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Tech breakthroughs demand responsibility and proper governance, IBM’s research director tells Northeastern Ph.D. graduates

“The urgency of science has never been greater,” Darío Gil, a senior vice president at IBM, said at Monday’s Doctor of Philosophy Hooding and Graduation Ceremony.

Dario Gil standing on stage clapping for graduates at Doctor of Philosophy Hooding.
Darío Gil, IBM’s senior vice president and director of its research lab, urged tech breakthroughs with an appreciation for the potential impacts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The need for scientific advancement has never been greater, said Darío Gil, a global leader in quantum computing and artificial intelligence. 

But those breakthroughs also demand a prevailing sense of responsibility, Gil added in his speech to Northeastern University’s newest Ph.D. graduates.

Gil, IBM’s senior vice president and director of its research lab, made his remarks at the Doctor of Philosophy Hooding and Graduation Ceremony on Monday at Matthews Arena on the Boston campus.

At IBM, Gil has led development of the world’s first programmable quantum computers available on the cloud. He also co-chairs the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab while advocating that AI be maintained on universally accessible platforms.

“As one of the world’s foremost experts in quantum computing, you’re leading IBM’s achievements in a technology that was once viewed as science fiction, harnessing the power and speed of our universe as building blocks to be the data processors of the future,” Northeastern Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Madigan said while presenting a citation to Gil. 

“Deeply mindful of the opportunities these new technologies offer to enrich all our lives, yours has been a forceful voice for keeping innovations emerging from the world’s technology labs open, accessible and transparent,” Madigan continued.

Gil spoke of the joys of what he called his “dream job” at IBM, a community of more than 3,000 researchers that has employed six Nobel Prize recipients. 

“You have received the best education and research experience that the world has to offer,” Gil told Northeastern’s Ph.D. graduates. “And you have a responsibility to put it to use. Why? Because the urgency of science has never been greater. The world has not run out of problems to solve.”

He referred to the students’ expertise in the scientific method as “a superpower” that comes with great responsibility.

“Not only must we foster science and technology’s creative powers for problem solving, but we must also take active responsibility for its proper governance,” Gil said. “For we are witnessing the elevation of technology as the basis of the competitive advantage of every institution and every nation.”

In hope of inspiring each student to develop their own constructive approach, Gil shared two personal stories that provided him with insight and perspective long before he joined IBM as a researcher in 2003.

At 16, he said, his oldest brother presented him with a book of essays by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

“A year later, I left for the United States to continue my education and — perhaps drawn to the immigrant sensibility that allowed Berlin to see what others could not — I began to read his work,” Gil said. “Berlin did not have any grand unifying idea of history or of the human experience. In fact, more than anything he wanted us to understand that not everything can or should be related to a single ideal, that there is no perfect cocktail of justice, liberty and freedom.”

Gil offered another anecdote drawn from the living room of his childhood home in Madrid, where he fell in love with the music of the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals — in particular his interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Cello Solo. Gil learned to treasure Bach’s music as “an attempt to connect the human experience to what is beyond our reach.”

“But what do these stories of Berlin and Bach in particular, tell us about the future that is yet to unfold?” Gil asked. “From Berlin we should learn modesty. There is no grand solution to the quest of expanding the range of human ability through science and technology.”

Gil warned that “there are no easy answers and there are no shortcuts,” that the “moral and ethical implications of our scientific and technological advances” must be confronted.

“AI-powered computer vision, software to help us discover new planets and stars or to increase the accuracy of medical diagnosis are perfectly sensible things to pursue — something that cannot be said for a ubiquitous and unregulated use of facial recognition software in our societies,” said Gil, noting that IBM decided in June 2020 to stop commercializing general-purpose facial recognition technology.

“From Bach we should be inspired to seek what is eternal,” Gil said. “There is much that transcends us and through music Bach brought us closer to experiencing this truth. Like music, the expansion of our intelligence — which as an example is what AI can do for us — can be a vehicle to understand the nature of our existence and can help us adapt to the inevitable changes that confront us.”