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President Joseph E. Aoun tells Northeastern graduates: ‘No machine can match your creativity, innovation’

President Aoun standing in front of a microphone gesturing and smiling at the graduation ceremony.
President Joseph E. Aoun welcomes the graduating class of 2024 to Fenway Park. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern University’s 2024 commencement.

“AI simply cannot think across different contexts,” Aoun told the graduates at Sunday’s commencement at Fenway Park in Boston.

“A Northeastern education taught you how to transpose knowledge from the classroom to the outside world,” Aoun continued. “As a result, no machine can match your creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Aoun addressed Northeastern’s graduate students Sunday morning and undergraduates in the afternoon.

In both speeches, the president referred to “that famous 21st-century philosopher — Taylor Swift.” 

Aoun quoted from her song “Nothing New”: “How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?” 

Positing a willingness to embrace unknowing and to continually move forward, the president said that he loves this lyric because “it reminds us that no matter how much we learn, knowledge is infinite. Wisdom begins with realizing how much we do not know.

“It wasn’t long ago that people thought the continents didn’t shift, and atoms couldn’t be split,” Aoun said by way of example. “And until recently, nobody imagined that dinosaurs had feathers. 

“The truth is, settled facts aren’t always settled. The established wisdom may prove, at some point, to be neither established nor wise.”

Sethuraman Panchanathan, the graduate commencement speaker and director of the National Science Foundation, foreshadowed the president’s words, stating that this graduation was but the “start of a journey to learn more” throughout life. That this ceremony was “Not a conclusion, but a commencement.”

“We live in a world of boundless fascination and endless change,” Aoun said in his own speech. “Learning has no endpoint.”

For many of the undergraduate students who graduated Sunday, this was their first in-person commencement, as many of their high school commencements were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many of you did not get to celebrate your high school graduations,” Aoun noted. “That’s why we are doubly grateful to be able to celebrate your achievements with you and your families here in Fenway Park today.”

The year these undergraduates arrived at Northeastern “was tough. Your lives revolved around Cabot, quarantines and QR codes,” Aoun said, referring to the cutting-edge safety measures that Northeastern implemented in order to safely reopen in the fall of 2020, well in advance of most other higher education institutes. 

“You took a bet on Northeastern,” he continued. “And Northeastern took a bet on you.”

The Northeastern 2024 graduates represented over 127 countries and all 50 states.

Aoun spotlighted three of these former undergraduates, highlighting their growth, commitment and tireless work ethic. Aoun invited Rebecca Bamidele, the student speaker during the undergraduate ceremony, to stand next to him and noted how “her Northeastern experience didn’t just help her find a career. It helped her find herself.” 

He also noted the beautiful, bedazzled knee-high boots she wore to the ceremony. 

Ethan Wong “studied biology and data science, while serving patients and community members — helping to ensure positive health outcomes for people across the globe,” Aoun said. 

And finally, Gwyneth Philips, a three-time Beanpot champion, “played the second-most number of minutes of any goaltender in the country.”

“Each one of you here has your own story,” the president said, addressing the crowd. “You are diverse and you are unique in every sense. Today is a day to be proud of what you have achieved.”

During the undergraduate ceremony, the president returned to the subject of AI. 

“We’re in the midst of a profound transformation that will change the way we live, work and interact,” he said. “The AI world is with us.”

And yet, he went on, “No algorithm can solve the seemingly intractable problems that confound our world.”

For that we need “human connections, grounded in respect, patience and empathy.” All qualities developed through Northeastern’s singular experiential learning model and highlighted in Aoun’s award-winning 2017 book “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” which proposed a term for this experience-first mode of education, “humanics.”

“Experience forces us out of our comfort zone,” he said. “It requires us to deal with uncertainty. It compels us to communicate. It teaches us the art of listening.”

With an a cappella group joining him on the stage, the president left the audience with a call to “nurture your Northeastern connections. They will give you the strength to achieve wonders.

“Northeastern will help you realize your dreams,” he said.