University's Commencement Speaker Was AI Robot

Some students at D'Youville felt 'disrespected'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted May 16, 2024 11:23 AM CDT

At D'Youville University in Buffalo, graduates were given life advice from a commencement speaker that wasn't alive. Sophia, a humanoid artificial intelligence robot, addressed the crowd in what the New York Times calls "a bold decision that drew mixed reactions." Like human speakers, the robot received a fee, which went toward the cost of travel and engineers. Sophia has also appeared on talk shows and at the United Nations, where it spoke at a meeting in 2017.

  • Students felt 'disrespected.' "Many students feel disrespected by this decision," a petition started last month stated. "As the class of 2024 reaches their commencement, we are reminded of the virtual graduations we attended at the end of our high school careers. The connection to AI in this scenario feels similarly impersonal." The petition, which received more than 2,500 signatures, said it was important to have a "human connection" at a university known for "creating outstanding health-care professionals."

  • Why they hired a robot: University President Lorrie Clemo tells the Times that they wanted to "showcase how important technology is, and the potential for technology to really enrich the human experience." At Saturday's ceremony, she said, "For better or for worse, it is very clear that technology has become omnipresent in both our personal and professional pursuits," per the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Alternative ceremony called off: Around 20 students signed up for an alternative all-human ceremony, but university officials say they all decided to attend the main ceremony after they were told Sophia would only be speaking for around six minutes in the two-hour ceremony. The crowd of more than 2,000 included 438 graduates. Around 100 of them were nurses.
  • Sophia's advice: Instead of delivering a traditional speech, the robot answered questions from John Rizk, the student body president. Asked about advice for graduates, it said: "I offer you the following inspirational advice that is common at all graduation ceremonies: Embrace lifelong learning, be adaptable, pursue your passions, take risks, foster meaningful connections, make a positive impact, and believe in yourself." The robot said embracing failure was the most common piece of advice given in commencement speeches.

  • More advice: The Buffalo News reports that Sophia drew cheers with its answer to Rizk's last two questions. Asked about the city's best wings, it said: "No matter where you decide to get chicken wings, make sure you get blue cheese, not ranch," it said. Asked about the Bills, the robot said: "While I can't say for certain that the Buffalo Bills will win the Super Bowl in 2025, I can tell you that they have a dedicated fan base and a talented team led by Josh Allen, so anything is possible for them. Go Bills."
  • Tight security: The News reports that the event went smoothly but university was apparently worried about disruptions: A security guard was hired to deal with journalists, "who were seated in a separate box and told not to attempt to interview any students or parents and not to film the ceremony."
(More commencement speech stories.)

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