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High-Tech, Low-Carb: Profile of Ken Ford

Ken Ford co-founded an institute that made its name in computers, artificial intelligence and engineering. Scientific  prestige is now meeting fame: The institute and Ford have become well-known for their expertise in the high-fat, no-carb ketogenic diet. 

Ken Ford co-founded an institute that made its name in artificial intelligence, robotics and engineering. Scientific prestige is now meeting fame: The institute and Ford have entered the popular imagination for their expertise in the high-fat, no-carb ketogenic diet.

Over his long career, Ken Ford has amassed a raft of accolades in the world of science. An expert in the field of artificial intelligence, he won NASA’s highest honor after heading its scientific advisory board. A member of several scientific societies, he’s a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, from which he’s won two prestigious awards.

That’s just for starters.

He holds two patents, belongs to the Florida Inventor’s Hall of Fame and was in the inaugural class of the National Academy of Inventors. He’s served on boards that advised the nation’s military on science and intelligence-gathering. Over the course of his career, Ford has brought in $25 million in federal R&D money, written or edited seven books and authored or co-authored hundreds of articles in scientific journals.

Not least, he co-founded the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a highly regarded, if confoundingly named, research outfit that put Pensacola on the research map nationally and has helped revive the city’s downtown.

For all that, Ford has never been as well known as he now finds himself — famous for his knowledge, personal use and advocacy of a high-fat, high-protein, essentially no-carb diet. “Publishers literally pursuing me. It’s mind-boggling,” he says. “It’s like the hottest thing.”

The son of a Navy man, Ford was born in an Army hospital in Virginia and lived in the Bahamas and Guantanamo, among other places, while growing up. He went to high school in Rhode Island and once promoted rock and roll shows. While serving in the Navy, he was transferred to Pensacola, a move he found so off-putting that he packed a crate of lobsters as a gift to the officer in charge and went to Washington to plead against the transfer.

In 1981, when he reported to Pensacola — as ordered — he arrived to a downtown more suited to sailor-oriented strip clubs than science. But it grew on him. After earning a bachelor’s in business management in 1982 from New Hampshire College, he returned to Pensacola for a master’s in systems science from the University of West Florida. A doctorate in computer science from Tulane University followed in 1988.

At Tulane, he met computer scientist Alberto Cañas. Both ended up on the faculty of UWF, where they had an idea: Form a research lab that would operate free from the strictures of departmental bureaucracy and teaching. They planned to recruit the best minds in various fields and devote the lab to inventing technology to enhance human ability.

To those who meet him, it’s no surprise that Ford would look for a place free of traditional academic restraints. He roams intellectual space freely, growing philosophical on the meaning of progress one minute, telling a story the next and punctuating both with deft one-liners. He quotes Welsh poet Dylan Thomas while talking health.

For a tech guy, Ford sounds at times quite anti-tech. “There’s a profound difference that gets brushed aside in our society between technology change, which is rampant, and progress. Those are not the same thing,” Ford says. “It’s progress if the technology enables us to have richer, fuller lives. Are we better animals, kinder, stronger than we were?” Television, he says, has been put to such poor use that it’s essentially a “harmful device.”

Even as his field of artificial intelligence drives the advent of self-driving cars, Ford says he “certainly won’t have one until the government forces me to. I want to have the freedom to do it myself. I see it as a solution to a non-existent problem that we’re going to reshape society around. Humans are spectacular drivers when they’re not drunk or on their iPhones,” he says.

The Navy and National Science Foundation were so intrigued by Ford’s and Cañas’ idea for the institute that they funded exploratory grants for them to develop it. The two teamed with a group of senior academics Ford calls the “graybeards” who formed the core of the institute and began hunting a home. An admiral suggested Pensacola.

The bureaucratic stars aligned, and in 1990 Ford and Cañas, who’s now an institute associate director and a senior research scientist, launched the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

The name is meant as a common denominator for research that explores how humans seek to amplify their abilities. The institute’s research into “humancentered systems” encompasses robotics, computing, cybersecurity and humanmachine interaction in general.

