Bard College Commencement

Bard College Commencement

Award-winning tech entrepreneur Megan J. Smith addressed Bard graduates on May 26, 2018.

Hello, it’s so incredible to be here with all of you.

Thank you, President Botstein, and also Chairman Chambers.

I first just want to say welcome to all of you, the parents and family and friends and everybody who supported this incredible class; to you, the faculty who have worked with them; and of course to all of you, the incredible class from Bard 2018. Congratulations.

Bard is just this incredible, extraordinary learning community. You’re a group of doers. Yesterday, I got to sit with a group of students and learn about their Senior Projects. This is an active learning community, a global community. We’re joined by not only your core group but also high schoolers who got to go early, who were ready; those who were stuck in incarceration, who were ready; those who are former refugees now living in new places, who were ready. Bard is a place that welcomes everybody. And, it’s an extraordinary thing to come to this community. I’m proud of all of you, and I’m happy to be here in the right kind of place for social justice because I want to talk to you about is, there is nothing that’s more powerful than all of us together.

So, sometimes if I talk about technology, you kind of feel like—remember back in third grade, some people got pulled into technology and some people thought that what you’re teaching me is making me really bored and really intimidated? So how is it that we can use these power tools, these tools of Hogwarts per se, to make extraordinary things happen and reduce what is going on now—some weaponization, right, that happened this past year or two.

The chief technology officer is a new job that President Obama added into our government. The job is to help the president and their team harness the power of data, innovation, and technology on behalf of the American people. We as a country and as a world have always used science and technology, and, in fact, they say that President Washington was the first one to begin this as he started what became the Army Corps of Engineers. So, we have a long tradition of science and technology, but this new idea that the digital age, as we move from the Industrial Age into the digital age, which you are entering and you are a big part of, was very important to the president to add that capability to our government. And so we began to work together. And, I just note across the time that you have been in school, from high school and college, if you think back, just a vignette, Secretary Foxx was a secretary of transportation with us. During his committee hearings with Congress, during the confirmation hearings, there was no mention in detail of technology. And yet, by the time Secretary Foxx finished, we had worked together with him on all of the policy for UAV flying; all of the policy for smart cities and a smart-city competition that saw hundreds of cities across our country working together; the next generation of air traffic control; self-driving cars—you name it. Really, the Department of Transportation is a technology department. And, in fact, every agency of our government turns out to be a technology department, and every organization has technology in it. And so my hope for you is to think very broadly about tech. 

Also, when I came to the government, I had the chance to sit with President Obama at first as we were figuring out the agenda, and I had brought him a present. For me, sometimes the oldest technology is the most profound. And I had brought a sailcloth, something from Hawaii, I don’t know if there’s anyone here from Hawaii, but the Hōkūle‘a is an extraordinary sailing vessel, and if you’ve seen the movie Moana, you know about Polynesian sailing. What I’m here to tell you is that the Hawaiians and the Polynesians are actually able to do that. And so I’m going to talk today a little bit about artificial intelligence and very advanced technologies, and yet sometimes the oldest technologies are the most profound. And, I had brought a sailcloth from the Hōkūle‘a to President Obama, who is from Hawaii, as a gift because, as his chief technology officer, of course we look to the future, but really sometimes these old technologies are the most significant. And what I love about the Hōkūle‘ais that what the people of Hawaii did, is that they sailed around our planet in a small Polynesian canoe using zero instruments. No compass. Nothing. Can you imagine, just the front row, we’ll all go on this boat in the middle of the Pacific, and which way shall we go? Right, imagine that. And we humans—humans did that. So think about how incredible each of you are, and what you’ll bring. So it’s not about technology; it’s about you. And, it’s about what you would manifest using these tools of the world.

So, I want to touch on three things, three things in my hopes to encourage you, all people, to think about using technology for what you would want to engage with—not what agenda someone else already has, what they’re interested in, but what would you do with these tools? And the first point is about the internet. The internet is not technology, it’s just really us. It’s just us, connected, right? Humanity connected and the extraordinary things that we can do, and let’s talk about the opportunity. We’re connected across people, we’re connected across data, we’re connected amongst machines. The whole world has this interconnection that is happening, so we’re able to do things that were not possible before, and the democratization of tools—for example 3D printing, the Internet of Things, CRISPR, synthetic biology—all these tools that none of us could have ever dreamed of having, these are tools, you know, millions and billions of dollars of lab equipment, now available to a sixth grader. That’s an extraordinary thing. What would we make? And how do we think about human values in that context? There’s an idea that I have always about scouting and scaling and looking for what’s out there, and so I might bring forward just a couple of technologies just to have in mind with all of you.

When we were with the president and the end of his administration, we had a conference in Pittsburgh, and we talked about human frontiers, and we chose five to look at, and I’ll just touch on them quickly. 

The first one: personal frontiers. Personalized medicine, brain research, personalized learning—all the things that could come to help each of us individually with our health, with our lives, with our learning. 

