Graduation Speech 2015
Duke Univeristy
Department of Computer Science

© 2015 Ronald Parr

This weekend all over the Triangle graduating students will hear speeches telling them that the world is their oyster. This will be another such speech, but it will have two important differences. The first is that, in your case, it's tue. The second is that this speech is actually about love.

I bet you weren't expecting THAT at a computer science graduation!

While it's expected to tell all graduating students that they can change the world, this is mostly blind optimism. It's not just wishful thinking for all of you. If we look at some of the most significant technological and even social changes the world has seen since you were born, we see that nearly all of them have been directly from or enabled by YOUR chosen field of study. It's almost impossible to imagine life without the supercomputers we carry in our pockets and the lifestyle they have enabled - so much so, that we forget how young all of it is: Facebook was founded in 2004; twitter in 2006, the modern smart phone a year later. Tinder was created in 2012. The people bringing about these and other dramatic changes are generally between your age and the age of your parents. They hatched their ideas while in college or shortly thereafter, and they brought their ideas to fruition with a speed and global impact that was unimaginable a generation ago.

This is truly YOUR time. We say that to every generation, but I'm not talking about your GENERATION. I'm talking about YOU - Duke computer scientists in this room right now. You are the architects who will build a future that is mobile, networked, and artificially intelligent in ways that most people can't even imagine.

So, what's love got to do with it? Don't worry - I'm not thinking about Tinder.

For the parents in the audience who don't know what Tinder is - I'm also not thinking about a Tina Turner song.

I'm thinking about a comment made by the great logician Bertrand Russell. When asked to give a message to future generations, he said:

" is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other; we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don't like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet."

Only a logician or a computer scientist could talk about love in such a calculated, decision-theoretic manner - but it is a choice, and choosing not to love has consequences. Russell warned us about these consequences in the rapidly changing and interconnected world of... 1956. Color television was a new thing then. This was before Sputnik, the first laser, or the personal computer - before the Internet, Facebook, Snapchat, Yik Yak and so much else that we take for granted today.

It was also before the FBI began tracking the nearly 6000 hate crimes that occur per year in the U.S. alone - 98% of which are attributable to hatred over race, sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity. It was before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It was before we were shocked by the racist behavior of college students at several universities this Spring.

Why bring up these painful events at a happy occasion like this? Because this is my only chance to push you to reflect on whether the world has heeded Bertrand Russell's advice.

There's a great exchange on reddit in which somebody asks:

"If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?"

I don't think the original poster had any particular time traveler in mind, but I like to think of Bertrand Russell as the one. A sharp-witted commenter offered the following answer:

"I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers."

Explaining the device and the technology behind it would be the easy part. Explaining why it has, largely, been put to such uninspired use would be much harder. What would Russell think? I suppose he would be relieved that we haven't all killed each other... yet, but I can't imagine that he'd be proud.

Today, people with your talents can get rich easily by making apps and services that appeal to our baser instincts or that channel our attention towards like-minded people who reinforce our prejudices. You don't need to aim low to do this. It's a lazy way of thinking and people will tend to use any tool in that way if they aren't guided towards better alternatives.

Of course, none of this is the fault of the people who create the tools. We can't control and can barely predict how people will use the tools we create. As Tim Berners-Lee, father of the world wide web, famously said, "I never expected all these cats!"

It may be hard to predict what people will do with our creations, but we aren't powerless. As architects of our future, there's a lot you can do to shape the environment with the apps and services you create. Don't forget that there's an alternative to having our egos stroked by our friends or shouting angrily at strangers. That alternative is called listening. I hope that a few of you will create new applications that help us collectively remember how to do that - how to interact with different people who have different ideas, and how to react with something other than hatred. In our world of immediate feedback, it's not easy to incentivize patience and understanding, but if you put your minds and your hearts into the task, I think you'll figure it out. When you do, you'll help make us all a bit more tolerant and help us follow Russell's advice on the wisdom of choosing love over hatred.

And that, computer scientists, is what love has to do with it.

Class of 2015: The computer science department wishes you a future that is overflowing with success, with wisdom, and indeed with love.