Monday, May 21, 2018

Graduation Address for Catholic Engineers

I had the pleasure of speaking at the commencement ceremony for the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame in 2018.  Here is what I wrote:

Good afternoon!

It is a real pleasure to see all of these young men and women dressed up so nicely. As you may know, I spent a semester with all of the CSE students here as juniors in operating systems, compilers, and some other classes as well. It was rather early in the morning, and so as often as not, they were dressed in pajamas, flip-flops, and sometimes sweaty gym clothes. It is lovely to see everyone at their best.

I invite you all to just relax for a little while, look around you, and take in this moment. Reflect a bit on the path that led you here.

I'm sure that for most of you, it seems like you just arrived! Perhaps you took a long road trip to South Bend, and unloaded the car on a sweaty August afternoon. You met your roommate and probably wondered about their peculiar taste in music or food. You found your way around campus, met some interesting professors, did a lot of homework, and probably slept through a lecture once in a while. I'm sure every one of you has had moments of triumph, and some of tears as well. I hope that you made some lifelong friends, and maybe found romance along the way as well.

But of course, the reason that you came to Notre Dame was to struggle with the timeless questions that scholars have asked throughout the ages:
  • What is free will, and do humans really have it?
  • Are we redeemed by our faith, by works, or by the grace of God?
  • What is the meaning of "segmentation fault"?
  • Why does "git pull" default to merging instead of rebasing?
As pleasant as it is to look back upon the college years, I am here to tell you that this is not the end, but only the beginning. The world needs your talents, and you have a lot of important work ahead of you.

The modern world needs engineers, and our moment in time particularly needs Catholic engineers. To that end, I would like to offer a little reflection on the personal motto of Bishop Rhoades, which is "Veritatem in Caritate" or "Truth in Charity"  This is an excellent motto for an engineer to keep in mind.

Truth in Charity: You cannot speak the truth effectively unless you speak with charity. Likewise, it makes no sense to speak with charity if what you say is not the truth.

First, truth. Our society is currently undergoing a loss of confidence in the idea of truth itself. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." and this was often repeated as a sensible guideline for political debate. Today, we are finding it more and more difficult to agree on the basic facts of a situation. And there is no point debating our opinions without first having facts: What was the high temperature today? Which car is more fuel efficient? How many people in Indiana are unemployed?

The wonder of the Internet is that it has enabled everyone access to the world's knowledge, and allowed everyone to have a voice, which is empowering. But it has become harder for the average person to distinguish between trustworthy information and outright fabrications. I just took a look at the fact-checking site, which felt it was necessary to debunk the myth that it is common for ostriches to go downhill skiing in Japan!

But an engineer deals with physical reality and knows that the truth exists, whether we like it or not. Nature cannot be cheated. A drone that runs out of battery will fall out of the sky. A program with a race condition will lock up. A circuit that draws too much power will catch fire. An engineer's job is to stand up for the truth -- however inconvenient it may be -- because they know that Nature will come to settle the account sooner or later.

Second, charity. It's no secret that our society is short on charity, which is a concern for the well-being of our neighbors. You all know the headlines about things like subprime mortgages, cheating on emissions tests, and the sale of personal data. In these and many more cases, clever people used their talents to benefit themselves while exacting a price not just against their immediate victims, but on society as a whole. Volkswagen might be able to pay back car owners who were defrauded, but there is nothing it can do to extract the excess pollution from the atmosphere.

As engineers, you will build the machines that make society operate. In the twentieth century, that meant things like locomotives and roads and bridges. In the twenty-first century, it includes search engines, voting machines, and self-driving cars. In every single one of these cases, yes, there is a customer to satisfy, but society at large a greater interest to be protected.

And so, as engineers, I charge you to speak the truth in charity:

Some of you may work on self-driving cars, which have the potential to reduce crashes and save time and money. But when a self-driving car has a flaw that threatens pedestrians, who will speak the truth in charity? You will!

Some of you may work on artificial intelligence, which enables us to find hidden patterns in massive datasets. But when a neural network perpetuates racism because of its poorly chosen training data, who will speak the truth in charity?  You will!

Some of you may work on systems for digital voting, which can make it easier for every citizen to participate in the political process. But when a voting system with a security flaw puts our democracy at risk, who will speak the truth in charity?  You will!

Now, perhaps that is all a bit heavy for this moment. It's a beautiful (rainy) spring day, you have worked hard to be here, and it's time to celebrate. So, let me instead give you one piece of advice that is more immediate. You can put it into use today!

It is all too easy to get attached to our phones, our computers, our gadgets, and get sucked into the endless chatter of status updates, news items, upvotes, comments, and so forth. These constant distractions can prevent us from having deeper experiences with other people, and draw us away from truth and charity.

Take time every day to turn off your gadgets. Enjoy a meal without looking at your phone. Spend an evening without the TV. Take a walk without looking at your watch. Trust me, your friends, your spouse, your children, and your parents will be much happier with your full attention. You can start at dinner with your family tonight: whoever picks up their phone first during dinner pays the bilk!

It has been a pleasure to have you here at Notre Dame.

Congratulations and good luck!

Don't forget to brush your teeth.