Kuczynski, Schmidt awarded James Madison Medal, Woodrow Wilson Award at 2017 Alumni Day
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski GS ’61, President of Peru, and Eric Schmidt ’78, former CEO of Google Inc. and the current Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google's parent company, were honored with the James Madison Medal and the Woodrow Wilson Award, respectively, at the 2017 Alumni Day.
Kuczynski, who began his five-year term as Peru’s President in July 2016, earned a M.A. in Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He began his career at the World Bank before working for the Peruvian government in various roles, including manager of the Central Reserve Bank, minister of energy and mines, minister of economy and finance, and chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers.
He described a conversation he recently had with President Donald Trump, in which the two discussed demographics, the economy, and other aspects of Peru.
“I was in the White House with President Trump and we started chatting a little bit and he said, look, how old are you? You don’t look a day over 90,” Kuczynski said to laughter. “Actually, what he said was ‘You don’t look a day over 60.’”
Kuczynski then devoted the majority of his speech to discussing the challenges that Peru, as well as all of Latin America, will face in the coming years.
“We’re in a period of changes in the world and in Latin America, especially technological,” he said. “Latin America, to the extent that you can talk about Latin America as one, is undergoing change.”
Kuczynski said that while many Latin Americans are economically united by the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc consisting of Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, nations that are socially distinct and will each face a unique set of difficulties. He added that corruption was the “number one issue in the popular perception of Latin America today,” and is especially prevalent in Brazil.
“The number two issue is the distribution of public services and income,” he added. “Latin America in general has a very poor distribution.”
He said that Peruvians in the lowest income brackets live in poverty without basic sanitation or amenities.
“No running water, no safe health, epidemics,” he said. “The idea is by the end of my term in 2020 we should have everybody have running water for sewage. It will be a huge investment, it will take about 20 billion dollars.”
The third issue, according to Kuczynski, is the declining volume of international trade.
“Protectionism, which some see as the solution, is rearing its head and it causes this bad tendency [of limiting trade] to worsen,” he said.
He spoke specifically about Mexico’s weak economic growth, which has puzzled some observers, especially considering its large population and proximity to the United States.
“I think the answer may be, I’m not suggesting that it is, but it could be, the lack of the rule of law,” he said. “We should really focus, not just on institution building, but the rule of law.”
Kuczynski spoke with urgency about the years ahead, stressing the need for a “social revolution in Peru” but acknowledging this would only be possible through strong economic growth.
“We have 15 years. That’s it. If we haven’t turned the page on this stagnation and technology revolution in 15 years, we will simply, not fade away, but we will slowly stagnate. I don’t think that will happen; I think it’s a challenge we will face. The youth are immensely motivated,” he said.
Today's audience included a notable number of Spanish speakers and international media to cover the event. Spotted in the crowd was a child waving a small Peru flag over the balcony of Richardson Auditorium.
After the speech, the audience participated in a question-and-answer session with Kuczynski. One alumnus asked about a book by Kuczynski originally published by Princeton University Press in 1977, titled “Peruvian Democracy under Economic Stress: An Account of the Belaúnde Administration, 1963-1968,” asking how the concepts he discussed in the book apply to his current role. Kuczynski expressed optimism about the economic future of Peru.
“Growth comes from investment and the investment rate in Peru is the highest in Latin America,” he said.
Another alumnus asked what responsibility the Latin American community feels towards the current political situation in Venezuela, as well as how Peruvian foreign relations with the United States could change under the new administration.
“The US focuses on areas that cause trouble, right, like the Middle East,” Kuczynski responded. “It does not spend much time on Latin America. It’s like a dog that’s sleeping on the carpet.”
“In the case of Venezuela, it’s a huge problem,” he added. “What’s happening now is that we have to get all countries to be aware that a problem for one significant country is a problem for everybody.”
In response to a question regarding the environment, Kuczynski said, “we’re completely committed to reducing deforestation in the Amazon,” which was met with applause from the audience.
The James Madison Medal, established in 1973 by the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni (APGA), is “presented each year to celebrate an alumnus or alumna of the Graduate School who has had a distinguished career, advanced the cause of graduate education or achieved an outstanding record of public service.”
