BETHESDA, Md. — As the Supreme Court prepares to rule this month on the computer-generated methods by which politicians draw election districts for partisan advantage, Chief Justice John Roberts urged high school graduates Thursday to "beware the robots."
Addressing 83 young women graduating from a prestigious Catholic school in the Washington suburbs — including his daughter, Josephine — Roberts warned that artificial intelligence and big data can alter the way people perceive the world.
As an example, he noted machines advise lawmakers "what their constituents think, how strongly they feel about particular issues, how best to appeal to them, and so on."
"Any politician would find it very difficult not to shape his or her message to what constituents want to hear," Roberts said. "Artificial intelligence can change leaders into followers."
Roberts did not refer to the use of big data in designing election districts, nor the way Russian hackers used computer programs in an effort to influence the 2016 election. But he has warned for years that one of the court's most important tasks is to adapt old rules to new technology.
Along the same lines, the chief justice warned, private companies can "tell you what to read, watch and listen to, based on what you've read, watched and listened to," as well as match customers to their preferred people and ideas.
"The result," he said, "can be a narrowing and over-simplification that is contrary to individuality and creativity."
"I worry that we will start thinking like machines," Roberts said.
To combat that impulse, he urged the graduates of Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart — every one of whom is headed to college — to take time for solitude, pensive thought, and "to stay involved with yourself."
"My advice is, when you get to college, to set a little time aside each day to think about things instead of simply acquiring more information. Do not read more, do not research more, do not take notes. Put aside books, papers, computers, telephones. Sit, perhaps just for a half hour, and think about what you're learning."
Roberts, 63, has made a habit of delivering commencement speeches at his children's schools, having given the commencement address last June when his son, Jack, graduated from 9th grade at the all-boys Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire. That address attracted a following on YouTube for its combination of self-deprecating humor and from-the-heart advice.
"If you weren’t privileged when you came here, you’re privileged now because you have been here,” Roberts told the boarding school graduates. “My advice is: Don’t act like it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Roberts has fallen behind his colleagues on the court in writing opinions. He's penned just a pair during the term that began last October, when the justices heard the first of two potentially landmark cases on gerrymandering — the process by which state legislators draw election maps for partisan gain and self-preservation. Most high court observers expect Roberts is writing one or both of those decisions.
Introduced by Head of School Catherine Ronan Karrels as "Josie Roberts' dad," the man nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005 as the nation's 17th chief justice noted he was given only 10 minutes on the program.
"I said, 'Ten minutes? How can I communicate all the wisdom that I have acquired over the years in ten minutes?'" Roberts deadpanned. "She said, 'Speak very slowly.'"
He began by recalling his own high school graduation in 1973 — or, rather, he searched online to recall the issues of the day.
The results of his search: Intense partisan division. A special prosecutor investigating the president (Richard Nixon). A bloody Middle East war. Oil prices rising. Economic competition with a new power in eastern Asia (Japan). John McCain in the headlines, being released from captivity in Vietnam. A royal wedding (Princess Anne's).
"So I decided not to talk about how much had changed in the past 45 years," he said to laughter.
'Don't worry, be happy'
Instead, Roberts urged the members of so-called "Generation Z" not to worry as much as sociologists say they do and to strive to be happy. To drive home his 'Don't worry, be happy' message, he quoted the Declaration of Independence's promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
"You have a patriotic duty to be happy," he said.
And he urged them not to spend all their time communicating with peers, most often on social media. Noting Generation Z also is known for "FOMO — Fear of Missing Out," he said: "You need more time to be alone."
During those times, Roberts said, they might think about their predecessors — people like Madeleine-Sophie Barat and Rose Philippine Duchesne, who launched the network of Sacred Heart schools in the 19th century, as well as Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
"Her efforts and example helped change the legal profession in our country to the point where it is today, where a majority of the students at American law schools are women," he said, drawing his loudest round of applause.
But it would not have been a John Roberts speech without a reference to his favorite Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan. The chief justice has been quoting Dylan often over the past decade.
To drive home his point about the potential evils of artificial intelligence, he recalled an IBM commercial in which the Watson computer knowingly informs Dylan that his songs' themes are time passes and love fades — "trivializing his contribution to art!"
"What is very interesting," Roberts said, "can become very creepy, very fast."