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2022-23 Academic Year-End Letter

June 12, 2023

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: June 12, 2023

A ten-story portrait of Gordon Moore wrapped the blue tower of Intel Headquarters in Santa Clara, accompanied by his injunction to the company, and reminder to us all: "What can be done, can be outdone." Planes flew low over the June 1 memorial service in their approach to San Jose Airport, their roar shaking the outdoor plaza where we were gathered, at times interrupting and at other times seemingly amplifying the remembrances of the speakers.

As one of the founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, along with Robert Noyce and Andy Grove, put the silicon into Silicon Valley. His conviction that a new path forward was necessary, and his courage to embrace the risk inherent in developing a novel approach to semiconductor fabrication, changed society. Gordon's prescient framing of what came to be called Moore's Law provided the guide star for Silicon Valley, U.S. industry, and world commerce for what is now approaching 60 years.

Yet, with all these accomplishments, the overriding message of the encomiums was the quality of the man: his humility, humanity, and generosity. A Caltech chemistry PhD and former Chair of the Caltech Board of Trustees, Gordon and his wife Betty's philanthropy continues to expand the universe of knowledge and will continue to enrich the lives of young scholars for generation after generation. Their $600 million gift to Caltech, half personal and half through the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, was the largest gift to higher education at the time. Through this gift, research in fields as diverse as neuroscience, seismology, quantum physics, drug discovery, nanoscience, and cosmology has been elevated to new levels of impact. Most recently, Gordon and Betty generously endowed scores of graduate student fellowships at Caltech, investing in the future through the promise of spectacular young people.

The future that our students and postdocs will inherit is one of possibility, but also one of challenge. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to sit down with John Hennessey in Ramo Auditorium as part of our series Breakthrough Insights. John is another Silicon Valley icon, a pioneering computer scientist, entrepreneur, Stanford University president, and chair of the Board of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Ramo was filled with Caltech students, and we were joined online by hundreds of Caltech community members.

The conversation naturally turned toward recent developments in artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, and what the AI future portends. The pace of change is quickening and unrelenting. This is true for the positives and the negatives: whether it be life-saving improvements to health screening, powerful tools for artistic creation, and new ways of approaching science or potential upheavals in the job market, propagation of false information, and new weapons of war.  

As John pointed out, there is a special role for universities to play in helping shape the AI future. "AI development in industry is intensely competitive, which makes it very hard to slow down. I think it's more likely that the industry could look to universities to figure out these ethical issues and be the neutral broker that talks about how we try to ensure these technologies get used for good rather than evil…Universities are the long-term thinkers, and they have the diversity of intellectual interests that can let them really focus on this."

The questions for John Hennessey from the students centered on how to navigate these types of choices as they move into the workplace, how both to advance technology and further the common good. At Caltech, we have the capacity to bring to bear scientific knowledge and technological prowess to evaluate these potential dichotomies. Only through informed analysis can we amplify the salutatory aspects of technological development and counter its dehumanizing capacity.

To this end, we have launched the Caltech Center for Science, Society, and Public Policy. CSSPP brings together humanists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers from all six Institute Divisions to serve as a trusted source of information on topics ranging from climate change to vaccines and voting security; to illuminate the societal impacts of emerging fields such as AI and machine learning, gene editing, and quantum sensing; and to parse their public policy implications.  

My favorite Gordon Moore quote is: "If everything you try works, you aren't trying hard enough." The signature triumphs of the California Institute of Technology make the impossible possible by aiming high and learning from failures along the way. With the multidisciplinary insights of our students, postdocs, faculty, and staff in an environment that encourages the open exchange of ideas, creating knowledge in service of society, we can make a profound difference. With graduation ceremonies a few days off, it is a natural moment for all of us to stake our claim to the future. The times demand it.