“Embracing true reality”
UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science
San Jose, California
June 19, 2004
© Copyright 2004 Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P
All rights reserved. Do not use without written permission from HP.
Thank you, Dean, and good afternoon.
I would like to join Dean Dhir, Chancellor Carnesale, and all of your faculty members in welcoming you to the 40th commencement exercises of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and to the Class of 2004. I am very honored to be among the first to congratulate you upon completing your years here at UCLA.
Now, one of the great traditions here at UCLA is that each year, every college competes to see who can get the best graduation speaker. This is shaping up to be a pretty spectacular year - from Senator George Mitchell, to Paramount head Sherry Lansing, to the eminent Dr. David Kessler, to "Seabiscuit" producer Frank Marshall - the list is impressive. But I'm afraid you, my dear engineers, have drawn the short straw. At a time when four out of every five Americans have no faith in big business, you're stuck with a CEO for your graduation - and it's not even the country's best known CEO - you know the one I'm talking about, the one with the hair who says, "You're fired."
Seriously, don't get me started on the Donald's hair.
But as bad as you think the next few minutes might be, it's even worse than you think. In addition to being a CEO, I am probably the first graduation speaker in the history of UCLA who also happens to be a dropout of UCLA. It's true. As you heard from the Dean, I have graduated with degrees from Stanford, Maryland and MIT, and the truth is that somewhere between Stanford and Maryland, I was a student at the UCLA Law School.
As you know, I studied in my undergraduate years medieval history and philosophy, and surprisingly, there wasn't a great demand for those majors when I graduated, so I decided to follow my father into the law and came to study here at UCLA. My time here was mostly distinguished by the fact that studying law gave me blinding headaches every single day, and so after four months I left.
Now through it all, my parents maintained faith, although to be frank, after I ran around in Italy for a year right after dropping out, there were moments of doubt. And my guess is that all of you have done a few things to torture your parents a little bit these past few years. But it is nothing compared to the pride they feel in you today. And so, before we go any further, let's hear it one more time for your moms and your dads and your friends and your loved ones to thank them for everything they've done for you.
Now just think, proud graduates and proud parents, if I can become the CEO of a Fortune 11 company with just four months here at UCLA, there is no telling what you will be able to do with four-plus years here at UCLA.
One thing that I think has always set the school apart has been the belief that great students, just as great schools, great scientists, great companies, are defined by two things: they are defined by capabilities and they are defined by character.
What's just as important - perhaps even more important - than what you are capable of doing, is what you choose to do with it.
There is no question that you have chosen the right disciplines to succeed. Science and engineering and technology are the language of the 21st century. I honestly believe that for all the scientific advancements that we have seen the past 100 years, we will look back on the 20th century as a warm-up act for the era we are moving into now. From biomedicine, to telecommunications, to information technology, to digital entertainment, we are moving into the main event of science and innovation and engineering, a time when these disciplines can change lives and solve fundamental problems that have plagued humanity for centuries.
The capabilities you take away from here will help define this era. But the question is, what will define the character of this era, and what will your generation do to shape it?
Now, what we know about your generation, what you tell marketers and pollsters, is that the thing you crave above almost all else is authenticity and connection. You are the sworn enemies - according to the surveys you fill out - of all that is phony and superficial in this world. And that is a wonderful thing to be. But here is the part I don't get: somehow, you've managed to channel that craving into an unquenchable desire for reality TV, which has about as much to do with reality as a Twinkie does with agriculture.
Now, maybe this doesn't seem fair. After all, you're not the only ones watching reality TV, but this is the fate that befalls every generation. You end up being responsible for the things that happen on your watch - my generation is still trying to live down disco. But look at the bright side; at least we don't have to be the ones trying to explain Vanilla Ice.
At the very least, your generation's desire for authenticity is being used by some very cynical people who keep foisting it upon you and then blaming you for it. This clash between authenticity and reality TV actually isn't hard to understand. The more real television and video games become, the more we live in a virtual world, the harder it becomes to distinguish between reality and reality TV. So how do we tell the difference? I've given this a little thought, actually.
If you ever wonder whether you're living a real life or a reality TV life, here are several warning signs that you might want to think about:
If two or more of your friends describe themselves as a personal trainer/bartender, you might be on reality TV; If on your way home from work, your spouse asks you to pick up milk, drop off the dry cleaning, and bungee-jump naked into a vat of dung beetles, you might be on reality TV; If, after you let your child borrow your car for the first time, he calls from a pay phone and asks if you're ready for the shocking twist, you might be on reality TV; If a stranger with whom you share a 10-second elevator ride tells you, "I think we've made a really deep connection here," you might be on reality TV. If, just as you go under anesthesia, you realize you've never noticed how much your cardiac surgeon looks like Ashton Kutcher, you might be on reality TV; If your date tells you that he or she is very impressed with your audition tape, you might be on reality TV - or you might be a student at USC. And finally, if you have more than two friends with names that sound like they could be backup singers for Madonna, like Fantasia or Omarosa - and nobody knows their last names, or if they even have last names - you might be on reality TV.
