April 2, 2021
Professor Akira Haseyama
President, Keio University
Congratulations to you all on your admission to one of the 14 graduate schools at Keio University, and welcome to the Keio community. I would also like to offer my heartfelt congratulations to your family members who are joining us today online.
Keio University was greatly affected by COVID-19 in the 2020 academic year. With the continuous spread of infections, we were forced to temporarily close our campuses and instruction was switched entirely to an online format. Because many of the graduate school lessons are held with a relatively small number of students, in-person classes were brought back to the greatest extent that was possible in the Fall Semester after thorough preventive measures were put in place to curb the spread of the virus. Even so, there were still restrictions on research activities and international students were unable to travel between their home countries and Japan, creating a general ambience of apprehension and unease. With the start of the new academic year, at the graduate schools, it is our intention to restore learning and research activities as close to the way they were as possible before the pandemic, but we are still seeing no signs of the disease being brought under control.
Society is being flooded with an exorbitant amount of information, the standpoints of experts and professionals are often conflicting, and it is not uncommon for the general public to be left baffled and confused, unable to determine which information is accurate and reliable. As a result, people are unsure as to how to react, and coupled with being weary of the seemingly endless restrictions on their lives, there appears to be signs of waning vigilance against the virus.
However, it is precisely in times like this that universities, as institutions of research, must fulfill their role of disseminating true and well-founded information upon grasping the essence of situations through the power of learning, while as institutions of education, must fulfill their mission of cultivating individuals capable of taking appropriate action based on awareness and sound judgment.
Throughout history, humanity has experienced a number of major outbreaks of infectious diseases, including the Black Death in medieval Europe, the widespread emergence of smallpox in North and South America in the 16th century, and the Spanish flu in the early 20th century, but one key distinction makes the current pandemic significantly different from those in the past.
Advancements, especially in the field of information and communication technology (ICT), have enabled us to disseminate information regarding infections all over the world practically as situations unfold. Scenes of chaotic and overcrowded healthcare facilities. Stories and images of people isolated or forced apart after citywide and nationwide lockdowns. These have been quickly shared with the world. And at the same time, there has been a growing movement of people reconnecting with one another and forging new bonds online.
On the other hand, there have been cases of people being misguided by false rumors spread through social media, leading to incidents of unwarranted discrimination or defamation and even outbreaks of violence.
From these two extremes, I feel that technological advancement is a double-edged sword for humanity. In an age when AI can easily beat chess and shogi professionals, there are those who are concerned that the rapid advancements in technology will one day become a threat to society. Under such circumstances, universities have an obligation to find ways for technology and people to harmoniously coexist and ensure that technology contributes to the happiness and well-being of humanity.
Yukichi Fukuzawa, the founder of Keio University, argued that all learning should be based on jitsugaku, practical learning, explaining that jitsugaku simply means the illumination of the true principles of things and propagation of their application. Jitsugaku is the analysis of facts and drawing of empirical conclusions based on evidence, and transcends academic disciplines such as the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In these times when there is a need for a power of learning that rises above the confines of the sciences and the humanities, one can argue that the role of Keio University as a compressive institution of higher education with jitsugaku at its heart is significant.
So then, what form of learning should be applied when searching for ways for people and technology to harmoniously coexist?
Through critical thinking, first, cross-examine common knowledge and accepted practices, then, formulate your own questions, and finally, pursue answers to these questions.
Edward Said, who was a literary scholar, the author of Orientalism, and one of the founding figures of postcolonial studies, remarks that critique is at the heart of humanism today in his posthumously published work Humanism and Democratic Criticism, describing it as
"a form of democratic freedom and as a continuous practice of questioning and of accumulating knowledge that is open to, rather than in denial of, the constituent historical realities."
Stephen Hawking, who, despite contracting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease, and being confined to a wheelchair for much of his life, made phenomenal breakthroughs in the field of cosmology and is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of our time. After his death in 2018, his ashes were interred in London's Westminster Abbey between the graves of two scientific giants: Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. During the memorial service, California Institute of Technology Professor Emeritus Kip Thorne, a fellow physicist who worked very closely with Hawking and was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for "decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves," praised Hawking in his tribute, saying,
"We remember Newton for answers. We remember Hawking for questions. And Hawking's questions themselves keep on giving, generating breakthroughs decades later. When ultimately we master the quantum gravity laws, and fully comprehend the birth of our universe, it will be by standing on the shoulders of Hawking."
From these words of Said and Thorne, two prominent and leading authorities in their respective fields in the humanities and sciences, we can see that the essence of learning is to cross-examine common and accepted knowledge and practices, formulate your own questions, and then actively seek answers.
What is more, in his posthumously published final book "Brief Answers to the Big Questions," Hawking states that "the advent of super-intelligent AI would be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity." He then comments, "As an optimist, I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world, that it can work in harmony with us," and continues sharing his thoughts, emphasizing that "We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance." Proactively anticipating these risks and tackling these problems to remain one step ahead is what universities and researchers must work toward.
In order to develop and fully deploy technology for the benefit of society, of course, research in the natural sciences is imperative, but studies in the social sciences, which considers the legal implications and economic benefits to ensure transparency and fairness, as well as those in the humanities, which deeply assesses the ethical aspects of the use of technology, are also indispensable. In this respect, research that integrates a diverse range of fields is essential.
Throughout your time at graduate school, you will all study in depth the respective fields you have chosen to specialize in. While you engross yourselves in your studies, it is my hope that you will all make it your goal to fully integrate the knowledge you gain so that in the future, you will competently be able to help solve social issues faced by various communities. Moreover, while at Keio, I have faith that you will all consciously nurture creative "insights" that will one day enable you to have a hand in confronting the global challenges humanity must surmount, be it climate change, natural disasters, population growth, or sustainable global food supply to name just a few.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated and with so much uncertainty still ahead, I have no doubt that feelings of anxiety and stress are at an all-time high. Be that as it may, please persevere and overcome these frames of mind by dedicating yourselves to and focusing your energies on your studies. Please also know that Keio University will do everything its power to support and protect your academic endeavors.
While engaging in your studies in the liberal atmosphere of Keio University, be sure to make the most of your time at university. I hope that you will all accumulate a variety of experiences over the coming years and enjoy a rich and rewarding, formative and fulfilling student life at Keio.
Congratulations to you all again on your admission.