AI Robot Delivers D'Youville University's Controversial Commencement Speech, Gains Mixed Reactions From Students


In a bold move to embrace the future, D'Youville University in Buffalo, New York, made headlines by inviting an artificial intelligence robot named Sophia to deliver the commencement address at its spring graduation ceremony. This decision, which met with intrigue and controversy, highlighted the university's commitment to exploring the possibilities of AI and its impact on society.

AI Robot Delivers D'Youville University's Controversial Commencement Speech

(Photo : WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / International Telecommunication Union)

A High-Tech Commencement

Traditionally, commencement speeches are delivered by notable individuals such as celebrities, government officials, or distinguished professors. However, D'Youville University decided to break from the convention this year. On May 11, 2024, over 2,000 attendees, including graduates, faculty members, and families, gathered to witness Sophia, a humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics, deliver the commencement address. The decision was part of the university's broader initiative to integrate technology into education and foster discussions on the implications of artificial intelligence.

Before Sophia took the stage, D'Youville University shared a Facebook post on April 25, announcing their decision. "We are embracing technology by allowing Sophia, who has appeared on 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,' to be our commencement speaker," the post read. This announcement set the stage for a unique and unprecedented graduation ceremony.

Sophia's appearance was nothing short of spectacular. As she made her way to the podium, cold sparkler machines lit up the stage, creating a festive and futuristic atmosphere. John Rizk, president of the D'Youville University Student Government Association and a candidate in the accelerated Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, engaged Sophia in an interview-style discussion. The robot introduced herself and shared insights on human-robot interaction, artificial intelligence, and the potential benefits of AI for humanity.

READ MORE: Report: College-Bound Students Fear AI Will Impact College And Career Success 

Mixed Reactions and Student Petition

Despite the university's enthusiasm for this innovative approach, not everyone was pleased with the choice of speaker. Some students felt that having a robot deliver the commencement address was impersonal and did not reflect the values and experiences of their education at D'Youville. In response, a group of graduates petitioned to replace Sophia with a human speaker. The petition garnered over 2,500 signatures, highlighting the strong opposition among a segment of the student body.

The petition conveyed that many students felt disrespected by the university's decision, believing that the chosen commencement speaker did not accurately represent their education and experiences at D'Youville University. The students emphasized their pride in the human connections they built through their programs, highlighting the importance of learning to serve real people as real individuals.

The petition argued that a human speaker would better represent the importance of human connection and the values instilled in the graduates during their time at the university. It also criticized the decision as a gimmick that detracted from the significance of the ceremony and drew unnecessary publicity to the school.

University's Commitment to Innovation

Despite the backlash, D'Youville University stood by its decision. Benjamin "BG" Grant, the university's vice president for student affairs, explained that Sophia's choice was aligned with the institution's annual developmental theme. The university selects a timely social topic to guide educational and humanitarian programming each year. For the past year, the theme was artificial intelligence, making Sophia a fitting representative for the commencement address.

Grant explained that the university found the idea of having an AI deliver the commencement address intriguing, seeing Sophia, who has spoken in over 65 countries and at the United Nations, as the perfect representative. He stressed that this choice was aligned with their broader goal of preparing students for future opportunities and challenges.

Acknowledging the diverse viewpoints on AI, Grant noted that the university did not force any graduating student or faculty member to participate in the ceremony if they were uncomfortable. To accommodate those who preferred a more traditional ceremony, the school arranged an alternative event led by its chief mission officer. However, during the registration period for this option, all students ultimately chose to attend the ceremony featuring Sophia.

D'Youville University President Lorrie Clemo underscored the institution's role as an incubator for innovation. "A major role of higher education is to prepare students for both the opportunities and challenges of the future," she said. By inviting Sophia, the university sparked a global conversation about AI and its place in society while celebrating its graduates' achievements in a memorable and forward-thinking way.

The decision to have Sophia, an AI robot, deliver the commencement address at D'Youville University was a bold and controversial choice that sparked mixed reactions among students and the broader community. While some viewed it as a groundbreaking embrace of technology, others felt it undermined the personal and human aspects of the graduation experience. Regardless of the differing opinions, the event highlighted the ongoing conversation about the role of artificial intelligence in our lives and the future of education.

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