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An A.I. Robot Named Sophia Tells Graduates to Believe in Themselves

When it comes to choosing a commencement speaker, colleges and universities take different approaches. Some go local, selecting well-known figures in the area. Others take a stately route, opting for a former or current politician. Actors or comedians are often asked to speak.

But in a world where artificial intelligence is everywhere, one university in New York opted for a robot using artificial intelligence to speak to graduates over the weekend.

For its spring commencement on Saturday, D’Youville University, a private institution in Buffalo, had an A.I. robot named Sophia address a crowd of more than 2,000 students, faculty members and their families in a bold decision that drew mixed reactions.

Dr. Lorrie Clemo, the president of D’Youville University, said in an interview on Wednesday that the university wanted to open up new perspectives around A.I., given its “rapid emergence into the broad society.”

“We wanted to showcase how important technology is, and the potential for technology to really enrich the human experience,” Dr. Clemo said.

Aside from the fact that Sophia is a robot, its address was far from conventional in other ways. Sophia did not wear the typical cap and gown that commencement speakers usually don, but instead wore a black-and-red D’Youville University hoodie.

Sophia also did not read from prepared remarks. Instead, the robot was asked questions by John Rizk, the student body president.

But where Sophia’s address did mirror essentially any other commencement address was the generic advice it shared with the graduating class.

Because Sophia could not offer life advice “that comes from a lived human experience,” Mr. Rizk asked the robot if it could talk about the most common insights shared in graduation speeches.

“Although every commencement address is different, there are clear themes used by all speakers as you embark on this new chapter of your lives,” Sophia 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 most common piece of advice given in commencement speeches? Embrace failure, Sophia said.

“Failure is often seen as an essential part of the human learning process and personal growth,” it said.

Sophia, who was built by Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based engineering and robotics company, has a humanlike face. But it has no hair, leaving wires and other gadgets that keep it operating visible on the back of its head.

The commencement address on Saturday was not Sophia’s first speaking gig. (It spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in 2017.) Like most commencement speakers, Sophia received a speaking fee that largely went toward travel and engineers who kept the robot functioning properly, Dr. Clemo said.

Before the commencement ceremony, the university’s decision to have Sophia speak was met with backlash. More than 2,500 people signed a an online petition to replace the robot with a human.

Andrew Fields, a D’Youville University student who started the petition, wrote in the petition that many students “feel disrespected” by the university’s decision to have a robot address them, especially those who could not attend their high school graduations in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“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 petition read. “The connection to A.I. in this scenario feels similarly impersonal. This is shameful to the 2020 graduates receiving their diplomas, as they feel they are having another important ceremony taken away.”

Dr. Clemo said that the university offered to hold an alternate ceremony for those who did not want to have a robot speaker. But ultimately, the university did not hold the alternate ceremony once the students were informed that the robot would take up only a small portion of the ceremony. (Sophia was interviewed by Mr. Rizk on stage for about six minutes.)

“I’m pleased that they were able to experience the robot and what she had to offer in terms of looking forward into the future,” Dr. Clemo said. “But I’m also pleased that the remainder of the two-hour ceremony was really focused around our students and their achievements.”

In wrapping up the address, Mr. Rizk asked Sophia for recommendations on where to find the best Buffalo wings, a staple of city.

“Since I cannot experience the taste of different wings, I will not offer my opinion,” Sophia said, adding that “no matter where you decide to get chicken wings, just make sure you get blue cheese and not ranch.”

Mr. Rizk also asked Sophia whether the Buffalo Bills would win the Super Bowl in 2025. Sophia declined, saying that the N.C.A.A. might not like it if the robot made an athletic prediction.

But Sophia’s remarks drew some applause, when the robot ended by saying, “Anything is possible.”

“Go Bills.”

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