Google AI head urges college students to choose work that solves big societal problems

  • Google’s chief AI exec Jeff Dean gave a fireside chat with college students Tuesday, in which he urged them to pursue areas of study that effect society “collectively.”
  • Dean said 2020 is an “unusual confluence of events” and thus shows holes in society students should consider pursuing. 
  • Dean is one of the few Google execs who’ve spoken out against U.S. policies as the company faces questions about its own role in society.

Jeff Dean standing in front of a building: Google senior fellow Jeff Dean speaks at a 2017 event in China.

© Provided by CNBC
Google senior fellow Jeff Dean speaks at a 2017 event in China.

Google’s top AI executive, Jeff Dean, told college students they should look to the events of 2020 for inspiration when deciding what they should pursue in their education and careers.

“2020 has been an incredibly challenging year with so many different things that are unusual or unexpected or very harmful from a society point of view and ecological point of view,” Dean said in a virtual fireside chat with college students Tuesday. “You have the pandemic, which has completely changed how we’re operating as societies, you have things like the George Floyd murder and the outrage justified from that. Then, you have things like the wildfire, which — I live in California and the sky two weeks ago was this apocalyptic orange.”

Dean said despite 2020 being an “unusual confluence of events,” he urged students to pursue education and careers that address large problems, such as climate change, health and social justice.

“It’s important to keep working to make society and the problems you care about better. It’s important to solve problems that you think are important and that are going to advance all of us, collectively,” he told students. “Try not to focus on the negative aspects of what’s happening now and focus on the few positive things you see and build on those.”

Dean, who joined Google in 1999 when it was still a start-up, is one of the few Google executives who has been regularly vocal on recent events of 2020 — particularly on

, where he has criticized the Trump administration’s stance on policies related to science and immigration, and acknowledged bias and lack of underrepresented workers in the tech industry.

Google, alongside other tech companies like Facebook and Amazon, is facing scrutiny over its own role in society as it addresses internal diversity woes, misinformation, and anticompetitive practices — particularly as the 2020 U.S. election approaches. The company recently said it hopes to run on 100% carbon-free energy by 2030.

Dean acknowledged that the tech industry needs to take its own advice, giving the example of improving how it gives people from underrepresented backgrounds more opportunity at the company and the industry overall.

“I believe really, really strongly that we need as an industry to create opportunities for people who maybe don’t have as much opportunity in their early education,” Dean said. “You want the best people in the world and that means making sure they’re not at a disadvantage because they didn’t have a laptop and were programming from age nine.”

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