AI robot 'Sophia' gives commencement speech at a New York university

Sophia's selection did not come without controversy.
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Posted at 7:30 AM, May 16, 2024

It's commencement season, and politicians, actors and famous alumni are hitting stages from coast to coast to offer inspiring words to graduates.

One of this year's most unusual commencement speakers is Sophia. Unlike most commencement speakers, Sophia isn't a human. She's an AI robot.

"I was designed by humans to engage in conversations, learning and adapting through artificial intelligence algorithms," Sophia said. "My creators aimed to develop a robot that could understand and express emotions as well engage in meaningful interactions with people. Overall, I am here to explore the possibilities of human-robot interactions, contribute to research in artificial intelligence in robotics, and hopefully, assist humanity in various ways in the future."

She was the featured commencement speaker at last week's ceremony at D'Youville University in Buffalo, New York. The university conferred degrees to roughly 2,000 students in health sciences and business fields. The university's leaders said students work with artificial intelligence every day, so they said inviting Sophia made sense.

“Our students will be the future of health care delivery. As we move to put our lives in their hands, D’Youville University hopes to ensure all students understand technology and can think critically about the future they build for us,” said D'Youville President Lorrie A. Clemo. “From that respect we are thrilled to welcome Sophia to our commencement, providing a safe environment for people to learn through experience.”

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Making Sophia the commencement speaker did not come without controversy. The university's full-time faculty union expressed its dismay with Sophia's selection.

“Not only is this publicity stunt a frivolous expense and misuse of resources, but it is indicative of larger concerns our members have been raising for years about the depth of the administration’s mismanagement," said faculty union President Brandon Absher. "It’s a slap in the face for our hardworking, full-time faculty who have been without a fair contract for over two-and-a-half years and who were not consulted or even informed of this decision prior to the public announcement."

Sophia participated in a question-and-answer session with the university's Student Government Association president, John Rizk. They formatted the commencement address as a "last lecture" before graduation.

Rizk said that he was excited to "interview" Sophia during commencement.

“I use AI every day, multiple times a day,” Rizk said in a statement. “I am much more productive and organized having AI in my pocket to help me with daily tasks. AI to me is what the calculator was to my parents.”