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MIT Better World

“My hope is that, in 2030, we’ll look back on now as the beginning of a revolution that freed our minds the way the Industrial Revolution freed our hands,” said Drew Houston ’05, cofounder of Dropbox, who has made a $10 million gift to create a faculty professorship and provide startup funds for the college. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, predicted, “What MIT is doing will set the pace for every other university that wants to be relevant in the future.”

Ursula Burns, executive chairman and chief executive officer of VEON, Ltd., remarked, “It’s not just about getting a whole bunch of computer scientists writing new programs; it is about making the world a better place.” Burns, Walker, and Houston were just 3 of more than 30 speakers who addressed topics ranging from innovation in the medical sciences to computing and the financial ecosystem.

One recurring theme: how the new college will rigorously address and incorporate research and teaching on the societal implications of computing. To illuminate MIT’s approach to this topic, the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences produced a compendium of short articles titled “Conversation Pieces: MIT Perspectives on Ethics, Computing, and AI,” which was handed out at the event.

Humans “have never been more godlike,” said New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, noting that ethical approaches will therefore be “essential.” Friedman moderated two panel discussions at the event.

Many speakers cautioned that the speed of technical innovation poses a serious challenge to the control of societal transformations that are already under way. Nevertheless, the tone of the day was aspirational. “There’s no reason why computers can’t think like we [do] and can’t be ethical and moral like we aspire to be,” asserted Ford Professor of Engineering Patrick H. Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70.

“It is time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said. “I’m optimistic that the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is the right place for that job.”

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