Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen at Commencement 2024

joanna 2024 commencement banner
May 19 2024

Chancellor Tong! President Mills! Vice-Chancellor Lehman! Chairman Chesler! Colleagues! Distinguished Guests! And Friends! Salute with me our great students of the Class of 2024! Dear students, on behalf of the whole NYU Shanghai community, from the bottom of my heart I offer you warm congratulations upon your graduation. We are really, really proud of you for getting to this glorious moment. 

 This year more than ever, AI has occupied the center of our attention, along with the question of whether its rapidly advancing capabilities mean that artificial general intelligence, an intelligence equivalent to or even greater than our own, is now just around the corner. But what I want to talk about today is the flipside of that: the question of humanity. What defines our humanity and makes us distinctive and unreplicable as human beings? In a nutshell, I believe that at the heart of our humanity lies the capacity continuously to forge and to build on connection. 

What then are the quintessentially human qualities that above all allow us to forge connection and build on it? There are in fact quite a few candidates, but the most important of all are empathy, creativity, humor, and ethical judgment—four qualities whose values you will certainly have glimpsed and perhaps even have completely internalized during the past four years. Each rests on the foundation of what Yann LeCun, the Turing-award-winning NYU professor who is also chief AI scientist at Meta, recently identified as the deeply human skills of reasoning, planning, persistent memory, and sensory perception as a path to understanding. I will say something about each one of these four qualities of empathy, creativity, humor, and ethical judgment, which of course also are key components of the multicultural effectiveness that NYU Shanghai students develop over their time here.

Empathy tops the list. In the age of AI, with its rapid technological advances, when the ubiquity of technology can sometimes foster a sense of isolation, empathy, the ability to reach out and genuinely to understand one another’s experiences, perspectives, and feelings, is more important than ever. It allows us to learn about one another, to bridge the gaps that separate us, to respect one another, and to forge meaningful emotional connections based on mutual understanding and compassion. Empathy is, in a very real sense, all about connection.

Creativity, the second quality, may be THE distinctive characteristic of humans in the age of AI, and it goes hand in hand with empathy.  It is founded, precisely, on the ability to forge connections, starting with the ability to learn with and from others who may be different from us. When we connect with others—when we engage in genuine dialogue, collaborate on projects, or share our artistic endeavors—we tap into a wellspring of inspiration and innovation that fosters our creative human ability to bring together disparate parts of our experience in new ways. 

Humor is the third on my list of quintessentially human qualities. Humor reminds us of the joy and absurdity of the human experience, connecting us in laughter and helping us to find meaning and connection in a rapidly changing world. Humor is linked to both empathy and creativity. Humor both derives from empathy and can be a powerful tool for fostering empathy precisely because it allows us to connect with others on an emotional level.  The use of humor often draws upon shared experiences, emotions, and cultural references that resonate with our audience; it also can help break down barriers and defuse tension, creating a sense of camaraderie and understanding between individuals. 

The ability to approach the world with humor plays an essential role in creativity, whose very foundation often involves thinking outside the box and making unconventional connections. Furthermore, humor encourages us to embrace both ambiguity and uncertainty, fostering the spirit of curiosity and exploration that is essential to creativity. It serves, in short, as a bridge between empathy and creativity. And I’d be willing to bet you have not yet heard a machine laugh, at least not spontaneously!

My fourth quintessential human quality is ethical judgment. Ethical judgment is linked to humor, creativity, and empathy. Humor has the power to bring people together, but it can also be used to harm or offend. Understanding the ethical implications of humor requires empathy, cultural sensitivity, and a keen awareness of the impact our words and actions can have on others. By exercising ethical judgment in our use of humor, we can build bridges rather than barriers, fostering a sense of connection and belonging across diverse communities. A fine tuned capacity for ethical judgment can help us navigate the delicate line that humor can walk. Ethical judgment can guide our creativity, inspiring us to devise ethical solutions that are both effective and imaginative, responding to complex ethical issues with flexibility, adaptability, and ingenuity. And ethical judgment can help us to pull together the threads that draw together humor and empathy, for when humor is devoid of empathy it is, well, not funny, and can even be hurtful. 

Now this may all seem rather abstract and philosophical, so I would like to call to your attention the opening lines of a famous novel, lines that in many ways encapsulate all these four qualities. The novel is an American novel written a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but its timelessness and universally human qualities were memorably on display just a couple of weeks ago when a group of NYU Shanghai students performed a version that they had creatively adapted to Shanghai in 2024. The famous opening lines of “Gatsby” say it all: “In my younger and more vulnerable days my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.’”

Now I very much doubt that Scott Fitzgerald had Confucius in the back of his mind when he wrote The Great Gatsby, but if he had, he might have been thinking about Confucius’ very profound observation in the opening line of the Analects, Lunyu, that “To Learn and Constantly Put it into Practice, is it not a Pleasure?”

Today, when anger, both real and manufactured, abounds; when we face unprecedented threats, both earthly, in the form of social malevolence and cosmic, in the form of climate change, I hope you will always remember what it means to be human, that you will constantly put into practice and cultivate those four tightly interwoven human qualities of empathy, creativity, humor and ethical judgment. I sincerely hope that in the realization of your humanity and of everything you have learned you will stay tightly connected to one another, to NYU Shanghai, and in new ways yet to be imagined. That is how you are going to make a wonderful, positive difference in the world around you, wherever you may find yourselves. Go forth and love, go forth and be creative, go forth and laugh, go forth and act ethically, and above all go forth and connect! 

Congratulations, Class of 2024!