Opening remarks, inaugural Data for Black Lives (D4BL) conference

Friday, November 17, 2017

Good evening! It’s my great pleasure to welcome you all to MIT.

I want to start by expressing my admiration to Lucas Mason-Brown, to Yeshimabeit Milner and to the entire Data for Black Lives team, for creating this exceptional gathering.  And of course, we are also grateful to your sponsors for making it possible.

The fact that Data for Black Lives chose to hold its inaugural conference at MIT makes me hopeful, and grateful.

I’m hopeful, because I know there are so many at MIT, including lots of people in this room, with the technical skills to help advance the work of Data for Black Lives. If your goal is to mobilize people who can help use “data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people,” it is my humble opinion that you have come to the right place!

At the same time, I’m grateful because I know that MIT needs your help, too.

You may appreciate the skill of MIT scientists and engineers in finding the right answers. But we are eager for your help in finding the right questions, the deep unsolved societal problems where we can make a serious impact.

The MIT community certainly includes outstanding social scientists and humanists focused on just these issues. But even with all their knowledge, we need the perspective, wisdom and field experience of community organizers and local activists, who have been working for decades to achieve a more just society. We need the insight of experts in fields that are ripe for progress, from public health to criminal justice to voting rights.

And perhaps above all, we need your impatience for answers, your insistence that it must be possible to use today’s most powerful technologies to make our society more just, more inclusive and more fair.

In short, we need your help, if we hope to make a better world.


At MIT, our mission guides us to advance knowledge, to educate students and to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges, for the betterment of humankind. This means we’re motivated to work on big problems. And we like to solve them, in part, by developing new technologies. 

But the truth is that one of today’s great challenges is how to help society navigate the unintended impact of technology itself.

Automation and artificial intelligence will continue to transform our work, our lives, our society. Whether the outcome is inclusive or exclusive, fair or laissez-faire, is up to us. Getting this right is among the most important challenges of our time, and it should be a priority for everyone who hopes to enjoy the benefits of a nation that is healthy and stable, because it offers opportunity for all.

In this work, those of us leading and benefiting from the technology revolution must help lead the way. This is not someone else’s problem.

Technologies embody the values of those who make them. It is up to those of us advancing new technologies to help make certain that they do not wind up damaging the society we intend them to serve.

Data for Black Lives is founded on the conviction that science and technology can be powerful tools for social justice. I agree.

And I look forward to seeing how the community you create here over the next two days can begin to ask the right questions and build the momentum for the new answers the nation and the world so urgently need.