Friday, October 17, 2008

One of the best and brightest

The news in this entry is short and sweet. Ken Ford, director of the Pensacola-based Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, is now the chairman of the prestigious NASA Advisory Council.

But for me, it's another validation of just what this region has to offer.

It was back in the early 90s that I first met Ken Ford. I was either working for United Press International or the Pensacola News Journal. I just can’t remember which. I'd heard about Ford's work in artificial intelligence, so decided to write about him and what he was doing.

Ford and had just created an institute at the University of West Florida that would focus on the ways humans and machines interact. Two things stood out: The first was Ford's enthusiasm showing me around and explaining what they were doing. The second was that he had a way of making all this technical stuff understandable to a lay guy. And that meant a lot, because I had to write about it for a broad audience and make it understandable. In short, Ford and his crew were looking into ways to extend human capabilities. His was the field of AI that wasn't so much interested in making machines more human-like, but giving humans some machine-enhanced capabilities, the way glasses make eyesight better.

Yesterday Harrison "Jack" Schmitt announced that he was stepping down as chairman of the NASA Advisory Council and Ford would take his place, effective immediately. No doubt Ford is filling some big shoes. Schmitt is a geologist, former NASA astronaut and former U.S. senator. He and his Apollo 17 crewmate, Gene Cernan, were the last two people to walk on the moon. Since 2007 Ford has been a member of the panel provides advice to the NASA administrator on program and policy matters related to the U.S. space program. The council has experts from various fields. Council recommendations are critical to the agency's strategic and tactical decisions.

I've never been shy about using Ford and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition as an example of what the region can be. IHMC has grown from a small group within the UWF into a statewide not-for-profit research institute of the state university system of Florida. IHMC in downtown Pensacola has world-class scientists and engineers investigating a broad range of topics related to building technological systems that are aimed at amplifying and extending human cognitive and perceptual capacities.

Ford and IHMC have done a lot to elevate the understanding of the importance of science and technology. The organization hosts regular lectures that bring in some of the best and brightest to talk to local folks who would not normally have this kind of access. I've attended many of the lectures, and they never fail to open my eyes. The topics range from virtual reality to environmental issues and more. Lectures include speakers as varied as Richard Florida and Michael Griffin.

I've also not been shy about imposing on Ford. I once asked him if he could take a look at a few chapters of a reference book I had written about this region's research activities. I figured if anyone would tell me I'm wrong about this or that, it would be Ford. He was also courteous enough, at my request, to show a group of Harrison County, Miss., folks around his Pensacola facility.

Ford, who earned his Ph.D in computer science from Tulane University, in 1997 was asked by NASA to develop and direct its new Center of Excellence in Information Technology at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Ford was awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in July 1999. He was also appointed to the National Science Board in October 2002 for a six-year term. Ford is a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and was the 2008 recipient of the Robert S. Englemore Memorial Award for his work in the field.

In a story in today's Pensacola News Journal, Robert Hansen, a former NASA research director who is now an associate director at IHMC, called Ford a “true Renaissance man” and “one of the few computer scientists in the world with executive ability.” (Story)

IHMC, which has more than a half-dozen former NASA employees on the staff, has a long association with NASA. It's worked on software for planetary rovers to new cockpit displays and is now working on new concepts for lunar exploration, including a lunar rover that would be pressurized and allow for extended lunar exploration.

When IHMC decided to open a satellite office in Ocala, I asked Ford if he would ever consider expanding IHMC to other parts of the Gulf Coast. He said that if an opportunity and need ever presented itself, that would not be out of the question.

I'm still working on him. Now I can only hope he doesn't decide to do like Schmitt and walk on the moon. But I wouldn't put it past him.

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