Local frontiers. How could we not only have smart cities and deal with logistics and utilities and those things but also wise communities and more just societies in the spirit of Ida B. Wells? One of American’s greatest data scientists, Wells used data and journalism to stop us from lynching people. What might we do to use data science in our communities to help those who would not go hungry if we did that, to help those be in a more just place, to help those out of poverty with data science? 

We looked at national frontiers, and, for us, we looked at artificial intelligence and how we were working together with our natural systems. And, on a global level, we looked at climate change, at the move to green energy, at the move to green chemistry. Why can’t we have a thriving ecosystem and think about healthy designs? It’s interesting. I mentioned Hawaii and the Hōkūle‘a. Today, they pull a tanker of oil to Honolulu every two days and burn it. And yet they are so abundant with sun and wind, and so they’re working together today on global change and becoming a green island, a green set of places. They also have geothermal. 

And then interplanetary was the last one, and the Roddenberry family opened that day. So think of SpaceX, Blue Origin—you are the Mars generation. People in this class will be working on those missions, and some of you will probably leave this planet and live in other places. What an extraordinary thing to think about.

So as we think about this, how is it that we can use all of these technologies for opportunities, not just for the agenda that we currently see—self-driving cars, precision medicine—but for poverty and for justice and those areas? One of the things we got to work on in the administration was that we looked around for who had already solved things. When you’re in Silicon Valley working with that venture capital community, the VCs and the funders don’t make the companies; they find extraordinary entrepreneurs. So, who are the Clara Barton, the Henry Ford, the George Washington Carver, the Gandhi of today that we might come up underneath and support? Some of the ones we encountered were people like Beno Juarez, who was from the Amazon. He grew up there until he was nine, and then he left and became an expert in advanced manufacturing. Now, he’s back home, and he’s actually doing advance manufacturing, floating makerspace FabLabs in the Amazon. So, instead of having a job of cutting down trees, you can bring your indigenous knowledge forward and have the same kind of advanced manufacturing you might find in Boston, or in Silicon Valley, or in a top lab, but floating in a river right next to you—so, this democratization of technology. 

We started doing a thing called the Tech Jobs Tour that my friend Leanne started, who’s married to Pia here, who’s a graduate. We went 25 places all over the country—Memphis, Mississippi, Cheyenne, across Appalachia—and we found doers and innovators everywhere, so people are getting it done and solving problems in their communities. 

But the second thing I want to talk to you about is not just this opportunity and encouraging you to think of what you are passionate about working on, how you can solve issues using these tools, but also how they can be weaponized. So, technology is not good or bad. We are, right? When we go on the internet, if the internet is just us, then we bring our racism, we bring our sexism, we bring our bullying, we bring all of that with us. And people would use these technologies in very terrible ways. For trafficking of people. At the height of the fight on ISIL, imagine what kind of media company they had created to propagandize youth and attract them to join in their mission, not unlike the Hitler Youth and the propaganda of those days. And so how can we fight against that and how can we be vigilant? And so technology is good and bad, and I encourage you to think very hard about the incredible education that Bard has brought you and your colleagues sitting right next to you. So maybe there’s someone from the humanities, and just behind you, someone from social sciences, and a friend from computer science, and a friend from the sciences, someone who’s a dancer, someone who’s an artist. It’s in the nexus of all of that conversation that the answers are and in our history. 

A lot of times, there’re many hidden figures, but one I would bring to the stage is a poet-mathematician from the 1800s. Her name was Ada Lovelace, and she was Lord Byron’s daughter. She was a poet-mathematician, and she is the first human to ever think of the idea of algorithms. And she really became the first computer scientist. She wrote a paper at the same time as Darwin, but women, of course, weren’t allowed to write in those days, so her 55-page paper is just an attachment with just her initials, but it is the fundamental paper for computer science. And, she said in the day, as a poet-mathematician, she said, “I hope to bequeath to the generations a calculus of the nervous system.” That’s AI. And see, we know that our founder is this incredible woman. And so she was doing this work, and later Alan Turing, who fought the Nazis, in the Imitation Game—you may have seen that movie—but they used coding and computer science to fight and break the codes. They saved 11 million lives and shortened the war by two years, using mathematics, working together. That team was two-thirds women. So knowing the true history but knowing that we can do this work—so I encourage you to work together around ethics. 

When you think about this, the level of complexity we are entering is extraordinary. And so it’s not okay to just be kind to individuals, but you have to think in systems. Sister Helen Prejean has one of my favorite tweets, which says, “It took me a long time to understand how systems can inflict pain and hardship in people’s lives, and to learn that being kind in an unjust system is not enough.” And that’s why I’m pushing you: don’t leave this part of the orchestra out. Include your technical colleagues and work together with them because it can make you move faster. You know, there’re as many open STEM jobs as people in prison, and what I love about Bard is that you’re reaching into prison and pulling those people into not only STEM, STEAM, any kinds of other jobs, because sometimes the resource is right in front of you and the teammates are right in front of you and they face great injustice. Burning Man, which is in the desert, and is a really fun place, is the same size and budget as the Zaatari refugee camp, and we use totally different systems of governance for each. So how might you use this technology and apply it in new ways?

