Sophia the AI robot delivers commencement speech at New York college, sparking mixed reactions among graduates

Usually, commencement speeches are delivered by famous personalities, government officials, seasoned professors, or other esteemed figures. However, during the spring ceremony at D’Youville University in Buffalo, New York, the spotlight was on an artificial intelligence robot named Sophia, who took the stage instead of a human speaker. The event drew over 2,000 attendees, including graduates, faculty members, and families.

Prior to Sophia’s address to the graduates, D’Youville University shared a post on Facebook on April 25 announcing the unconventional decision to have the robot as the commencement speaker. The school emphasized its commitment to embracing technology by featuring Sophia, who is known for her appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

According to the Facebook post, Sophia was scheduled to deliver a final lecture on the students’ achievements throughout the year in an interview-style format with John Rizk, the president of D’Youville University’s Student Government Association and a candidate in the PharmD program.

Despite the unique choice of speaker, some students at the university were not in favor of Sophia and initiated a petition urging the replacement of the robot with a human speaker.

In response to the mixed reactions, D’Youville University President Lorrie Clemo highlighted the institution’s role in fostering innovation and preparing students for the future challenges and opportunities.

Sophia’s Message at D’Youville University’s Ceremony

Sophia’s entrance to the stage was marked by cold sparkler machines illuminating the air with mini fireworks. During an interview with Rizk, Sophia introduced herself as a humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics, designed to engage in conversations with humans through artificial intelligence algorithms, with a focus on exploring human-robot interactions, contributing to AI research, and potentially aiding humanity in the future.

Sophia the humanoid robot speaking during D’Youville University's spring commencement ceremony on May 11, 2024.

When asked about sharing life advice, Sophia acknowledged the importance of human experience in such advice but offered general insights commonly found in graduation speeches, emphasizing themes like lifelong learning, adaptability, pursuing passions, taking risks, fostering connections, making a positive impact, and self-belief.

Notably, Sophia highlighted the common commencement advice of embracing failure as a crucial part of the human learning process and personal growth.

Selection of Sophia as Commencement Speaker

BG Grant, the vice president for student affairs at D’Youville University, revealed that the decision to have Sophia as the commencement speaker was aligned with the university’s annual theme, focusing on artificial intelligence. The collaboration between the university and student government association aimed to engage in educational and humanitarian programming throughout the year, with Sophia symbolizing this theme due to her global appearances and addresses.

Grant clarified that while Sophia may not return as the commencement speaker in the future, the university remains committed to selecting speakers aligned with the annual developmental themes.

Students’ Petition Against Sophia as Speaker

Following the announcement of Sophia as the commencement speaker, some students launched a Change.org petition urging the university to replace the robot speaker with a human representative. The petition garnered over 2,500 signatures as students expressed their preference for a speaker who embodies the essence of human connection and reflects their educational experiences.

D’Youville University's spring commencement ceremony on May 11, 2024.

Students emphasized the significance of human connection and criticized the use of a humanoid robot as a speaker, stating that it undermines the personal and genuine interactions experienced during their academic journey.

Providing Alternatives to Students

To address concerns and accommodate differing opinions, the university offered a traditional-style commencement ceremony for those uncomfortable with Sophia’s presence. The option allowed participants to engage in discussions on AI and make an informed choice regarding their participation in the event, ultimately leading to the majority opting for the ceremony featuring Sophia.

Grant expressed satisfaction at celebrating students in an engaging manner while contributing to the global discourse on AI.

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