Graduation season is upon us. It is difficult to believe the academic year is over and that life appears to have returned to a near “normal” pattern—at least when it comes to human interactions. As is common during April and May, I have had the opportunity to participate almost daily in a celebration, live event, or community gathering. From functions on the Clivner=Field Plaza to press conferences, retirement and farewell parties, faculty meetings, seminars, lectures, and other gatherings on campus and around the City, it was clear people appreciate seeing and reconnecting with one other and are enjoying the energy and electricity we all missed during the pandemic.
A few specific events that took place recently reminded me of something bigger: why we do what we do. We hosted the annual Bernard Baruch Dinner—another record-breaking gala where more than 500 alumni, friends, and supporters shared a magical moment of gratitude and pride for our community and what we accomplished together. We also held the Student Achievement Awards ceremony to recognize winners of the Fulbright and Gilman Awards, the Obama-Chesky Voyager Scholarship, and over 200 other named awards that celebrate the triumph of our students in almost all areas of study and service. This was followed by the Athletic Awards Banquet, where we applauded our scholar-athletes: the Bearcats once again claimed the CUNYAC Commissioner Cup Championship, an accumulated honor for the success of all of our athletic teams. When you consider that Baruch sits in the middle of Manhattan with no playing field other than a few indoor gyms tucked underground, it speaks volumes about the spirit and resilience of our athletes and is nothing short of a miracle.
That spirit and resilience came into focus when we conferred awards at the Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK Program—devoted to bolstering disadvantaged students—and heard story after story of how our students excelled in the face of adversity. It was further magnified at Black Graduation and during Baruch’s first-ever Lavender Graduation, where I witnessed how communities of caring people banded together to support students who successfully overcame insurmountable obstacles. In numerous similar gatherings leading up to Commencement, the same story was told in many different ways. They reminded me how important it is for us to be a place of opportunity for those whom opportunities are scarce and why it is essential to demand and deliver excellence, as the spirited and disadvantaged are more likely, not less, to accomplish the unimaginable.
In celebrating the Class of 2023 and reminiscing on perhaps the most unusual college experience of any students in recent history, we see a metaphor of the journey you are about to begin—as it is likely our world will go through drastic changes, at unprecedented speeds, throughout your career and lifetime. Except this time, the change will affect us all. And rather than giving you, the graduates, our wisdom and advice on how to survive and succeed in that brave new world, we will need to think this through together.
The Brave New World Ahead
In my April blog, I touched on the effect of AI and the future of work, but that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology-induced social changes. It should not be difficult to convince you that our world is experiencing accelerated changes. I previously revealed my own take on this: “History shows us that society has been continuously and profoundly impacted by technological advances. But humans have, so far, always found ways to adapt to new realities.” Before we get too comfortable with this idea, there is a caveat: While the pace for humans to adjust and adapt to new environments does not change fundamentally, the rate of technological advancement may very well outpace our ability to adapt. Are we gradually, but surely, reaching the limit of society’s ability to acclimate before becoming completely overwhelmed? I think that is still up to us to decide.
As an eternal optimist—and a true believer in human ingenuity and creativity—I am of the opinion that we should not fear technology and technological advancement. Technologies are interconnected, and while they can do immense good, they can also birth great malevolence. For example, the advanced semiconductor chips that power our smartphones, computers, and allow such AI systems as ChatGPT to perform “deep learning” from massive amounts of data are also the brains of advanced weapon systems capable of mass destruction.
Consider the nuanced history of another disruptive technology—genetic engineering—which played a crucial role in the rapid development of Covid-19 mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines. These vaccines, according to a recent Imperial College London study, reduced Covid-19 deaths by an estimated 20 million just in one year. Nevertheless, long-term risks and implications of genetic engineering have been debated for decades. Thanks to the emergent field of bioethics—the study of ethical issues and dilemmas arising from biomedical advancements, such as organ transplants, stem cell research, and cloning—we have developed valuable insights into the impact of these technologies on individuals and society. This knowledge informs the development of regulatory frameworks and institutional safeguards that address the ethical challenges and unintended consequences associated with biomedical technologies, including genetic engineering.
As citizens of a modern, globally connected society built on rapid technological evolutions, we need to pay much more attention to understanding technology and its implications and, by doing so, recognize our own responsibilities as well as our ability to manage and adapt. Let me elaborate on this point.
The Explore-Exploit Trade-Off
If you ever have the opportunity to observe a one-year-old explore their environment, it is a world of endless possibilities. Their eyes brim with curiosity, and as they discover the intricacies of their surroundings, tiny fingers touch all objects in their newfound realm and go immediately into their month. Every item becomes a marvel, a treasure to be examined and experienced.
We transformed from curious infants into seasoned adults on our life journey. Through trial and error, we mastered the subtle nuances of our environment by developing an intuitive understanding of the world’s ebbs and flows. Our brains learned from our triumphs and setbacks, unraveling the workings of cause and effect, and over time, our once-infinite curiosity receded into our subconscious. Eventually we slowed our inquisitive nature or even stopped exploring.
In cognitive neuroscience, this is known as the “exploration-exploitation trade-off,” where our brain reaches a certain equilibrium between attempting new actions (exploration) and choosing endeavors that are known to yield good results (exploitation).
Exploration can be risky and time-consuming, but it can also lead to discovering new and better strategies. Exploitation, on the other hand, is usually a safer and faster option—unless the environment undergoes rapid changes, which is where we find ourselves today.
When we say people “do not like to change” or are “set in their ways,” we are referring to the fact that many of us have the tendency to stick with our “exploitation” strategy while abandoning our “exploration” ability as we gain more experience. Although this natural shift in mindset makes us more effective at predicting and responding to situations similar to past experiences, it also means we are more likely to struggle when attempting to adapt to completely new and unexpected conditions.
Advice for the Class of 2023—and the Rest of Us
In the pivotal scene that features his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet ruminates on the existential question of whether it is better to live and endure the hardships of life or to embrace death and escape the sufferings of existence—“To live or not to live.”
Unlike Hamlet’s dilemma between life and death, “To explore or to exploit” is never a binary choice for us but rather a delicate balance that requires intentionality to achieve. We need to learn how to exploit our learned skills and experiences while trying our best to keep our childlike curiosity and never stop exploring new ways to connect seemingly unrelated concepts and to work with others to find solutions.
Note: I will take a hiatus from my monthly blog in the summer and resume in September 2023.