‘Machines don’t weep.’ Amid AI enthusiasm, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun delivers a human-centered message to graduates

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The full text of President Joseph E. Aoun’s 2023 commencement speech.

Amid so much professional change and upheaval awaiting Northeastern’s class of 2023, President Joseph E. Aoun assured the sea of graduates during Sunday’s commencement ceremonies that their Northeastern education has prepared them to meet those vicissitudes head-on. 

“​​When you leave this ceremony today, your journeys will be defined by career mobility,” Aoun said. “Geographic mobility. Global mobility.”

It’s precisely that mobility, the ability to work, study and make connections across borders and continents, that constituted one part of Aoun’s commencement message: that “opportunity is always in motion,” referring to the half-dozen job changes and relocations that the graduates will experience, on average.

In keeping with tradition, Sunday’s commencement took place in Boston’s historic Fenway Park, bringing together thousands of graduates and their guests on what proved to be a picturesque spring afternoon. 

Richard A. D’Amore, chair of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees and a benefactor of the D’Amore-Mckim School of Business, introduced Aoun.

Aoun conferred three honorary degrees after his remarks—to Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and former publisher of The Miami Herald; Alondra Nelson, former deputy assistant to President Joe Biden and acting director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and e-commerce pioneer Mariam Naficy, who delivered the undergraduate commencement speech.

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who spoke to graduate students earlier in the day, was also awarded an honorary degree.

Prior to his speech, a video produced in the style of TikTok’s “get ready with me” trend, was aired of Aoun preparing for the afternoon. 

Change of another kind also served as the backdrop of this year’s ceremony—namely, the sweeping changes brought on by developments in artificial intelligence. Some of those changes will almost certainly mean major disruptions in the job market and how work is performed, Aoun said.

In the midst of so much buzz over the developments in AI, it was only fitting that ChatGPT made an appearance at commencement.

“In preparing my speech today, I decided to ask ChatGPT to give me the top five commencement speech clichés of all time,” said Aoun.

The chatbot produced a series of cringeworthy commencement platitudes, such as “believe in yourself,” “follow your dreams,” among others—“worn-out phrases that come up over and over again,” Aoun said. 

In light of the dizzying and potentially far-reaching developments of AI in recent months, Aoun emphasized that as this year’s graduates move on to their next chapters, the need for what he called “human literacy” takes on even greater importance. The march of technological progress, he said, will lead to the automation of most industries, “including jobs that were previously the sole province of college graduates.”

“Machines and artificial intelligence will continue to improve every day,” Aoun said. “These innovations will have a profound impact on all of us. Some will be beneficial, and others will not. There are people calling for society to hit the pause button out of fear that we will lose control of machines.”

Aoun continued: “There are countless ways to exercise our human literacy. Giving assistance to someone lost at the train station. Capturing an emotion through color or music. Launching a nonprofit to end hunger. Standing with strangers to fight injustice.”

As all current and former students know, the educational experience at Northeastern is unique in the sense that students are encouraged to make the world their classroom—an ethos that’s associated with Northeastern University’s world-leading co-op program

“Your time at Northeastern was not confined to a campus,” Aoun said. “You had co-ops and dialogues and global experiences that allowed you to roam. These experiences empowered you to live and learn in different contexts and different countries.”

Turning back to AI, Aoun stressed that amid fears over the trajectory of the emerging technology, human beings will always have an edge over the machines.

“But for the foreseeable future computational power cannot express empathy,” Aoun said. “Microprocessors cannot comfort the afflicted. An algorithm cannot remedy the sting of systemic racism.”

In a bid to get the graduates to think beyond the social media bubbles they may find themselves in, Aoun imparted one final piece of advice: “Get out of your TikTok tunnel.”

“Social media algorithms create like-minded echo chambers” he said. “They cause us to harden our views and stake out positions on the extremes.”

“They can even lead us to demonize those who disagree with us—creating a new ‘digital tribalism’ reinforced through information silos,” he said. 

And with that, Aoun sent the young graduates off into the afternoon. 

“So flex your human literacies every day,” he said. “In your life and in your work. This is your edge.”

“After all, machines don’t dream of lifting trophies,” Aoun said. “They don’t reimagine the world. They do not weep.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.