Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the below remarks at the opening session of the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 24, 2023, in Aspen, CO. Follow him on LinkedIn.
Welcome, everyone! It’s exciting to be together with fabulous weather on order for the whole week.
Let me begin by acknowledging, on behalf of the Aspen Institute, that we are meeting here on sacred lands that historically belonged to the Ute Indian tribe, whose culture remains vibrant and resilient and determined today. We honor the legacy of all indigenous peoples, and recognize their determination to sustain their traditions while creating opportunities for future generations to thrive.
I would like to acknowledge some very special people who have brought this exciting Festival into being:
First and foremost, thank you to our extraordinary Aspen Ideas team, led by Kitty Boone, Killeen Brettmann, and Elliot Gerson.
Thank you to our many trustees, sponsors, and supporters who are here, especially our sensational new chair, Margot Pritzker.
Thank you to our Patron Passholders, our sponsors, our speakers, our Fellows, our staff, our interns, and our more than 200 volunteers.
Thank you to our media partner, NBC Universal NewsGroup, and all of our underwriters.Thank you to the team of high school leaders from around the country who will apply insights gained at this Festival in their people-serving ventures back home—our 2023 Bezos Scholars and their teachers.
And, thank you to the charter members of the new Aspen Institute Hall of Fame, Cathy and Walter Isaacson.
An earlier Walter—Walter Paepcke—brought this Institute into being seven decades ago in an age of post-War hope and institution-building, convening a group of thinkers and doers from civil society and the business world here in the Colorado mountains to discuss nothing less than the future of humanity.
They did so with a shared belief in human dignity and a democratic social order defined by freedom, justice, opportunity, and active citizenship.
They took inspiration from thought, from dialogue, from art, from nature, from any movement of mind, body, and spirit that leads to clarity of mind and clarity of purpose.
Inspired by our founding and seventy-plus years of service, earlier this year, Margot led our Board of Trustees in a process earlier to develop a formal statement of purpose, so that we could be more clear about why we exist and what kind of work we should prioritize.
To do so, Margot met individually with all of our trustees and program leaders. We created a committee, solicited input widely, and worked with the brilliant firm SYPartners.
Let me show you now the purpose statement we came up with—hoping, of course, that both Walters—Paepcke and Isaacson—would be proud:
We ignite human potential
to build understanding
and create new possibilities
for a better world.
The notion of igniting human potential—so often for leadership—has been at our core since that first 1949 gathering after which we named ourselves the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
Building understanding through reflection and discussion is what we do—and it matters now more than ever with the world wobbling like a top thanks to forces like polarization, misinformation, and mistrust.
Creating new possibilities for a better world speaks to our aspiration across 50 programs to provide the spark for new inventions, new partnerships, new art, and new solutions—here in the United States and in many places worldwide that now proudly wave the Aspen Institute flag, from India to England to Japan to Ukraine.
This year’s Aspen Ideas Festival reflects and expresses our purpose. We’ve designed the Festival to spark dialogue and learning on important, perhaps vexing issues, knowing that we all need a space and place and time to engage big questions and wicked problems.In that spirit, I would like to show you a short video that will transport you back to the Institute’s founding. It was made with reverence by the longtime executive producer of the Festival, Graham Veysey, who unearthed some remarkable footage from the vast holdings of the University of Chicago library. As you’ll see, Graham made this video, in the tradition of the Institute, to challenge us to think not just about the past, but about the future. I think you’ll see what I mean…
To make the narration of this video, Graham found an original recording of Walter Paepcke’s voice. Then, he created a written text that an artificial intelligence program converted into Walter’s voice. Graham is a creative genius, but not really a technological one. Any of us could have used the program to create a simulation of a public figure—say, John F. Kennedy—saying words that, in fact, were not theirs.
Speaking personally, I admire the inspiration and the love of the Institute and the charge this video creates. But, as a former humanities professor, it also makes me uncomfortable. After all, Walter didn’t actually speak these words—but the full video doesn’t hide the fact—it reveals it—and, in fact, it asks us to consider the ethical questions that it raises.
So please consider the video both a work of admiration and an invitation to share your ideas about the uses and abuses of artificial intelligence. We’ll have 11 different panels on the topic —including one that picks up the questions of representation and appropriation using the famous fake photo of the Pope in a white puffy jacket as a prompt.
Finally, we are proud that, at this highly divisive time in our nation’s history, we remain a community where people can gather, engage in conversations, and truly listen to one another even when we are talking about sensitive or controversial issues. Here, we encourage debate and differences of opinion, insisting that all voices be respected. Civil dialogue is the heart of what the Aspen Institute stands for because we believe it offers the greatest hope for understanding and for new possibilities for a better world.
Thank you. Now we’ll have the pleasure of hearing three captivating Sparks Talks….