Celebration for MIT Schwarzman College of Computing

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Good morning!  And I believe I must say it: “Hello, World!  Hello, MIT!” 

A warm hello to everyone here this morning – and to our many special guests, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who will take the stage in a moment.

Susan, thank you for the introduction, and for your observation – thought-provoking, as always. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing came to life gradually, over many months. And the process was not always linear! And Susan, you led us to the wisdom of voices from across the MIT community and you helped us find the path to success. 

So I want to thank you personally for your support, your leadership and your dedicated service to MIT.

Arriving at this day required intense effort and creativity from hundreds of people. (I thank you all!) 

However, I would like to start by thanking one person in particular.

I first met Steve Schwarzman a few years ago. Obviously, I am an academic – and Steve comes from the world of business. 

But very quickly, he became interested, and curious, in what we’re doing at MIT. One conversation led to another and, eventually, we both came to see that – given the pervasiveness of computing, and especially AI – preparing the nation for the future will require bold action. 

If we want to maintain America’s competitiveness in computing research and development, and if we want to make sure that this technology is developed and used in ways that serve our whole society, it will require bold action from industry, it will require bold, sustained investment from government – and it will require bold initiatives from higher education. 

In effect – and especially as a leading technical institution – we must reshape ourselves, to prepare our students to shape the future. And the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing is MIT’s answer to that challenge. 

So I hope you will join me now in thanking Steve for taking the time to understand MIT and for providing the foundational support that will help the people of MIT, and many more inspired by his gift, as we all work to make a better world.

Before we begin, three quick thank-yous to three people who worked some serious miracles to get us to the College announcement, and particularly since the College announcement last October.

First, I want to thank our EVP and Treasurer, Israel Ruiz. Very little of importance happens at MIT without his deep engagement.

Second, I offer huge thanks to Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan, and to his whole team, for imagining this spectacular three-day event, including today, and making it all come to life.

And finally, I want to express my tremendous gratitude to Provost Marty Schmidt. 

In just a few months, Marty created five faculty working groups to think through core questions about the College, he somehow persuaded those groups to have their reports done by May – and he found us an outstanding Dean.

In fact, I’m delighted that the Founding Dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, Dan Huttenlocher, is with us today. Dan, would you wave so everyone can see you?  This afternoon, Marty will have more to say about Dan and what inspired us to choose him.

Today’s program offers a fascinating combination of doers and thinkers, from inside and outside MIT. I expect the presentations will challenge us and inspire us. (And we’re grateful to everyone who agreed to speak!) 

But the most important part of this event is not the people on the stage. It is all of you gathered here – all of us. Dan is the founding dean of the College. But together, we are its founding community.
Looking out at this audience of computing experts, I am humbled, excited and amazed at the opportunity before us. (And as a former electrical engineer, I am not going to try to tell you anything about computing or AI!)

But I do want to give you a sense of how I view the significance of what we begin today, with the launch of the MIT Schwarzman College.

It is certainly a big deal for current and future MIT students.  

Students have been telling us for years, through the courses they choose, that computation is now as fundamental as math. They have also made clear that they want and need to be “bilingual” – as fluent in computing as they may be in biology, urban planning or economics. And so, at last, we’ve rearranged the Institute to reflect that wisdom – and to accelerate that reality.

I believe the College is also a big deal for our faculty. 

You can hear it in fascinating new conversations starting all over campus. Very few things get faculty more excited than new questions, new tools, new possibilities!

And their excitement tells us, in turn, that the College is also a big deal for higher education. 

MIT is far from the only institution responding to the challenge of the algorithmic future.  

But history shows that in terms of technical education, what MIT does can inspire new approaches around the world. Think of our founding commitment to learning-by-doing. Or the grounding of engineering in science. Or UROP, Project Athena and edX. (So, we should aim high…)

I believe the MIT Schwarzman College will also be a big deal for the nation. 

To start with, the scale of this commitment shows the federal government that we are serious about the need for an intense national focus on, and investment in, artificial intelligence. And in the long run, the College will produce graduates prepared to bring the power of computing to every sector of our society.

In the end, the MIT Schwarzman College could also have great significance for the world. 

If we get it right. So, what would it mean, to get it right? 

There are many practical challenges. For instance, we need to figure out how to do interdisciplinary teaching as well as we already do interdisciplinary research, across widely divergent fields, and at scale. But these things will come with time.

To me, a defining challenge will be how well we succeed in making ethics and societal impact an integral, lasting focus in the life of the College.
Today, questions around the impact and ethics of technology tend to be apologetic explorations of “What went wrong” – often occurring long after the fact, if at all.

Everyone here knows that pushing the limits of new technologies can be thrilling – so thrilling that it’s hard to think of bad consequences, and how a tool might be misused. But the fact is, technologies like AI could be so powerful that we cannot allow ourselves to be intoxicated. There is no “designated driver” who can keep society safe on the road to the future! We must all take responsibility for staying alert and staying sober, and for building the policy guardrails that will keep-us-all out of the ditch.

It is time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest. And I am optimistic that the MIT Schwarzman College is the right place for the job!

In the coming decades, it will feel as though the opportunities, disruptions and progress of the Industrial Revolution are playing out at time-lapse speed. 
Responding to the magnitude of this challenge will require a strategic effort across society.

Technology belongs to all of us. Our society must be alert to the risks posed by AI, but there is no time to be afraid. Those nations, and those institutions, that act now to shape the future of AI will help shape the future for us all.

I am immensely grateful to join you in this work, as members of the founding community of the MIT Schwarzman College. And I have the highest aspirations for what we can, and must, achieve together.

So, let’s get started!