Now these rules aren't foolproof, because there are some things that are real that we wish weren't. For example, William Hung topping the charts with his version of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" begs to be not real. Jessica Simpson thinking that Chicken of the Sea is actually chicken, not tuna, begs to be not real. Paris Hilton thinking that Wal-Mart is a store that sells walls begs to be not real. And you already know how I feel about the Donald's hair.
The thing about art is that it holds up a mirror to nature. A painting, a book, a film, a play - these things offer a reflection of reality, and it's a reflection that we recognize because it reveals something about who we really are. Reality TV holds up a mirror to reality. In fact, the only thing reality TV has ever revealed is that a really surprising number of things not commonly thought to be edible - are.
Now of course, reality TV has its place. It can be vastly entertaining when done right. But let's not let it overwhelm the real stories that need to be told - real stories for which engineering and science and technology can make a real difference. Let me give you one example. I began today by talking about being the CEO of a Fortune 11 company, but here's why I do what I do: I see every day what technology, when combined with the aspirations and capabilities of talented people, can do to solve real human problems.
Let me tell you about two young women named Saraswati and Gowri. They live in a rural community called Kuppam, India, about 100 miles from Bangalore. It is a place where one in three citizens is illiterate, more than half the households have no electricity, and most of the able-bodied adults are HIV positive. These young women were forced to leave school after sixth and seventh grades respectively, because their families could not afford their schooling.
One of the questions we ask at HP is how do we use technology to bring opportunity to places like Kuppam? We came up with the idea of a solar-powered digital camera and a solar-powered printer, and this equipment fits into a backpack. Saraswati and Gowri were among 10 young women chosen to be trained as village photographers, given free equipment, and then asked to serve as official photographers for a local event. And when they saw how much people loved having their pictures taken with their elected officials, these two young women decided to seize upon an opportunity. They followed their local minister around selling inexpensive photo ops. In less than a week, they'd earned the equivalent of a month's income. For both of them, it meant they were better able to educate their children, and finally bring tap water into their homes, and today, not only do they photograph family ceremonies, they are working to set up a fund that other young women in their village can use to start up their own businesses.
To me, this is just one tiny example of the billions of ways that science, technology and engineering can and will change lives and solve problems in the 21st century. And the best part about it is that the people bringing this change aren't politicians or philanthropists or CEOs; they're computer scientists and engineers. In other words, it's you.
The truly wonderful thing about inventors and engineers is that you possess a quality that is in short supply in this world, and that quality is unbounded optimism in the future and the belief that tomorrow can be better than today. After all, what other profession goes to work trying to imagine something that has never been created before, works day and night to see that vision through, fails 99 times out of 100, but never sees those attempts as failures but learning experiences upon which to build and grow? That is exactly the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that built this nation and ultimately it is the kind of creativity that will keep us strong in the 21st century.
It would not be the first time that scientists and engineers have used their capabilities to uplift the character of an age. As the social scientist Jeffery Sachs observed during the Middle Ages - remember, I studied the Middle Ages - the problems of humanity were seen as a visitation of God's plagues on corrupt and hapless non-believers, and only by divine intervention could they be solved. But the change that created the Renaissance was sparked by scientists and engineers who made people believe for the first time in human history that we were in charge of our own destiny - that here on Earth, God's work truly was our own. They made average citizens believe that we could solve things. Not only were they willing to help people believe in possibilities, they were willing to hoist that entire age up on their backs, and in the process, created a new and better world out of the old.
Where do we find the heirs of that Renaissance today? I think we find them here, right here at UCLA. After all, the very first node of what eventually became the Internet was housed right here. The very first e-mail in history was sent from right here. One of the very first personal computers - the first one to use a mouse - was invented by a professor who works here, and also, we're proud to say, works at HP Labs: Alan Kay.
Professors like that are your teachers, but they are also role models and inspirations for an entire generation, and today, they pass that baton to you. Every generation must learn from those who came before and then rise above. Now is your time to make your education meaningful, to make your life extraordinary, and to use what you have learned here to help change the world.
So what is asked of you? I think it is to use the capabilities of this age to uphold the character of this age; to use the greatest tools the world has ever seen - not just to entertain, but to inform, to inspire, to uplift, to empower - to use the knowledge that you have learned here to find new ways not only to connect computers, but to connect people; to find authenticity in the real aspirations and experiences of real people, and to make all of us believe that we can solve the challenges of this age and make this world a better place.
But start all of this tomorrow. Today, enjoy your family, enjoy your friends and celebrate this day. Congratulations Class of 2004.