Students Show Up to Graduation, Find Commencement Speaker Is an AI Robot

Students Show Up to Graduation, Find Commencement Speaker Is an AI Robot

The disrespect.

Platitudes Galore

You’d hope that universities would celebrate their students’ graduation with a memorable ceremony. But for the graduating class at D’Youville University last weekend, their commencement was arguably one to forget.

With Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock” blasting the auditorium, the institution brought a humanoid AI-powered robot on stage to address the over 2,000 bright-eyed youths in attendance.

The corny choice of walk-up song was perhaps the sole endearing element of its appearance. Dressed in a D’Youville hoodie and with its brain exposed, Sophia, as the robot’s called, spun-off generic advice in dry, synthetically-inflected tones. It did not give a scripted speech, but answered questions from the emcee. The whole charade drew “mixed reactions” from the crowd, The New York Times reports — with many students feeling downright insulted.

“Congratulations to all the graduating students,” Sophia intoned, at one point brandishing a creepy, full-toothed grin.

Inhuman Touch

The university contends that it had very serious and lofty intentions in its hiring of a robot speaker — and didn’t just cheap out on trying to get someone famous.

“We wanted to showcase how important technology is, and the potential for technology to really enrich the human experience,” Lorrie Clemo, president of D’Youville, told the NYT.

Many students didn’t feel that way. When the university announced Sophia would be the speaker, more than 2,500 signed a petition saying the decision “disrespected” the students, demanding a human take the stage.

The impersonal nature of the robot speaker, the petition argues, is an unwanted reminder of the virtual high school graduations they were forced to have during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is shameful to the 2020 graduates receiving their diplomas, as they feel they are having another important ceremony taken away,” the petition reads.

Industry Mouthpiece

But if showcasing AI technology was the goal, the stunt was inadvertently a sobering success. The robot’s unscripted responses perfectly encapsulate what generative AI largely does (and is very good at): coldly repackaging stuff that humans have already 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,” Sophia said, after being asked to share tidbits from other commencement speeches.

Feeling inspired yet? The robot, built by Hong Kong-based firm Hanson Robotics, was also given several opportunities to plug the AI industry. If students already felt “disrespected” ahead of the commencement ceremony, we doubt they’ve been won over by Sophia waxing mechanical about the wonders of AI.

More on robots: Boston Dynamics Shows Off Robodog With Fur

Students Show Up to Graduation, Find Commencement Speaker Is an AI Robot

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