IBM Chief Executive Virginia Rometty on Friday welcomed nearly 6,000 Northwestern University graduates into a world that she said will be defined by massive amounts of digital data being collected and stored all around them.
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Rometty, a member of Northwestern’s class of 1979, said during the university’s commencement address that this year’s class has transformational “cognitive” computers at its disposal, paving the way for sweeping innovations in all aspects of life.
“Some people call this artificial intelligence, but the reality is this technology will enhance us,” she said. “So instead of artificial intelligence, I think we’ll augment our intelligence. It will not be a world of man versus machine. It will be a world of man plus machines.”
Rometty, the first woman to head IBM and the top executive on Forbes’ Most Powerful Women in Business list for three-straight years, received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Northwestern, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and electrical engineering.
Rometty called collection of data by everything from medical sensors to wearable devices to smart phones “a new natural resource,” likening it to electricity and other fuels.
She expressed pride in IBM Watson, a cognitive computing system perhaps best known for defeating champion players on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” in 2011. She said Watson and computers like it are transforming health care industries, and she urged graduates to strive toward achievements like the creation of Watson.
“Work on something that matters,” she said. “Have courage. Northwestern has prepared you richly for this. … You will have many more goals in the years ahead. But do not confuse a goal with a purpose.”
Rometty offered two broader lessons from her own life. She said that, when she was a teenager, her father left the family, forcing her mother to go back to school and work to provide for her and her siblings. She said her mother didn’t dwell on her misfortune but took control of her life.
“Never let anyone define you. Only you define you,” Rometty said.
She also cited advice from her husband that Rometty said he offered as she was hesitating to take an important promotion, thinking she was too young. He persuaded her to overcome her fear, and take a risk, she said. The lesson, she told graduates: “Growth and comfort never co-exist.”
Northwestern said this year’s class included more than 2,200 students receiving undergraduate degrees and more than 3,600 receiving graduate degrees.
Other honorary degrees went to Dan Shechtman, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry and a professor at Technion — Israel Institute of Technology; and Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of urban education at the University of Chicago recognized for her research on cultural and contextual factors in multiethnic child and adolescent development