“The world has not run out of problems”- solving the unsolvable
Observations from the MIT 2022 commencement
This is the telling commentary summarizing my observations from the 2022 commencement at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). We as a family, were fortunate to having attended this ceremony, courtesy our daughter, being conferred the PhD in Materials Science.
A few myths were shattered, as we enjoyed the wonderfully curated commencement with the vibrancy of MIT’s official colours of Cardinal Red and Silver Grey along with the effervescence of youth and energy.
During lunch, we had some lively conversations with the bright graduate students. One was with a black woman with the evident sparkle in her eyes who is a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI). The popular media would give a feeling, though inadvertently, that courses like Computer Science with specific reference to AI/ML would be the sole preserve of the white male. Observing the steady stream of women and the non-white (including a handful from Middle Eastern countries) getting awarded the degrees left us with a heady feeling-the world is more equal and equitable than we (are led to) think.
The key note speaker, an MIT alumnus proudly related the ethos of MIT to address the world’s problem with Engineering and Computing skills that is acquired with rigour and discipline. The fact that the “world has not run out of problems” and there is an ample role to be played by the MIT graduate, in taking that serious attempt to solve. A message which though simple, yet is profound. I am sure each and every MIT graduate would be already gearing up to put this into action.
In the gathering, we met with a student, an immigrant from Italy. A Chemical engineer who received the PhD in Biological Engineering. To me, this subject sounded to be arcane, but the manner he explained with passion on how ML techniques were deployed to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cells or cells about to get unhealthy, left me awestruck. The ability to coalesce the knowledge of two seemingly diverse subjects and to produce meaningful solutions for the humanity is something is kudos-worthy!
Our discussions veered towards Italy and India and the similarities in their culture, geography and history. While the culture of individualism and the independence in America could lead to insularity, it was argued that it may not be the case in Italy and India where familial bonds hold true. The statement that “in Italy a close friend could be seen as a brother, but a brother may be a friend in America” rang some truism. However, in the same breath it was highlighted in no uncertain terms that the eco-system of free thinking, originality and transparency created in America for education and profession attracts the talent from across the world.
The engineering discipline at MIT has been split into Engineering and Computing. Traditional/core Engineering provides the backbone for original research ably aided by Computing. The formidable AI/ML based speciality areas of Computer Science are pervasive across all disciplines. Based on my observations and training as an engineer, core engineering is where the problems are identified, while the solutions could be investigated, accelerated and built using the tools in AI/ML. Core engineering should not be subsumed by the tidal wave of AI/ML based applications and techniques. How thoughtfully this has been created and is being implemented, is for all of us to see and admire and possibly emulate.
The educational journey at MIT is the quest of knowledge to solve the problems of the world. This is not a breezy one… it is nothing short of an odyssey. This journey could burn out students and reaching this destination needs an unqualified support structure. The reflective mention of the support structure of family and friends and its serious significance, was not mentioned in passing. It was highlighted during the key note address, reiterated in the department wise gathering amongst the faculty, students and their friends and family. I am sure the feeling of oneness among this extended group of individuals was brought about elegantly. Who does not like feeling wanted and welcomed?
Picking up a conversation with a graduate student or the faculty gives the feeling that one is well grounded, not engaging with someone in the stratosphere (of knowledge). The fact is, these bright and brilliant minds have achieved so much; but this arduous journey has taught them that knowledge is vast and the acquisition though influential is tiny and humble. The respect for the other and the fact that we do not know it all, offers a refreshing feeling albeit being in this sea of intensity and intellectuality. The humility, the acceptance of the other, the shunning of one up-man ship was seen and felt in every interaction.
One aspect which was unmistakable is the bonding between the faculty advisors and the students. Often while at the stage receiving the degree, the dour persona (generally)associated with professors and advisors, was replaced with the smiling gait and the poise of the professors while awarding the coveted degrees. What a wonderful of affinity it provides. It shines the spotlight on the new-age bonding between the advisors and the students.
Last but not the least, the arrangements made by the organizers left nothing to chance. The well-honed process of admitting the invited, the perfected process of providing the necessities for the comfort of the attendees, the orderly manner in which the various aspects were coordinated created an impact. Be it taking care of the disabled, or be the placement of the visual screening and more importantly managing the clock so smartly yet not making it look like a rushed effort is something worth emulating.
This much awaited event, was a sort of a milestone for us. The observations we had in the brief period of attending will remain etched in our memory.
A caveat — I have taken the liberty of conflating a few anecdotes as evidences, and they need to be taken in the stride.
Lucky to be attending the MIT 2022 commencement