How do you get film crews from British and Swedish television and all three U.S. networks, a horde of newspaper reporters and local TV personalities to cover a graduation in a downpour at Anne Arundel Community College?
Answer: Have a robot give the commencement address.
And "Robot Redford," a white fiberglass box with a lens for a nose, pretended to do that yesterday, rolling and flashing its lights around center stage before about 275 graduates of AACC, finally capping weeks of publicity about the scheduling of this unhuman speaker.
The theme of the speech--actually delivered by the robot's creator, Bill Bakaleinikoff, from a microphone hidden behind the bleachers--was, not surprisingly, the need to come to grips with advancing technology. "Today every man, woman and child has a relationship to computers," said Redford/Bakaleinikoff, "but do you remember just a few decades ago when computers were controversial? Society has not always welcomed technological advances with open arms!"
"It was a publicity-type event," said Erik Liimatta, who teaches electrical engineering technology at the school. "There was no state-of-the-art technology here. That thing could have been built 10 or 20 years ago. It's just lights, a television camera and a radio-controlled head and wheels.
"As one of my students told me, 'It's strictly a drone,' " Liimatta said.
A robot by definition in Webster's is a "man-like device with a mechanism that enables it to move or work of itself." Robot Redford was none of the above, with neither hands nor legs nor a demonstrated ability to work, and with the ability to roll around only on electronic orders from some hidden master.
AACC Dean of Students Anthony Pappas hatched the idea of a robot commencement speaker to show graduates the changing nature of the workplace and the need to keep up with technological change through education.
The scheme sparked angry recriminations from students when it came to light a month ago. They said it would dehumanize the event and belittle their achievements. But when Pappas and college President Thomas Florestano assured them the robot would not run the ceremony but simply be a small part of it, the students relented.
The news media had a field day with the affair yesterday, and so did the students, who basked in the limelight of international attention as perhaps the first graduating class ever to sit through a speech by a machine, which of course they weren't really doing.
"It was exciting," said Paula Clark of Glen Burnie. "What he said, it hit home, like. It was so exciting and kind of sad. Here we are graduating, and everything he said was true."
As for the notion that the robot was speaking, electronic engineering graduate Sean McNamara said putting words, literally, in the robot's version of a mouth was the right thing to do. "They could have programmed it to speak," McNamara said, "but that would have sounded strange and been hard to listen to. The technology is there, but it's nice he did it the other way."
Bakaleinikoff, who runs a California company named Superior Robotics, said he usually uses Robot Redford, which he calls a "showbot," as a sales and entertainment tool at conferences and conventions. Bakaleinikoff jumped offstage five minutes before the robot's address to make his way under the bleachers to the hidden microphone.
"We'd really rather have had some politician up there, saying nothing, than a machine saying nothing," said a math professor who asked not to be named. " . . . I think it's safe to say it's the last you'll see of Robot Redford on this campus."