National Science Foundation: Expeditions in Computing

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Thank you, Jim, for the introduction. And thank you for all you do as a champion for the field of computer and information science and engineering.

I’m also delighted to be here with: 

  • Michael Kratsios, an outstanding advocate for science and technology issues in the White House,
  • And with Diane Souvaine. Diane, thank you for your terrific leadership of the National Science Board!

And since MIT’s own Daniela Rus helped organize this event, she politely and kindly invited me to speak tonight. So I also want to express my gratitude to her for doing so.  I hope I will not disappoint her. And of course, I very much look forward to the conversation with France Córdova and with all of you.

But first, let me offer some hopefully brief remarks.

We’re here to mark ten remarkable years for the NSF’s “Expeditions in Computing” program. And I am very pleased to join the celebration, because this program represents the very best of a brilliant American invention. And that is, the commitment to providing focused, sustained, significant federal funding for daring explorations in fundamental science. Because this concept is the essence of the NSF, for many of us here tonight, it may seem routine. But I want to remind us that this concept is big. It is uncommon. It is transformative. And it has played a tremendous role in our nation’s prosperity, security and quality of life.

Your “Expeditions” program is only 10 years old. But it is a powerful example of the federal commitment to supporting discovery research. That commitment has helped this country thrive for more than seven decades. And I am convinced that this model continues to be essential to our nation’s long-term success. Indeed, it is the foundational idea that underlies everything else I will talk about this evening.

As a former electrical engineer in a room full of computing experts, I will not pretend to offer technical insight about your field.  But I hope I can offer a little outside perspective. I will try to give a sense of how the rise and the evolution of computing are challenging higher education – not to mention our whole society – and of some ways that I believe we need to respond.

Over the last year at MIT, we have launched three Institute-wide initiatives. All three are directly related to the advance and the pervasiveness of computer science, especially fields like AI.

Last spring, to address the growing impact of automation across society, we began a two-year policy study on the Work of the Future. The faculty members leading this effort aim to:

  • Help us understand how technologies are transforming the nature of work
  • Develop strategies to shape technology so that it complements, rather than replaces, human workers
  • And identify ways to make sure that these innovations contribute to equality and shared prosperity, rather than eroding them.

Around the same time, we also launched the MIT Quest for Intelligence, which is designed to push the frontiers of human and machine intelligence. The Quest aims to advance the fundamental science that will inspire the next generation of AI breakthroughs. And we hope it will also drive the use and development of current and new AI tools, to accelerate research in virtually every other discipline.

And this fall, we announced plans to create the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. We hope that this new cross-cutting entity will accelerate research and innovation, enrich computing with the wisdom of other disciplines and educate the leaders of the digital future. 

So, in case this is not obvious: For any university – even for MIT! – that is a lot of serious change and commitment, in a hurry!

In fact, the MIT Schwarzman College alone represents the biggest structural change at MIT since the 1950s. What’s more, at one billion dollars, and with a gain of 50 new faculty positions, it may be the largest concerted investment in computing and AI by an American academic institution.

So why are we driving all this change? Because, to state what all of you know, computing – and especially AI – is everywhere! And it’s changing everything! And as a leading research university with a mission to work for the betterment of humankind, we have a responsibility to recognize the rapid changes around us, and to prepare ourselves, our students and our society to navigate and help shape the technological future.

Over time, it has become clear to us that preparing society for the demands of that AI future means educating tomorrow’s leaders to be “AI bilingual.” We believe that students in every field will need to be fluent in how to use AI strategies and tools to advance their own work. At the same time, technologists will need to be fluent in the cultural values and ethical principles that ought to inform the use of these tools. 

In fact, we are deliberately structuring the College to place an intense focus on equipping students to grasp the ethical implications and societal impact of AI technologies. We want our students to be leaders in making sure that AI can flourish in, and support, a society that values individual rights and freedoms. And we want them to be actively engaged with how to help American workers compete and succeed, as AI transforms the very nature of work. 

In short, we have come to believe that it’s time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest. Fortunately, MIT is not alone.  Other institutions across the country are responding to this new reality too, in different ways. And this will benefit the United States.

Ultimately, the point of an initiative like the MIT Schwarzman College is to prepare our students to serve as leaders in whatever field they choose. But no matter how well we teach them, and no matter how “bilingual” they become, these efforts must be matched by a national effort to sustain our nation’s technology leadership.

So let me close on that note.

I don’t need to tell you that we are globally engaged in a technological race to the horizon. Other nations, such as China, have been advancing aggressively to assert technological supremacy in critical fields of science and technology. And they are doing this by pursuing a systematic, long-term, highly funded national strategy. I believe that America needs to respond urgently and deliberately to the scale and intensity of this challenge. We may not do so, however. In which case, we should expect that, in fields from personal communications to business, health and security, China is likely to become the world’s most advanced technological nation, and the source of the most cutting-edge technological products in not much more than a decade. But this scenario is not inevitable. 

The United States has tremendous assets, including the immense global strength of our technology sector today. This is the result, in part, of a unique formula that no other country has been able to copy: the large number of first-rate American universities, pursuing advanced research with long-term federal support. This relationship is rooted in a national culture of opportunity and entrepreneurship. It is inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. It is supported by the rule of law. And – most importantly – it enables new creative heights by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of our society and every corner of the world. 

For decades, these factors have helped make our nation the most powerful scientific and technological engine on Earth. Every American can take pride in this distinctive system. 
And the heart and soul of this system is the inspiring work of federal agencies like the NSF. If we want to secure our nation’s future, and its technological pre-eminence in this technology race, we need a highly visible, focused, sustained federal effort to fund R&D in key science and technology areas. And we need incentives to make sure universities, industry and government are working together to capitalize on them. 

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. Whichever nation acts now to shape the future of AI will shape the future for us all.

Thank you.