Eric Schmidt at Virginia Tech (2015)
It’s great to be back here on campus, back in Blacksburg. Its an honor to be here. Some of my fondest memories are of this town, of this campus. When my dad taught here, those were some of the best days of my life. Those were times that defined my childhood.
I remember riding my bike to the Lyric theater when I was about twelve years old. I’d leave it outside the theater, up against a tree. I came out one day, after a movie, to find it had been stolen. I went right into the police station to report this heinous crime. When I got in there, they had the bike in jail, locked up…for, as they said, “safe keeping.”
That, right there, is what this town is about. It’s about a sense of community, unerring support, and protection of those around you, those who are fortunate enough to share this wonderful place with you.
It’s powerful and has stuck with me for all these years.
When you return to a place of intense memories and look around, you think it’s the place that has changed so much. But in truth, it is you are the one who has changed much more. Your memories will be vivid, things will look a little different but feel very much the same.
This town especially makes me think of my father, who taught here for so long. He was such a role model, such an influence on my life—he taught me so much, gave me so much.
Your parents, in their own way, all do the same thing. And this stadium is filled with people who have gotten you to where you are right now, parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, partners, grandparents. They have made sacrifices. They have given you laughter and love when you needed it most. They have encouraged and inspired you. They have taught you more than you know. And today, when you walk across this stage and grab that diploma, they will cheer louder than any of you think possible.
So, take the time now to look at this stadium full of people and cheer for them. Cheer as loud as you can. Say thank you, for you wouldn’t be here without them. Love them.
Let me start by offering you a quote. It’s not mine, but I think it goes to the heart of your time here, and your time to come: “I choose to live, not just exist.”
See, you come from a long line – a rich history – of people who have come to this campus and decided to live, not just existto stand up and speak out and act and do and make and build and create.
Obviously plenty of stellar engineers, but also writers, artists, business pioneers … two governors … a few astronauts … war heroes … the first man to fly across the North Pole … the first woman to be registered as a professional engineer in the state of Virginia … the guy who holds the single day record for Jeopardy winnings … even a former basketball star who is the father of the new reigning NBA MVP.
Trust me, those of us in San Francisco really appreciate that last one.
And, now … you follow. It’s your turn. Yes, you—sitting there now, baking in the sun, thinking about the party later, possibly nursing a hangover, saying to yourself, wow—that’s a lot of pressure. What can I do?
I can’t answer that, specifically for each of you. Though I do kind of doubt any of you will be NBA MVPs, what I can say is that this place has prepared you in ways you don’t even realize now to follow in the Hokie tradition, to serve, to succeed, to see the world you want … and to make it real.
It’s not just what you’ve learned in these hallowed classrooms or libraries.
It’s every time you hiked the Cascades in the freezing cold … every time you sat at the edge of the War Memorial and watched the sunset … every time you went to the Drillfield to play in the snow … or sang karaoke on a Tuesday at “TOTS” … every time you have sat together in this stadium, on a brisk Fall Saturday, and jumped around to “Enter Sandman” blasting out through the speakers …
These are the times you’ve learned the most. These are the times you’ve become who you are. THESE are the times you have chosen to live, not just existed.
Every class has its own unique challenges. Every class enters a history that, up to that point, is being written for it.
This is no different.
What is different, though, is the chance each generation has to take that history and write it larger—or, for those of you engineers, to program it better.
And, on that score, your generation’s opportunities are greater than any generation’s in modern history.
You’re connecting to each other in ways those who came before you could never dream of.
And you’re using those connections to strengthen the invisible ties that hold humanity together and to deepen our understanding of the world around us.
You are emblems of the sense of possibility that will define our new age. You can write the code for all of us.
What’s the first thing you do when you get up? Check your phone? Read some email, comb through your social networks?
If you are awake, you are online. You are connected.
Some of you are probably texting your friends right now. Tweeting this speech. Instagramming all of this. Changing your status. I know: “It’s complicated.”
All that might not seem like much. Ho-hum, mundane—that’s just daily life. But, please, graduates: Don’t take that power for granted. What you carry with you every day can change the world.
About 40 years ago, when I was in Blacksburg, I worked in the computer center. The computer was an IBM 370/158. It had 1 megabit of space, 1 megahertz of processing power.
I was describing it to someone the other day who asked if it was a room with computers on a table, like a lab. No! It WAS the room—a giant air-conditioned room. THAT was the computer!
It must have cost around $10 million.
Now, take a break from SnapChatting to look at what you have in your pockets. Probably 128 gigabits (128,000 times more than back then) … for $500.
It’s 20,000 times cheaper and 100,000 times faster, so it’s 2 trilliontimes more valuable than what I had access to just 40 years ago. Trillion—with a T.
And, it’s not just the massive change we’ve seen in four decades. I was here in 1999, delivering the commencement. At that time, Google was one year old. I didn’t work there. Amazon was pretty much only a bookstore. There was no Facebook. No Twitter. No iTunes. Napster reigned.
That wasn’t that long ago! That’s within your lifetimes. So much change, so little time. Modern innovation is much faster than at any previous point in history.
I mentioned how much I have changed earlier. Well, in the 50 or so years since I lived in Blacksburg, the confluence and scale of knowledge has been what has changed me. We went from knowing almost nothing except our friends and the books we had on our shelves … to knowing almost everything about everything. No one really could have predicted that much change in such a short period.