Like other research labs, the institute’s major customer is the federal government, with the Defense Department and NASA leading the way, followed by other agencies and private industry. The institute grew initially under the auspices of the University of West Florida before becoming an independent institute with its own board under the State University System.

The institute has continued to grow in national prestige even as its profile inside Florida has remained low — a function of both the nature of its research and its location: The institute is so far west in Florida that it’s hours closer to Bourbon Street than it is to the University of Florida and other Florida institutions.

“Ken certainly brought a national profile and tremendous research programs that made Pensacola a research destination and put Pensacola into conversations it wasn’t in before,” says John C. Cavanaugh, who was University of West Florida president from 2002-08 and now is CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Top talent

Ford’s approach to running the institute has been to look for the best available talent in a certain field or hire young researchers whom he expects to become the best.

“Ken sort of hand-picks them,” says University of South Florida scientist Dominic D’Agostino, who shares a position with the institute. “They’re just recruiting really the best of the best. Ken selects the people from MIT who are the best at MIT.”

In hiring, Ford doesn’t follow the herd. The institute has had six fellows in the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence — “triple AI fellows” — but now that AI is hot and top talent expensive, Ford isn’t recruiting for it. “We zig when the world zags,” he says.

Once hired, researchers at the institute are expected to bring in enough grants and financial support to pay themselves and their teams, meet their equipment needs and contribute to institute overhead. Those who can’t do so get shown the door.

At present, the institute has 130 researchers and staff. Most are in Pensacola, with a few in Ocala and Silicon Valley. The institute has several researchers like D’Agostino who work under joint appointments — deals that Ford would like to arrange more often — with in-state and out-of-state partners.

Financially, zigging has worked well. The institute gets annual recurring funding of $2.7 million from the state, but most of its revenue comes from grants for research, along with some funds from licensing proceeds and donors. In 2016, the institute reached a recent-year peak of $18.9 million in revenue, according to tax filings. It runs in the black, with growing assets. Higher-paid researchers in some cases make more than $300,000 — not unusual for top-flight scientists at similar institutions.

In 1990, the institute moved into a renovated former city police station and jail building in downtown Pensacola, complemented in 2016 by a new three-story brick office building. The vibe downstairs is urban tech startup — lots of young people, lots of programming, headsets, concrete, laptops and senior investigators like Jerry Pratt, a big name in robotics, walking back to the institute at lunchtime surrounded by interns and young scientists.

The new brick building, meant to evoke downtown’s warehouse days, features curving steel suspended staircases that lead from floors with offices for researchers to ground floor labs.

A blue orb the size of a cottage dominates one lab. It rotates with people inside who examine the interaction between vision and the sense of balance we get from our inner ear. End result: Nausea.

Down the hall, a team works on a prototype of an exercise device the institute built for NASA astronauts that Ford thinks can be commercialized for sale on earth. “The market would be limited in space,” he deadpans.

Across the shop floor hang two humanoid robots the institute obtained and programmed. The robots won acclaim — and $1 million — in challenges run by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government agency that funds highly ambitious tech research.

The scenario for the DARPA robotics competition, devised in the wake of the Fukushima tsunami nuclear plant incident in Japan in 2011, called for rescue robots to complete a number of tasks at an industrial site, including driving a vehicle, climbing a ladder, navigating debris and turning off a valve.

The robotic work, led by Pratt, became the focus of a Time cover story. The institute team won one of three DARPA shoot-outs and placed second — highest among U.S. teams — in two others.

For Ford, the new building, the scientists and the revival of Pensacola’s small downtown are all aspects of the culture he’s tried to create for the institute. He wanted the institute in a livable, walkable downtown and made it a pioneer in the downtown renaissance. He lives 200 feet from the institute in a white-brick replica of an old South home. He’s clearly pleased with the institute’s “huge” impact downtown and happily cites the hundred of residential units coming as he takes a midday espresso refresher at Bodacious Brew in a French Quarterstyle building near the waterfront.

