Date May 28, 2023
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Brown president implores new graduates: ‘Never forget that your humanity is your greatest asset’

In her annual Commencement address, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson asked the Class of 2023 to bring a “discerning humanistic lens” to everything they do, particularly in a technology-dominated world.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The year 1776 marked not only the nation’s Declaration of Independence, but the first Commencement for what is now known as Brown University to take place at the First Baptist Church in America, on Providence’s North Main Street.

It’s safe to say that none of that day’s speakers offered an inspirational speech authored by ChatGPT.

Yet 247 years later, that’s precisely what University President Christina H. Paxson delivered when she stepped to the podium on the hallowed grounds of the same church to address students earning bachelor’s degrees in Brown’s Class of 2023. Her speech was “complete drivel,” Paxson admitted — “It is boring. It is bland. It is completely forgettable.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t her real address.

Paxson had asked the ubiquitous AI bot to compose a 1,000-word inspirational speech for a university president to give to graduating seniors. She read 92 words of predictable and cliché sentiments, paused abruptly and made her point: The computer-generated speech was, worse than anything else, inauthentic.

“Now, I could have improved it. I could have asked it to include references to the Open Curriculum or how Brown students are the architects of their own educations…” she said of the ChatGPT version. “But it wouldn’t have reflected anything about this graduating class… and it wouldn’t have reflected the experience that we’ve shared over the last four years. And it would convey nothing about how I feel about you.

Paxson’s remarks — the AI intro and her authentic insights that followed — came during the College Ceremony on Sunday, May 28, during Brown’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend. This year’s 1,682 seniors had processed through the Van Wickle Gates and down College Street through a raucous welcome from Brown alumni. At the First Baptist Church, they gathered on the lawn, took in the president’s advice and then turned their tassels to the left as their bachelor’s degrees were officially conferred.

All of the ceremony and pageantry, like the weekend as a whole, was a celebration of human connections.

And humans want and need authentic connections with other humans, Paxson said in her remarks — a lesson that COVID-19 made abundantly clear to the Class of 2023, most of whom were just forging personal connections with friends and faculty members in their first year at Brown when the pandemic arrived in full force. 

“What I have seen and felt from you over the last few years as we’ve transitioned out of the pandemic, and especially this year, was the pure joy you find in authentically being together in person,” she said. “Learning, debating, playing sports, performing, volunteering, doing things with your friends for fun — and doing all of this with unbridled passion, kindness, exuberance and authenticity. So, yes, authenticity matters.”

In the coming years, Paxson told the new graduates, authenticity will become both increasingly scarce and increasingly important, particularly as the use of technology makes discerning truth from lies more difficult. At the same time, humans have the potential to leverage the power of technology, including ChatGPT and its successors, for good — bringing health care to people in remote parts of the planet, for example, or educating children who lack access to good schools.

“Your generation has a profound responsibility of ensuring that technology is harnessed to make the world better, preventing the doomsday outcomes that you hear from becoming reality,” Paxson said. “This is going to require leadership, and it’s going to require technical knowledge and creativity and collaboration. Perhaps most important, it will require that you bring a very discerning humanistic lens to everything you do.”

“You’ve learned so many things at Brown. But never forget that your humanity is your greatest asset. It will help you accomplish great things. And I believe it will lead you to fulfilling and purposeful lives.”

Paxson reminded graduates that all of the the connections they made at Brown are authentic and real, and ones that could never meaningfully be replicated by ChatGPT.

“Your Brown experiences are yours and they’re yours alone,” she said. “They will be part of you forever. You’ll go on to forge new human connections, mindful of what’s real and what’s fake. And I know that you’ll go on to do great things. I am so tremendously proud of all of you.”