But your path will be even more dynamic. The next 50 years are even more unpredictable, but the thing that will change the most is yourself and the reason is the profound increase in intelligence and assistance available to you as you define their lives.
It will change the way you approach your career, yes. But also what type of mother and father you are, how you learn, how you have fun…how you choose to live.
Thanks to software and computer science, we now have incredible tools at our disposal.
In the next few years, and beginning now, computerized data analysis will become a profound tool that will be up to you, the new generation of great minds, to develop.
The nature of a new tool is just that — it’s there for you to use, in whatever way you decide to use it. And with these new tools comes new responsibility.
But I know you have an advantage—a competitive edge— you have an innate mastery of technology, an ability to build and foster connections that no generation before you ever possessed.
You are the Internet generation. You grew up online. You are the first generation to know nothing else but an ability to connect with the world with the press of a button.
People bemoan a generation who grew up living life in front of screens, always connected to something or someone.
Those people are wrong.
The fact that we are all connected now is a blessing, not a curse, and you can solve many problems in the world as a result.
With the proliferation of the Internet, and with the digitization of data, a world’s worth of information is perpetually at your fingertips. This opens the door to some fascinating questions for the next generation to resolve.
How will we process all of this data? Will we know to leverage it correctly? Will we find the right balance between letting the data lead us, and following our inherently creative, brilliant human intuition?
In the digital age, analysis and interpretation are even more important than factual knowledge. As graduates of Virginia Tech, you are better poised than anyone to both understand this, and to bring it to bright, gleaming life.
Now, here’s the deal: Yes, it’s true, we have all this knowledge literally at our fingertips. But, just because we know much more than we used to doesn’t mean our problems just go away.
The future doesn’t just happen. It’s not etched or written or coded anywhere. There’s no algorithm or formula that says technology will do X … so Y is sure to happen.
Technology doesn’t work on its own. It’s just a tool. You are the ones who harness its power.
It is up to you to know your environment and learn to use the new tools at your disposal in the smartest, most effective way possible.
A computer is capable of identifying insights that we wouldn’t know to look for, by sheer brute force of how much data it can analyze, and from how many different angles (all with astonishing speed). This is something we cannot do ourselves, and we should take advantage. But, the truth is, there’s plenty we canand should do ourselves, plenty a computer cannot do for us.
Intuition, compassion, creativity—these are things we do better than machines. These are things you, having sharpened those innate skills here in Blacksburg, can put to use in service of a better day for us all.
We are on the cusp of a new and much larger scale of innovation, similar to the onset of the Industrial revolution. Before that, human growth and development was quite limited, but with industrialization came economic growth, prosperity and a vast increase in human life and health. Which is nothing compared to what you’re about to live through.
You don’t have to dream too hard to picture the not-too-distant-future: A smart wall will wake you up exactly at the time you need to get up. A car will drive itself to your office, as you catch up on the world around you.
The human brain will be mapped. New systems will be developed to remove CO2 and generate fuel, saving the planet. Pediatric cancer will be nearly eliminated, saving the lives of children everywhere.
We don’t have to wait 40 years. This stuff is coming soon. But someone actually has to make it happen.
Which is where you come in. Computers won’t just do it without us. None of this happens without you guys. We need you now. You are the ones who can build this, you are the ones who can take these dreams and make them real.
You are the ones who need to choose to live, not just exist.
People are counting on you. I am counting on you. The future you are building is mine, too. With that in mind, I ask you to do the following:
Be curious: Ask a lot of big questions. And then go out and try to find the answers.
Define your life as to what you do for others: What you do is not nearly as important as how you do it.
Be persistent: When someone says you’re thinking too big… be smart enough not to listen.
When someone says the odds are too small… be dumb enough to give it a shot. And when someone asks, how can you do that?… look them in the eyes and say, I went to Virginia Tech. I am a HOKIE. I will figure it out.
There is too much power in your hands. Too much possibility…for the next 40 years, for the next decade, for tomorrow.
Now—hearing it in Nicole’s speech earlier, and President Sands’, I know how important it is, if you’re going to be in this stadium, to have “Enter Sandman” as part of the proceedings.
Which is why I chose that quote: I want to choose to live, not just exist.
I didn’t want to quote some great ancient philosopher or Nobel Laureate. I didn’t want to go with an old inventor or modern technologist. I wanted to quote James Hetfield. He is the lead singer of Metallica. He said that, originally.
I figured, Metallica is with you every time you come to this stadium, and they should be now too.
Choosing to live means:
Life is not lived in the glow of a monitor. Life is not a series of status updates. Life is not about your friend count—it’s about the friends you can count on.
Engage with the world around you … feel … and taste … and smell … and hug what’s there, right in front of younot what’s a click away.
Don’t just push a button saying you “Like” something that someone is up to. Go tell them yourself.
Life is about who you love, how you live, it’s about who you travel through the world with. It’s about these people here, with whom you have shared so much.
Life is about much more than just existing.
So, please, class of 2015: go out there and choose to live.
You have accomplished so much to get here. But it pales in comparison to where you’ll go next.
I am excited for where you are going once you walk off this stage. Grab that degree and … you’re off. You’re off to a new world. You’re off to new life.
So, take each others’ hands. You’re off to never-never land. Congratulations to you all.
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