Beyond computers

A half-dozen years ago, the institute found new growth by looking beyond its forte in computers and electro-mechanical devices into how to extend human performance via biology. One sign of the shift: Of seven recent institute podcasts, an award-winning series called STEMTalk, six have been related to nutrition or human biology.

Institute researchers began investigating how to mitigate the tendency of the body and human performance to fail, as Ford says, “in spectacular ways” in extreme environments such as space, under the sea and in combat. Ford looked inward: As a teen wrestler in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he would cut carbs to make his weight class. He discovered he felt better on a low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diet.

The scientific explanation? As our prehistoric ancestors experienced periods of starvation between hunts, the human body evolved. When no carbohydrates were available, the body adapted to burn body fat to fuel our brains and bodies, producing molecules collectively called ketones. Our brains run “preferentially” on ketones, Ford says.

Decades earlier, researchers at Johns Hopkins had treated epilepsy with a highfat diet built around an effective, if gross, fat slushee. In recent years, ultra-endurance athletes, soldiers and, increasingly, the general public have rediscovered the ketogenic diet, leading to a proliferation of keto-diet research, books and cookbooks.

The aim, once the body adjusts, is ketosis, a state in which the body burns ketones efficiently — possibly providing a critical edge for ultra-athletes and soldiers who otherwise would “hit the wall” when their glycogen stores are exhausted and they can’t stop to refuel on carbs. Devotees say they feel better and report improved mental clarity and stamina.

A byproduct of the diet is a lean body. Some researchers see ketosis helping a host of bodily systems — possibly producing extended lifespans and long-term health, with applications from treating brain injury to cancer.

It’s not an easy diet to follow, so the military began to fund and test supplements that could produce high ketone levels without adhering strictly to the diet. D’Agostino has been doing militaryfunded work on ketosis.

Lots came together for the institute. Ford happened to sit on a defense scientific review board as the military’s interest in synthetic ketones increased. He could offer insights. Institute researchers, meanwhile, took an interest in ketones and human performance. As the keto diet took hold among the public, consumers hunting for a scientific understanding of ketosis found the institute. When he gave talks on artificial intelligence, Ford says, “I would get a few questions on AI and a hundred ketone questions, and the talk wasn’t even on ketones.”

In the process, Ford found himself in a new spotlight. “Ford is the hub of the current ketones conversation,” Outside magazine said of him in an extended 2016 piece. He’s been visible enough during the keto-craze that a stranger in a restaurant in Jackson, Wyo., recognized him from a podcast about ketones.

“A huge societal phenomenon,” Ford says. “The public is hungry for this.” Indeed, when he emails a reporter a link to a podcast he did on artificial intelligence, it lands in the inbox right after a spam for a Keto UltraDiet.

Ford is of several minds about the phenomenon. “Am I sure it’s good? No, I’m not,” he says. Most institute employees, by the way, don’t follow the keto diet, which requires regular attention to your ketone levels. The morning we met, Ford already had done two pin-prick blood tests to measure his ketone levels, one before and one after exercising.

Ford notes that a keto diet, strictly speaking, is nothing more than a diet that produces ketosis. Eat nothing but Crisco shortening and you’ll be in ketosis, but you won’t be healthy. Hence, the need for cookbooks that promote avocados and other appetizing high-fat, highprotein, minuscule-carb fare.

A healthy keto diet, Ford says, is ideal for ultra-endurance athletes — the reason Outside magazine wrote about him and the reason some Special Ops soldiers follow it. It helps muscle endurance and aerobic capacity. It’s not at all clear, however, that it helps athletes boost muscle strength or anaerobic capacity.