I encourage you: play the whole orchestra and be eternally vigilant. President Washington actually, in his first State of the Union, said something interesting. He said to Congress, there’s nothing which better deserves your patronage than science and literature. Science and literature. So, combining these things. And then he said knowledge, in every country, is the surest form of public happiness. Knowledge. Fake News. Knowledge. Fake News. Right, so what is it that we can do to fight against the weaponization of these? And the thing that I guess that I am happy about is that Cambridge Analytica is out of business. So there’s some hope. There’s hope for the ethics of engineering. You know, the Canadians, when they graduate from engineering school, they get a ring, and the ring is from a bridge that’s fallen down. So, like the doctors, what is the Hippocratic oath that we would write together for the use of data science and technology so that we’re using it for love and not for hate? I also think about the colleagues that I left in Silicon Valley and some of the cultural challenges. We continue to see racism, and sexism, and disinclusion, intellectual-combat culture, and a bro culture, and we really need to see you guys step in and make those changes we want to see in the world. 

The third area, beyond weaponization and changing into playing the whole orchestra on these hard problems, is really thinking about how to unlock talent and field the whole team. How do we think about all of us together and how do we feel all of us? In the area of artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning, the way you can think about that is like a toddler learns. The algorithms learn from what we do. They learn from the data that we have. For example, Translate It: so you give it all kinds of translated works, and the algorithm can learn, oh, this word in French means this word in Spanish, means this word in Greek—and so it learns. So it’s learning from us, but our systems are racist, sexist, ageist, etc., so we have to do a lot of work on how we’re going to put human values into AI. And yet 1 percent of the global population is actually working on the design side of AI. That’s why it’s so important that you come into this, because we need seven billion colleagues working on what we want the world to be—colleagues, not some kind of market with a small number of people who would create a surveillance world. 

So we’re laying the foundation in these decades for structures that will last for millennia, and we want to work together and make sure everybody is at the table. So, I always look to what I call the Star Trek future. I love technology. I’m an engineer, right, so I love beaming and universal translators and all the stuff from that world.  But I also love what was happening on that bridge, because on the bridge of Star Trek—even though it’s a 1968 version—everybody was on it. We were all included, men and women, people from different parts of the world, people of different races working together. And so I’ll speak for a minute about some of the hidden figures. 

Place matters. We’re here on the Hudson, extraordinary industrial history to build upon. Robert Livingston, from just two towns up, was this amazing journalist who was part of writing the Declaration of Independence, but he also was one of the first successful steamboat creators. He cocreated that with Fulton. So these very intersectional people were from here. Eliza Hamilton comes from this region. Eliza—we don’t know that much about her, but if you read her Wikipedia page, you can see that she’s a strong character, a tomboy. And one of the things people don’t know is that she went with Benjamin Franklin to meet with the Iroquois. So this idea of the Federalist Papers, and federalism that comes from the Iroquois is something significant from this place, and I encourage you to know about that. Sojourner Truth, just across the river—an incredible voice. So we have to know about these lost histories.

I walked into the Oval Office to do coding with President Obama, and, interestingly, Prince William had just stepped out. They had just had a meeting. I said to President Obama, "You know, what you and I are about to do is related to Prince William," and he said, "How’s that?" Well, the Prince’s wife Kate, her mother and grandmother were code breakers at Bletchley Park, where they cracked the Nazi Enigma codes. So we had a conversation about not knowing that history. Two-thirds of the people at Bletchley were women, and yet we don’t always hear that story. Today, it’s 25-to-1 boy visitors to girl visitors to the museum in the UK, because computers are for boys, right? Not. So, we need to know our true history, and we need to make sure that we take care. 

About 12 hours before the State of the Union address, I noticed that we were celebrating American inventors, and my wonderful colleagues who write speeches had written about Edison and the Wright Brothers. And I thought, but there’re more Americans who have done extraordinary things. So I used my voice, and I encourage you to use your voice. I said, why can’t we add some other people? So that night, President Obama said not just that we’re Edison and the Wright Brothers. He said we’re Edison, the Wright Brothers, and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson, and Sally Ride.

So I’ll tell you that there’re extraordinary people who have gone before you, like Ida with data science, or Jane Adams with inventing social work, using technology in these ways. I want you to have confidence in all of this, in what you’ve learned here in your Senior Projects. Just start trying something, work together, know that it’s an apprentice journey, a mastery journey when you’re doing things, and you begin somewhere. And just because people told you when you were younger that science and math weren’t for you, they really are for everybody. The universe does not separate the subjects by ringing bells between them. So, please take hold of your Bard education, think about your colleagues, and look deeply inside of yourself. What is it that you want to manifest in this world? You are all so talented, and you don’t have to comply to the style of the rules. You’ve gone to Bard. You can do the way that you want to do it. And, right next to you, sit colleagues that also need your help and need your encouragement. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome out there. So, what is it that not only would you manifest in the world, but how would you team up with your classmates and those you encounter on your journey in the world, on this adventure that we are on, and how will you help each other make the world what we all deserve, which is the extraordinary planet thriving, vibrant, healthy, and including everyone? So, thank you and congratulations, and I’m looking forward to seeing the extraordinary things you’re going to do.