-month period of time, and we’ve been in business here for over 30 years. So we were looking for ways to diversify and bring opportunity for so many of these displaced workers that we had worked along and made a career around and understood their capabilities, and, you know, their work ethic.”

On Kentucky alumnus Sam Ford’s meeting with MIT researcher Daniela Rus

Jeff Freilich: “Sam, when he was visiting with CSAIL, met with a director of our lab, Daniela, who’s a world-renowned roboticist and also an educator, and so she asked Sam, ‘What do people in Kentucky feel about how AI and robotics are going to change to future work?’ And what Sam said I think was really, really pivotal. He said, ‘You know, as a Kentuckian, it’s really hard to be excited about the future of work when you don’t really think you’re part of it.’ And that in itself I think is the key phrase here. We know we’re churning out technology. We know we’re doing things that are world changing and have tremendous impact, but if people don’t really understand or believe or feel like they can be part of that revolution, then how can they feel anything but threatened by it.”

On Jeff’s preconceived notions

JF: “Bubbles of misconceptions, and it took me some time to get them to start popping. I really learned a lot. Having come from the Northeast and grown up with perception about renewable energy, is that coal is bad and really a bad part of anyone’s future, that all Kentuckians really want to have coal in their future. I think the truth is that they all know coal is going away. Part of the problem is that you can’t just stop the production of coal and expect everybody to be able to manage for themselves, something that’s been for four or five generations in a family of supporting that family. But I think one of the biggest discoveries that I made is that people in rural Kentucky that aren’t necessarily part of the digital revolution — it’s not because they can’t be part of it. It’s because there are so many obstacles. They know they have to reinvent their future. And part of these obstacles, probably one of the biggest ones is perception. That they have to understand they can solve some of these problems. They can go into the workforce as programmers, as coders, as high-tech people. And they have to believe themselves that they can do the same.”

On Rusty’s conversation with Sam Ford

RJ: “We had a conversation just exploring, you know, if there was something that could be done to combine the needs we have in rural areas in Kentucky with all the resources that they have at MIT. We just had a displaced workforce that we needed to find something that would work here in our region, where we’re geographically bounded by the mountainous terrain. Agriculture and large-scale manufacturing typically doesn’t exist in mountainous areas, so we saw that there was earning potential equivalent to our mining jobs in the tech sector, and that there was a demand for tech workers and that that was a product we could produce here and export over fiber optic cable to the greater market in the world.”

On MIT’s App Inventor

JF: “App Inventor is a platform. It’s free. It’s open source. It’s already deployed to millions and millions of people around the world. Four hundred thousand people are developing apps with it every day. Most of them are young, but it really gives a sense of being able to create something using your domain knowledge that can be useful on a smartphone. So we took that idea that had already been implemented in, let’s say a shirt factory in Taiwan, where people that were doing menial jobs or jobs that maybe wouldn’t be considered part of the digital revolution, and there they used App Inventor to teach some of these people that they can take computational thinking and be able to create solutions to problems they didn’t really know that they could do before. We think the same thing could be applied to these communities in rural Kentucky to give them that sense, that, ‘Yes, I can be part of the digital revolution.’ But there’s an obstacle. Things we take for granted, such as, in the Northeast or on the West Coast, is that broadband is a commodity. Everybody has it. In rural Kentucky, they don’t. It’s just not economically feasible. So to do something as simple as a Skype call, to talk to people, is probably intractable.”

On Rusty’s take on the App Inventor

RJ: “It’s an excellent tool for introducing tech to kids in grade and high school. But in workforce development of displaced workers, it’s a really good tool to prove if a person has the capability to transition to take before you invest a lot of money into them.”

On whether he’s seeing that coal miners have as much ability as anyone

“Oh absolutely. Actually they probably have a higher aptitude. Mining is a very technologically advanced process, and so there’s already a lot of remote sensing and robotics. And a lot of collaborative effort in mining. It’s very complex.

“There are so many misconceptions about Appalachia. You know, I just think we live in probably the most misunderstood part of the country. And so often people try to do things here that are well intended, but because they don’t understand the challenges and the culture, that it maybe has counterproductive results. And so we see tech as one thing, as a part of solution, to change some of these longstanding problems that we have here in central Appalachia.”

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.