Jacksonville University Commencement Address

Thank You Dr. Romesburg,

It is a humbling experience for me to be here today. To address this graduating class is a great honor that I take very seriously. To receive the Honorary Doctorate leaves me without words. I am deeply appreciative.

However, I am charged with delaying your diploma for least 15 more minutes. I spent a good deal of time pondering what I might say. I thought what topic is so different today that it would make a lasting impact on you as you graduate from JU.

A few weeks ago it occurred to me that there is an over-arching topic that every graduating class has faced since JU’s founding 76 years ago__A subject that has been increasing in posture and significance every year.

The subject matter has become so important that authors, philosophers, scientists, and engineers are writing hundreds of books about its existence and the unknown impact it will have on society, on our economy, and our global existence.

Before he died unexpectedly in 2008, Charles Rice the CEO of Barnett Bank, spoke to the Graduating class at UNF. The topic of his address was “Change” He spoke in general about the challenges that rapid changes in technology would bring to the students in their future.

He also spoke from his own experience as a banker where he watched the metrics of banking transactions change the way we do business today. He recalled the number and type of banking transactions that a bank officer or a teller or a customer could process in a workday.

He had the wisdom to know that his relatively small $4o billion dollar bank would not be able to effectively compete with the mega banks. He saw transaction costs that were previously measured in dollars and days, drop very quickly to fractions of pennies and milliseconds. The capital costs necessary to achieve these efficiencies was staggering.

It wasn’t that his Rollins College education couldn’t hold up to the competition from the larger Ivy League Bankers. It was not that the larger banks were smarter in anyway.

What occurred was the result of technological advances in computing science and the operating systems and applications in Banking. These advances reduced transaction times and increased data storage and processing speed exponentially!

The amount of capital required to develop and implement new computing systems became too costly for regional banks to fund. Barnett Bank later sold to Nations Bank for $14 Billion dollars in 1998. Nations Bank then merged with the Bank of America.

CHANGE was the topic 20 years ago. Exponential Change was the topic of a decade ago. The exponential rate of exponential change is the topic today.

In 1970 I took a ten inch metal slide rule to my science classes. A slide rule is actually a mechanical analog computer. Remember? No forget that, you were not born yet. The first computers and calculators were mechanical not electronic. Recall that the Sumerians and Egyptians used the Abacus for arithmetic calculations in 2000 BC. Some of us used mechanical adding machines in the seventies. You may see them in old movies. You tap in the numbers and pull the mechanical lever to mechanically calculate the sum.

The 17th Century brought us Pascal’s mechanical Calculator that would eventually perform all four arithmetic functions without relying on human intelligence.

Think about this__ “Without relying on human intelligence”.

Have you ever read about the “Library of Babel” A library in which anything, and everything that can be written is stored. Every book is unintelligible unless you can decode it. It must be capable of being decoded because it is written text. If it contains all the text that can be written then, the book you have written and the book you have not yet written is already contained in the library. It takes the writer’s imagination to decode it.

The same is true in nature. All the elements exist in the world to create life. It takes the will of God and man to decode it__or as Philosopher David Hume alluded to in 1777, and I say here, from nature we can produce a thoroughly mapped genome and the science sufficiently capable of decoding and expressing the genes into a life form. 

We are most likely at that point in which you are wondering, “What in the hell is this man talking about?”

Back to the Present: In May of this year IBM surveyed 1700 CEO’s in 64 countries and asked what would have the biggest impact on their organization’s future. The last time IBM sought this response in 2004, the answer was the Economy and Market influences.  Today their answer is “Technology” and a fear of falling behind the pace of changes in technology.

In the year 1800, a horse driven coach could achieve a speed of eleven miles per hour and it was possible to travel up to 60 miles per day. This enhanced ability to transport people and mail, made the proximity and access between Western and European towns and provinces much closer. Places like England, Wales, and Scotland became much closer. The lasting social and governmental impacts of doing things faster became more clear.

In the same time period, the deadliest wartime weapons included ship-mounted cannons that could fire 1000 pound cannonballs at combatant ships; and a mortar that could shoot a 200 pound explosive shell into coastal population centers.

Two Centuries later, we are traveling on jets 50 times faster than the horse powered mail coaches, traveling as much as 12,000 miles in a single day.  The world today seems 200 times smaller than it did two centuries ago.

As for war technology; we can send a nuclear bomb to another planet 35 million miles away with a billion times more explosive power.

We as a people are capable of moving hundreds of times faster with greater education, wealth and power than was conceivable 200 years ago. Technology has been increasing exponentially throughout the past four generations. The convergence of political and economic interests is a global dynamic that moves almost independently of individual or political will.

The technological advances and lower costs of communications tools are driving a global sociological merger of historic form and reach. To our benefit, as the people in the 1800’s became more aware of each other and more economically inter-dependent, the expansion of communications and trade provided significant impedance to the historic warring nature of neighboring populations in Europe.

