Megan Smith ’86, chief technology officer of the United States and a former Google executive, will be MIT’s commencement speaker for the Class of 2015.
Smith began her role as U.S. CTO — technically as an advisor to the president from within the Office of Science and Technology Policy — in September, the third person to hold the position since its creation in 2009. She had previously served as a vice president of business development at Google and helped lead GoogleX, the company’s experimental wing.
Smith was a mechanical engineering major as an undergraduate and completed her master’s thesis at the Media Lab. She served as a member of the MIT Corporation from 1988 to 1993 and 2006 to 2014, according to an MIT press release.
In an interview with The Tech, Smith said that her role was to “advise the president and his team on how to harness the power of technology, innovation, and data on behalf of the nation,” adding that she saw herself as a “technology renovation officer.”
Smith said a major focus of her current role involves advising on technology policy, particularly regarding regulation reform.
Technology companies like Google have frequently been at odds with government regulators in recent years on issues as diverse as online privacy, net neutrality, unmanned aerial vehicles, and patent reform. Smith said part of her role is to work “across government” to influence policy on such matters.
“We try to help bridge the conversation and bring some of these really talented American innovators together with these actually quite talented regulators so that they’re having a conversation,” she said, adding that the goal was to “adapt our regulation to make it possible for people to keep moving the bar.”
Smith said her responsibilities also include increasing technological innovation in government projects, even though she does not directly oversee most federal technology-related efforts. “We’re trying to bring more technical talent into government,” she said. “The websites haven’t been as strong as they need to be, and we need more people to come and be part of this amazing service that we can provide for the American people.”
Smith said she also hoped to see more people write applications to use what she described as increasingly open government data.
According to Smith, another “very big focus of the CTO role” is promoting technological innovation and careers to the public, including increasing diversity in technology-related fields. She said her office is involved in several efforts of outreach to women and girls and to members of underrepresented minority groups.
Smith said, “My class at MIT was about 20 percent women undergrads, and it’s so incredible to see the progress that MIT has [made], but we’re still struggling in some of the majors and really need … to work together to fix that.”
In explaining the lasting disparities, she said, “Much of it comes from unconscious bias that we need to overcome,” adding that she hoped new approaches informed by behavioral science could make “everyone feel like they belong” in computer science and technology classrooms across the country.
Smith said she hopes to engage in “digital conversations” with students to learn about their interests leading up to her June 5, 2015 speech at the 149th Commencement exercises.
She said she thought that MIT students would end up engaging in “heroic engineering.” She added, “The most important thing is to do a range of different things. The students graduating today are going to live … possibly past 100 years. So there’s so many different adventures that people should get up to.”