Ford thinks keto has advantages for aging recreational athletes and also helps as hormone production dwindles with age. “For older people in particular, I think it’s a good thing,” he says. Personally, he gets 60% of his calories from fat — though he hastens to make clear it’s the percentage of calories, not the volume of food — with the rest coming from protein. He doesn’t eat carbs intentionally, though he gets small amounts by eating foods such as spinach that contain them. He can name the last time he intentionally ate carbs: A tiny serving of pasta in Italy several years ago. “It made me sick, sick, sick. I run on ketones,” he says.

The diet itself is well understood, so the institute can add little to it, Ford says. But the institute does have an opportunity in studying synthetics that boost ketone levels, which interests both the military and private manufacturers, who smell a rich market. By using supplements, soldiers, ultra-athletes and others can skip the diet, but make their ketone levels — and presumably endurance — spike for hours. The question is how that supplementation affects human physical and cognitive performance and resilience in extreme environments like space or battlefields — research that is in the institute’s sweet spot.

The future

Ahead, Ford says his biggest worry is finding a successor at the institute, though he’s not planning to cut back his involvement any time soon. He talks a lot about the institute’s culture. “Institutional culture trumps nearly everything else” in an organization’s effectiveness, he says.

Meanwhile, Ford is at work on his first book for the public on “healthspan,” focusing on how to maintain strength and function into old age. He looks fit. He says 63 is a good age that allows plenty of activity, though he and his wife parted with their Ducati and BMW motorcycles over concerns about danger from distracted car drivers. They’re building a home in Wyoming for cooler summers and ski winters.

He holds his hand in the air and describes the ideal trajectory for the rest of his life by tracing a line in a high narrow range. “I want to be this guy — good, good, happy …” he says. Then his hand falls to the table. “Dead.” He smiles and as his smile widens his eyebrows arch in unison.

Says Ford, “The best way is you’re hopping along, singing a song, and then — you’re dead.”

From Cockpits to Exoskeletons

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition’s research interests span data science, robotics, human-centered displays, computing and knowledge modeling. But it all comes down to people and their ideas. Institute researchers tend to be polymaths — people with a wide range of interests and expertise. Some areas of institute query:

Concept mapping software

Shephered by institute cofounder, associate director and senior research scientist Alberto Cañas, this software is now used around the world, especially in education. Using technology in education is Cañas’ passion. Cmaps help visualize how subjects relate to one another.

Peak performance

Joe Gomes, former Oakland Raiders head strength and conditioning coach but also a Defense Department pioneer in human performance, recently joined the institute to take his insights on peak performance for gridiron and battlefield warriors in new directions, especially in helping high-performance people maintain their careers.

In similar research, Dawn Kernagis, a 2016 inductee into the Women Divers Hall of Fame who dove and managed a world-record breaking deep underwater cave exploration team, studies how to optimize performance for divers, high-altitude aviators, astronauts and others in extreme environments. The Office of Naval Research has funded her work, and she won an award from the American Heart Association for developing a neuroprotective therapeutic for acute brain injury.

Understanding speech

Bonnie Dorr, former University of Maryland faculty member and co-founder of a computational linguistics lab in Maryland, leads a concentration of people at the institute’s Ocala branch devoted to machine understanding of human speech — not just speech recognition, but allowing computers to understand humans. Recently, she was named a fellow of the Association for Computational Linguists.


Peter Neuhaus’ Mina v2 exoskeleton team, piloted by Mark Daniel, a paralyzed Pensacola man who was injured in a 2007 car accident, came in second in a powered exoskeleton competition at Cybathlon, a 66-team competition in Zurich for disabled athletes using wearable robotic devices.

Linking people and automation

Computer scientist Bill Clancey, who took classes in 13 different departments at Rice from music to philosophy, developed Brahms, an AI system for testing and managing complex environments involving both people and automated systems — interactions among air traffic controllers and pilots and autopilot systems during fl ights, for example. It’s been used for communication between the International Space Station and NASA. He holds six patents and founded two software companies.

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