The recipients of Princeton’s top alumni awards underscored solutions for the political and technological challenges of today and the future at the University’s annual Alumni Day on Saturday, Feb. 25. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. and a 1976 graduate of Princeton Engineering, was positive about the power of technology to solve societal problems.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, president of Peru, also spoke of a new age in Latin America.
Their speeches in Richardson Auditorium kicked off campus activities for about 1,000 alumni and guests on a sunny, spring-like day. Alumni Day 2017 included lectures, workshops, family activities and the presentation of alumni and student awards.
Schmidt received the Woodrow Wilson Award, the University’s highest honor for undergraduate alumni. Kuczynski, who earned a Master in Public Affairs in 1961 from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, received the James Madison Medal, the University’s top honor for Graduate School alumni.
In Schmidt’s speech titled “Once More unto the Breach: Our Future Ahead,” all questions led back to two essential answers: technological innovation and Princeton.
“I have sort of concluded that the answer to the world’s problems is Princeton,” Schmidt said, followed by enthusiastic applause from the audience.
“Will autocracy win over democracy? ‚Ä¶ What will happen to human interaction? ‚Ä¶ Will we be happier and live longer?” Schmidt asked rhetorically. “Who do we need to answer these questions? Princeton. Can you think of an organization literally better suited to address the multiplicity of issues I just described?”
Schmidt, who previously served as chairman and chief executive officer at Google, said his belief in the transformative power of technology is rooted in what he learned at Princeton.
“And what I’ve learned and I believe is that science and critical thinking actually matter,” he said. “That it is possible to invent things that completely upend or change the discussion. That the abundance of information that we are seeing today is a good thing. It is incredibly empowering. We are in this era of almost infinite communication. ‚Ä¶ We can solve really profound problems in our lifetime.”
Schmidt said he understands current anxieties about issues such as cyberwarfare, job automation and the propagation of misinformation on social media and the internet. But rather than being viewed as the problem, he said technology can be used to find new solutions to these challenges.
“I’m convinced this darker era that you hear throughout the media is not going to happen,” he said. “I understand the anxiety and the feeling. But there are such great strengths among us and before us. And there are solutions to these problems.”
One innovation that most enthused Schmidt was artificial intelligence (AI), and he declared “the future century is going to be the AI century.”
“Humans will share the spotlight with machines in a way that is both fantastic and incredibly interesting and incredibly challenging,” he said, citing driverless cars as one example.
During a question-and-answer session, a Class of 2016 graduate said she was uplifted by Schmidt’s optimism and asked what specifically Princeton alumni can do to address some of the challenges Schmidt discussed.
“You, as a fine graduate of Princeton, have to do the hard work. We here need to be in government, in the military, in the business community,” Schmidt said. “I taught a class on campus Thursday, and the students today are so much smarter than we were. ‚Ä¶ I say put this new generation of Princeton graduates in charge as quickly as possible!”
In his speech earlier in the morning, Kuczynski examined pressing issues from his perspective as a leader in Latin America and as an economist. Kuczynski began a five-year term as Peru’s president on July 28, having previously served in various government roles. He started his career at the World Bank in the early 1960s.
The day before Alumni Day, Kuczynski visited U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House.
“We had an interesting chat about Latin America. As I explained to him, Latin America is quite important in a way. We are 650 million people,” Kuczynski said. “It is still a growing place ‚Ä¶ but it is facing a huge challenge. That is because the world is changing so fast. ‚Ä¶ And Latin America is behind in those changes, especially technology. And at the same time, we have huge changes going on in the world.”
Kuczynski said he saw three major issues facing Latin America: perceptions of politics following government corruption scandals; the unequal distribution of public services and income; and world trade. He said Peru also faces the challenge of a declining birth rate coupled with an aging population that is living longer due to public health improvements.
To address these challenges and continue to grow, he said, Peru must rely on productivity and innovation.
“You cannot grow simply through the force of a bigger, younger population. That’s the big challenge. It’s a challenge that has to do with education. But education in a very broad sense. Not just going to school. Technological education. Information education. Scientific research,” he said.
Ultimately, Kuczynski said he thinks Peru needs “a social revolution.”
“[Clean] water. Education. Health services,” he said. “The only way to do that, of course, is to have growth.”
Videos of Alumni Day lectures will be posted for later viewing on the Alumni Association’s website.