Notes on the Road – Michigan Road Scholars 2023

By May 12, 2023 News

Notes on the Road

Michigan Road Scholars 2023

Written by MIDAS Executive Director Jing Liu. Viewpoints and opinions expressed are her own.

The Michigan Road Scholars tour is a one-week road trip organized by the University of Michigan Vice President for Government Relations Office. 30 scholars, mostly faculty, visit many parts of the state to get to know our communities and people, their passions and challenges, and our natural environment.  Given that I work in a data science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) institute, I wanted to see how data and AI are impacting our state and explore the opportunities they present. I was fortunate enough to be selected among many applicants to participate in the program this year, and was on the road May 1-5.

Working is beautiful

This was a quote from a book that I read as a kid. I don’t even remember the name of the book, but this quote stayed with me for all these years. Being at work, especially doing something you love or are good at, gives so much meaning to our lives: our self worth, fulfillment, and contribution to society.

On the road, I met so many people who demonstrate that working is beautiful:

  • Ryan, the manager in the Detroit Diesel engine plant (upper left), whose pride in his plant and in his work was obvious in everything he said.
  • The incarcerated individuals in the Vocational Village at Handlon Correctional Facility (upper right), who are taking classes in carpentry, welding, auto repair and more, getting high school diplomas and taking college classes.
  • The many passionate women who started their microbusinesses through the help of Build Institute (bottom left).
  • In Detroit, we heard about how Lafayette Green (bottom right), a community garden, employs teenagers to both plant trees for Detroit and to help them build work ethics.

What struck me the most is that every one of them is so passionate and knowledgeable about their work.

Resources, labor and the American privilege

The other side of the story is the lack of resources prevalent across the organizations and individuals whom we met, including schools, public universities, and community colleges from Detroit to all the way up north; rural healthcare systems; Native American tribal nations; and a housing shortage spanning the entire state.

By the end of the first day, I had already learned one of the biggest lessons of this trip: I am always proud that I work really hard, but so many people out there work just as hard with far fewer resources.

Up north, we also heard from a few groups of people about the lack of labor. Hotels are hiring workers on temporary visas from other countries to run their day-to-day operations. We looked around in the houses that Habitat for Humanity is building. By American standards, these are pretty basic starter homes with three bedrooms and all the necessary amenities. But here is when I remembered how my family of four lived in one 160-square foot room for years in China when I was a child, and some of my friends lived in even smaller homes. One of my fellow Road Scholars said that, when he was a child in India, he and his three siblings slept on the floor of his grandma’s room. As our communities face so many challenges because of the lack of resources, how do we keep our effort in the context that the US has 4.25% of the world population but 31% of the wealth?

We – the US – certainly don’t lack resources. How can we ensure that these resources reach the people who really need them? How can data scientists help to both raise awareness of the resource inequalities and their impact on the entire society, and support data-informed policies?

Will AI take over?

While we marvel at so many people’s passion about their work, we are also concerned about how robots, GPTs and other forms of AI are reshaping the nature of work.

  • At the Detroit Diesel engine plant, what struck us was the extent of automation (pic 1). Few workers were around, the vast 3 million square feet of the factory floor were mostly run by automated processes, machines and robots.
  • At the LaFarge cement factory in Alpena (pic 2) – the largest cement plant in the world by some records – with an annual output of 2.4M tons of cement and with the plant running 24/7, there are a total of only 280 employees.
  • At the dinner with the Old Town Playhouse and their senior performance group Aged to Perfection, the seniors talked with me about whether they’d trust AI when it replaces experienced doctors to make diagnosis and treatment plans.
  • At the Enbridge oil pipeline (pic 3), workers talked about using AI to predict water traffic safety breeches.

What will the workplace look like in two, five, or ten years? When the incarcerated individuals in the vocational village receive certificates in carpentry or auto repair, when the next generation of factory floor workers are ready to seek jobs, what jobs will await them? How are we preparing for the age when humans and AI co-exist?

Academia, government, community, industry and the need to collaborate

On the road, we also heard communities and school districts talk about how difficult it is to influence government policy; industry people talk about challenges in their communication with local communities; and sometimes how difficult the different groups in the communities can get on the same page. We also heard many groups of people say to us, “We are so happy you are here!” by which they meant University of Michigan. Every time I heard this, I was actually a bit embarrassed, because many of us actually know so little about these communities.

welcome sign at grand traverse MI

We are embracing a fast-changing world. New technologies such as AI are rapidly changing our definition of work, human relationships, and even what is human. Data and the capability of using data to guide policy are enriching the already rich communities and leaving others behind. Climate change is happening in front of our eyes. How we preserve and seek livelihood, fulfillment and dignity in this new world is something too big for anyone to tackle alone. This is the time when we ALL need to work together.

Celebrating people, community, and our natural habitats

Thunder Bay Diving Center. Credit: NOAA

  • At Archangel Ancient Tree Archive in Copemish, we saw how David Milarch’s family uses modern biotechnology to clone ancient trees that could help reverse climate change (upper left).
  • At the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, we learned about how they respect the animals that they hunt (upper right).
  • At 9 Bean Rows Farmstead, we learned how the farmers supported each other during the pandemic (lower left).
  • At Thunder Bay, we heard about how local students learn technical skills and help preserve the Great Lakes through working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (lower right).
  • (bottom) In Traverse City, we had dinner with community theater members and watched plays performed by Aged to Perfection – seniors from 55 to 93, who performed with energy, humor, wisdom, and charm. One woman in her 80s told me about how hard it was for her in her 20s to pursue a job that was neither a teacher nor a nurse. I asked her, if she could go back in time, what she would say to her 25-year-old self. Her answer: “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.”

They are the reasons why we work hard in the first place.