MIT China Summit

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Good morning! I am Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, and I am honored and delighted to welcome you to the first MIT China Summit plenary conference.

This distinguished audience includes some of China’s most influential and innovative business leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, government leaders and academics.
(And I’m proud to say that some of those people are also graduates of MIT!)

As we begin, I wish to express our deep thanks to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a superb institution of higher learning in science and technology for joining us in this opportunity for dialogue and exploration.

I am also deeply grateful to this event’s generous sponsors.

I offer my grateful admiration to everyone who worked so hard, across so many international time zones, to bring this event to life. And special credit goes to Associate Provost Richard Lester and Director of the China Summit Beth Dupuy for their leadership and brilliant execution.

We are all eager to dive into the fascinating content of today’s program, so I will take just a few moments to reflect on what inspired us to create this Summit.

In a way, it is surprising that this is the first MIT China Summit, because the ties between MIT and China have been longstanding.

As we heard in the video, MIT enrolled its first student from China 140 years ago, when MIT itself was still very new. Since then, students, faculty, alumni, staff and MIT’s many great friends in China have built a wonderful bridge of connection, a bridge with busy traffic in both directions, a bridge of great benefit to the people of MIT, and hopefully to the people of China as well. As just a few examples:

  • Forty-one members of the current MIT faculty were born in China.
  • MIT enrolls about 11,500 students, total – and more than 7% of them come from China, most of them in our graduate programs.

In fact, more MIT faculty and students come from China than from any nation besides the United States.

  • And through our online teaching platform, edx, roughly 105,000 Chinese students have enrolled in courses from MIT.
  • Flowing the other way, MIT sends more than 150 students to China every year to learn, often through internships with leading Chinese companies.
  • And many MIT faculty members have built their careers doing research in China or with Chinese colleagues.


There are many other links between us, but I will mention just one more:

It is the MIT-China connection that has, without question, touched the most people:
And that’s the fact that the Director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research has, for five seasons, served as a judge on the most popular game show in China – “The Brain”! 

Bob Desimone is very well-known in China. In fact, back at MIT, tourists visiting from China often stop him, when he’s just walking across campus. So I’m delighted to advertise that, in a few minutes, Professor Desimone, in person, will join other amazing brains, from China and MIT, here on stage!

*          *

These connections between MIT and China have been in place for so long that we could simply have allowed them to continue to flourish, unattended. But we saw this Summit as a powerful way to respond to an emerging reality.

MIT has always been focused on what we call “inventing the future,”and over the last few decades, MIT has become a truly global university, as well as an American one.

We draw talent from around the globe – 135 nations – and our graduates live and work around the world too. Our faculty count on the ability to build constructive international relationships.

What’s more, our mission statement inspires us to tackle humanity’s great global challenges: How to advance clean energy, fight climate change and reverse environmental degradation. How to design sustainable cities and find new routes to water and food security for all. How to fight cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other challenges of an aging population. And how to establish ethical guidelines for advanced technologies, so they are used for the good of all. (This will be a central focus of the new MIT Stephen A. Schwartzman College of Computing.)

These are problems of concern to everyone on earth – and problems that no nation or institution can hope to solve alone. So it is increasingly clear that, if we at MIT continue to aspire to invent the future and to make progress against great global problems, we must work with the most talented people, all over the world, who share those aspirations.

Now, people with advanced skill and expertise in science and technology, and with such serious aspirations, exist all over the world. But no other nation has as large a pool of first-rate scientific and technical talent as China.

This is a moment of some friction between our two nations. But we come to you, through the medium of this Summit, in the spirit of wishing to learn, together, to our mutual benefit, in order to benefit the world.

The MIT faculty you will hear from today are trailblazers. They may not be quite as famous as Bob Desimone, but all of them are stars in their fields. Yet we are equally eager to learn from our colleagues and counterparts from China, in academia and in business.

As everyone in this room understands, China today is a formidable global player in many aspects of science and technology. On the academic side, China recently moved to number-one in the volume of research papers published on artificial intelligence. In quantum computing, 5G networks and high-speed rail, technology being developed in China is world class. In mobile payment and in facial and spoken-language recognition, Chinese companies are global leaders, because they have capitalized on their advanced algorithms and advantages in scale and data access. (Recognizing that such technologies are capable of both enormous social benefit and terrible abuse, it will be vital to define their ethical application.)

In another area of leadership, the Chinese government is also investing significantly in research, and directly supporting startups. And China has unrivaled capacity to rapidly ramp-up large-scale production of advanced technology products—the fast-lane from innovation to market.

Given our respect for China’s enormous strengths, we come to you eager to imagine how we can best make progress, together, on the serious problems of the world.

We see our own strength as rooted in a national culture of openness, opportunity and entrepreneurship. It is inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, and supported by the rule of law. And, most importantly, we know that we reach new heights of creativity by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of society and every corner of the world.

I am eager to see all that we may learn from one another, and all that we may jointly achieve. Of course, there is only so much we can do in a single Summit!  But I am thrilled that we have established such a promising place to begin.

And now I am honored to introduce Professor Chunli Bai, President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.