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Mehran Sahami holding a light saber

As he often does in his popular computer science classes, Stanford Associate Professor Mehran Sahami uses a light saber in lieu of a laser pointer during the Class Day Lecture. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford Professor Sahami to Class of '13: Use your 'superpower' to improve the world

In the 2013 Class Day Lecture, Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer science, encouraged students to take charge of their future and to be fearless in the face of failure.

Video by Kurt Hickman

Associate Professor Mehran Sahami presented the Class Day Lecture to a packed Maples Pavilion.

"If there's one piece of advice I'd give you on the eve of your graduation, it's that the only real currency you have is your time," said Mehran Sahami, a Stanford associate professor of computer science, to a packed Maples Pavilion during Saturday's 2013 Class Day Lecture.

You can exchange your time for knowledge, he continued, to gain an education. You can exchange it for gainful employment.

"I sincerely hope you all experience that. I'm sure your parents would like you to experience it too," Sahami joked. "Soon. Maybe Monday."

You can exchange time for enjoyment or rest, or nothing at all. No one knows how much time they have, only that it is finite, and so Sahami urged students to use their time wisely and purposefully to help make the world a better place.

Sahami, who holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Stanford, was chosen by the outgoing seniors to deliver the Class Day Lecture, a tradition that goes back more than 40 years and is sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association.

An award-winning instructor, Sahami teaches a variety of computer science courses – including the largest class on campus with more than 600 students, CS106A: Programming Methodology – with singular flair. He often uses a light saber in lieu of a laser pointer, and tosses candy to students to keep them engaged, techniques he employed even during his Class Day Lecture.

Take charge of your future

To illustrate his point, Sahami shared an experience from his early days at Google.

To solve a particular problem, Sahami and his colleagues ran 2,000 computers continuously for 20 straight days, equal to 100 years of computer processing time. But how could they reach the answer faster?

One option would be to do nothing. Computers would get faster, and the longer they waited, the faster they would be. If, for example, the researchers waited 50 years to start their work, then the calculations would take only two years of computer processing time.

"At this point I can see the engineers thinking, 'Doesn't that give me an objective function that I can differentiate with respect to time, set it to zero and solve for t?' Yes, it does – don't say we didn't teach you anything," Sahami said. "And, by the way, that may well be the first – and perhaps last – time the phrase 'take the derivative with respect to time' is ever used in a commencement speech."

That formula, he said, reveals that the optimal time to wait is 10 years, at which point it would take roughly three years to solve the problem.

But that approach delays solving the problem at hand, and assumes that someone else will improve the computer technology for your program. You're potentially wasting your time.

"You need to understand that progress is not something that you can just assume will happen. It's not guaranteed to. It's not something that can just be relegated to others to take care of," he said. "Progress only takes place because dedicated people like you choose to tackle the problems before them rather than waiting for someone else to take care of it."

Progress, however, is rarely easy. You will most likely struggle, and some of you will fail, he told the seniors. But don't be afraid of failure, and don't let that fear make you timid as you chase your dreams.

"Your character is not determined by whether you succeed or fail. Your character is determined by what you choose to do in the face of success or failure," he said. "Do you choose to do what is easy or what's necessary? Do you choose to do what is just profitable or what is profitably just? That is the real measure."

Use your 'superpower'

Graduating from Stanford turns you into a superhero, Sahami told the students. "Your education is a superpower. It's the power to potentially change the world with your mind."

Sahami then projected a photo of his two young children onto the big screen and issued a challenge. "Among the people sitting in this room are leaders who will impact the lives of those two children and millions of others like them," he said.

This, he added, will be done through the creation and implementation of policy, by making scientific advances, by improving human health and by writing books and stories that will capture their imaginations and influence their thinking.

"I've seen hundreds of you in my classes. I know you. I've seen what you're capable of. You have the brains, the motivation and ultimately the burden of rising to the challenge of making this world a better place. To help other people's children," he said.

"Don't wait, expecting that someone else is going to do it or take care of it for you. You give me hope that there will be a better world for future generations."

"Oh, and one more thing," he said, as he waved his light saber and tossed some candy into the audience. "When you're out there dreaming big and changing the world, don't forget to have fun doing it."