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MIT Technology Review

From the President: The Human Cost of Technology

Problem-solving technologies sometimes cause new problems. Let’s fix that.

August 16, 2017

To stand in Killian Court on a June morning and look out on the faces of 2,800 new MIT graduates is a powerful experience of hope and wonder. These students came to us with brilliant capabilities of their own. And if we have done our job as educators, they leave us equipped with a rare set of skills and steeped in this community’s deepest values: A commitment to excellence. Integrity. Meritocracy. Boldness. Humility. An open spirit of collaboration. A strong desire to make a positive impact. And a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place.

We can be sure that the creativity of this group of graduates will be the source of remarkable new discoveries, methods, products, designs, organizations—and perhaps even whole new industries. And as the past decade has shown, we should not be surprised if some of those new concepts are deeply disruptive.

Disrupting old systems and assumptions can be a very good idea. But it can also have a great human cost. And I believe that as members of an “institute of technology,” we need to see this human question as very much our concern.

At MIT, our mission guides us to advance knowledge, to educate students, and to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. As a result, we are driven and motivated to work on big problems. And we like to solve them, in part, by developing new technologies. Yet one of today’s great challenges is figuring out how to help society navigate the unintended impact of technology itself.

This is not something we can leave for “other people” to figure out. Getting this right will require the expertise, insight, and imagination of those in a position to truly understand the technologies in play. As our new graduates prepared to leave us, I challenged them—as they work to conjure new ideas, invent new products, design new ways to manufacture them, and devise new ways to use them in the world—to consider the impact on all of society, right from the start. 

I know that many members of our community, from faculty and students to our alumni around the world, are already hard at work on these questions—and I encourage you to share your ideas and initiatives with your fellow alumni in these pages.

By making such societal considerations not an afterthought, but a first concern, we will contribute to solving one of the deepest and most difficult challenges of our time.