We also cannot ignore the fact that technology and proximity also provided a destructive pathway for zealots and power seekers to use technology to gain power in attempt to control people and other resources. Despite the horror of war, significant technological advances came both from World Wars. We began moving out of the industrial revolution into a new world    of technology.

The globalization of trade is having the same positive and negative effects on many countries today; although some religious and political groups seem to want out of the merger and to “slow down the mail coach as it gallops into the future.” (Loren Cobb, The Quaker Economist).

I served in the Army security agency in 1974. The use of communications tools and computers were an integral part of the military security agencies and the National Security Agency. Up until the use of smaller transistorized VHF radios in the early 70’s, much larger Short Wave Tube Type Radios were mounted on the back of jeeps. Analog radio direction finders were the precursor to modern day GPS systems. The Direction Finders required large triangulating cage like antennas that were 1400 ft in diameter and 120 ft tall. Today’s marine radios and iPhones provide the same data in the palm of your hand.

The portable computer in 1982 had a 4 Mhz CPU and weighed 100 times more than your cell phone and cost ten times more. The Apple iPhone 5 has a 1 GHz CPU and a 1000 MB memory with more computing power than was used in the first Space Shuttle launch.

You can read volumes about the relative differences in megahertz and exabytes and teraflops. I will not try to impress you with a litany of definitions in the world of computer speed and storage capacity. My inability to do so makes the very point that I wish to stress.

There is an increasing economic inequality in the world. You may choose to measure it by income levels or taxation rates, or with socio-economic classes of people. However, the more frightening inequality to me lies in the span of personal intelligence and knowledge.

As Moore’s law of Change predicted and now exhibits, the rate of change in computer capacity and speed will ultimately yield an artificial intelligence that will feed upon itself to yield even more exponential growth in knowledge and intelligence.

The subject of a “Technological Singularity” is probably not something you spent a lot of time on in your most recent studies. However, your children and grandchildren will be facing this topic as a daily presence.

“Singularity is defined as the theoretical emergence of greater-than-human super intelligence through technological means.” Paul Ehrlich also writes in the Dominant Animal, “Technological progress has been limited by the basic intelligence of the human brain but with the increasing power of computers and technology, we may be able to build a machine that is more intelligent than humanity.”

In the 1950’s, Mathematician John Van Neumann spoke of the term “Singularity” as describing a technological acceleration causing an unpredictable outcome in society.”

In Tom Friedman’s bestseller “The World is Flat” he writes about the Chairman of Sony. In 2004 Chairman Idei says that a change is underway in the business technology world that would be remembered in time “Like the meteor that hit the earth and killed all the dinosaurs”

Friedman goes on to quote HP CEO Carly Fiorina who declares that “The last twenty-five years in technology has just been the warm up act. Now we are going into the main event, and by the main event, I mean an era in which technology will literally transform every aspect of business, every aspect of life, and every aspect of society.”

Technology and new knowledge is often scoffed at and ridiculed. Even in 1492, religious leaders, scientists and politicians disputed each other’s accounts explaining the actual shape of the planet. Some believed the World was indeed already flat!

Author Bill Bryson explains innovation in five steps.

 Five Stages of Innovation:

Stage 1.       People deny that the innovation is required

Stage 2.       People deny that the innovation is effective

Stage 3.       People deny that the innovation is important

Stage 4.       People deny that the innovation will justify the effort to adopt it

Stage 5.       People accept and adopt the innovation, enjoy its benefits, attribute it to people other than the innovator, and deny the existence of stages 1-4

When many of you were in elementary school, you had a hand held calculator. Your teacher may have told you not to use it. You needed to learn the basic computational skills in arithmetic. With the calculator, every fourth grade student in the world knows how to find the square root of three, regardless of their computational skills or theoretical knowledge of mathematics.

When you took Statistics here at JU, did you spend long hours calculating and graphing slopes and limits and solving long complex equations? No you did not. You used a laptop computer with Microsoft Excel software and the statistics functions. Assuming everyone knew how to use the programs, then everyone got the correct answer regardless of their computational skills or theoretical understanding.

The use of calculator technology brought about the foundation for Singularity. Just as Pascal warned 300 years ago, “Without relying on human intelligence”, the calculators and personal computers know how to accomplish things that you perhaps could not.

At the end of Friedman’s book, he speaks of a post 911 conversation with Jet Blue founder David Neeleman. When Neeleman asked Tom about Osama bin Laden, Friedman replies: “There are two ways to flatten the world. One is to use your imagination to bring everyone up to the same level, and the other is to use your imagination to bring everyone down to the same level.”

Every commencement speaker must squeeze in some concluding advice to the graduates. I am no different and I offer a series of thoughts. They are not my own and come from the great minds of poet Max Ehrmann, songwriter Lizzie West, an unknown source, and no speech is complete without something from Albert Einstein.

“A person who graduated yesterday and stops studying today is uneducated tomorrow. If you don’t create your reality, your reality will create you. We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.”     Thank You for your attention.

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