“I’ll have to find a good book on President Madison,” Kuczynski joked. Madison is considered the first alumnus from Princeton to pursue non-theological studies and was the nation’s fourth president.
The next award, the Woodrow Wilson Award, was introduced by Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs Cecilia Rouse.
As chairman of the holding company Alphabet, Eric Schmidt manages and advises the leadership of all of the corporation’s businesses, including Google. He concentrated in electrical engineering at the University before earning a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California-Berkeley.
His remarks expanded on Kuczynski’s reference to a technological revolution, one which Schmidt believes will be a paradigm shift in the way that societies function.
“Humans will share the spotlight with machines that exist as partners in a really much more hybrid world in a way that is both fantastic, incredibly interesting and incredibly challenging,” he said.
Much of Schmidt’s talk dealt with how technology has already changed the world. He stated that computers used today are 10 million times more powerful than the computer he was using in the 1970s, at the same cost-adjusted price.
“One of the most interesting questions that we’ve been asking for the last decade was, could we achieve the ubiquity of technology? Could we literally get technology in the hands of all? And I’m very proud to say that we can say yes to that,” he said.
According to Schmidt, in the coming years there will be more smartphones than toothbrushes.
“There are 4.2 million toothbrushes in the world. There will be more smartphones than toothbrushes. This is concerning to me,” he noted.
“Four billion YouTube videos viewed every hour,” he added. “It would take Hollywood 43,000 years to create the content uploaded to YouTube in one year.”
“[The computer science concentration] didn’t exist when I was here,” he said. “And it is now the number one major and has 40 percent female students.”
Although he couldn’t concentrate in computer science, Schmidt said his time at the University changed the way he thinks about the world.
“What I learned, and what I believe, is that critical thinking and science actually matter, that it is possible to invent something which can completely upend the conversation, that the abundance of information we’re seeing today is a good thing,” he said. “It’s incredibly powerful.”
Schmidt spoke out against critics who have a negative perception of the Information Age. He cited several examples of media outlets decrying the possibility of new technologies, from rockets to computers, that eventually revolutionized society.
“My favorite, in 2007, Steve Ballmer assured the public there is no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” he said.
"Every time there has been an attack on science, science has won,” he added.
He also spoke about the power of new applications in medicine, particularly in using data to model DNA, and the coming advent of driverless cars.
“Humans fall asleep or get drunk,” he said. “Computers generally don’t have this problem.”
“The application of these [new] technologies will be the primary way society gets stronger, better, more dynamic,” he added.
Schmidt acknowledge the potential drawbacks of such rapid change.
“Cyberwarfare will be real going forward. Good and bad people are online, so conflicts will move online,” he said. “It’s the easiest option.”
“We have the luxury of choice, of how we want to work with these systems,” he added.
The question-and-answer session reflected many alumni’s concerns about the social consequences of rapidly expanding technology. In response to questions about proliferating “fake news,” Schmidt stressed the importance of fact-checking and judgment.
“Our society has to learn that sometimes things you read on the Internet are not actually true,” he said.
“Europe, for example, has a group that fights misinformation by published corrected information,” he added.
Two audience members posed concerns about excessive time spent on technology and how that impacts emotional help.
“Research shows that children should not have access to technology until they’re two to five,” Schmidt said. He also suggested turning the phone off for dinner.
In response to a question about his philanthropic interests, Schmidt said his charity work has focused on the environment and oceans.
He, along with his wife Wendy, also established the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund in 2009 to fund the advancement of science and engineering studies and technologies at the University. He served as a University trustee from 2004 to 2008 and is currently a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study.
He has been involved in science and technology public policy through his membership on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and as a fellow of National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
According to a University press release, “The University bestows the Woodrow Wilson Award annually upon an undergraduate alumnus or alumna whose career embodies the call to duty in Wilson's speech, 'Princeton in the Nation's Service.’”
Schmidt ended his speech on an optimistic note.
“The energy [at the University] is incredible,” he said. “It’s so much stronger than it was when we were here, and we turned out fine.”