200 Years of RPI Excellence: AI Revives Emily Roebling’s Spirit at Historic Commencement Ceremony

At the intersection of historical homage and technological innovation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) marks its bicentennial with a commencement ceremony that honors the past while embracing the future. The institute, with a storied two-century history of pioneering education, pays tribute to its enduring legacy by resurrecting the spirit of Emily Warren Roebling, the formidable force behind the Brooklyn Bridge, through a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) re-creation. This AI serves as a bridge in time, linking the esteemed institute’s heritage with its forward-looking vision.

Emily Roebling’s narrative is woven from threads of resilience and leadership. When her husband, Washington Roebling—an RPI alumnus of the class of 1857—fell ill, she took on the monumental task of overseeing the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, an engineering feat that was unprecedented at the time. While Emily herself did not attend RPI, her indomitable spirit and her contributions to engineering make her an iconic figure to honor during the institute’s bicentennial commencement. Her legacy echoes the virtues of perseverance and leadership that RPI instills in its community, making her story a fitting tribute during this milestone celebration.

The endeavor to bring Emily Roebling’s persona to the present is spearheaded by Dr. Jim Hendler, the director of RPI’s Future of Computing Institute. Dr. Hendler and his team endeavored to create an AI that would embody Emily’s essence, one that could articulate itself in a manner befitting her era. To achieve this, the AI was trained for over a month with a rich diet of Emily’s original letters, with meticulous attention to ensuring the AI’s speech mirrored her linguistic style and personality. The process entailed a sophisticated synthesis of historical texts, personal correspondence, and academic expertise, all combined to craft an authentic representation without temporal inaccuracies.

Actress Liz Wisan, known for her portrayal of characters from the period in the HBO series “The Gilded Age,” was chosen to give voice to the AI’s words. Her challenge extended beyond mere recitation; she was tasked with internalizing the ethos of the era and channeling the essence of Emily Roebling, striving for both reverence and authenticity in her performance. This presentation is anticipated to be a profound homage linking RPI’s rich heritage with the aspirations of its current graduates. Complementing this historical re-enactment, NASA astronaut and RPI alumnus Reid Wiseman will provide a contemporary perspective, weaving a narrative that spans from engineering marvels of the past to the latest advancements in space exploration.

The AI model, an advanced iteration of generative AI technology, exemplifies a seamless melding of historical accuracy and contemporary computational sophistication. The result is a powerful testament to RPI’s dedication to both honoring the past and pioneering the future of AI. This initiative underscores the institute’s commitment to leveraging AI to enhance our connection with history, offering a new dimension to appreciating the substantial contributions of influential figures whose legacies might otherwise recede into obscurity.

Collaboration was at the heart of this project, engaging historians, archivists, and researchers in a concerted effort to ensure that the AI’s dialogue resonated with authenticity. The serendipitous discovery of a new letter from Emily Roebling during the project’s development enriched the AI’s narrative, providing additional layers to her recreated voice and personality. This multidisciplinary endeavor reaffirms RPI’s dedication to meticulously honoring history through the prism of modern technology.

As RPI celebrates its bicentennial commencement, Emily Warren Roebling’s virtual presence stands as a symbolic beacon of the contributions of pioneering women in engineering and beyond. The event highlights RPI’s commitment to acknowledging its illustrious past while actively shaping the future. The AI re-creation of Emily Roebling is not only a technical marvel but also a celebration of human tenacity, the quest for knowledge, and the spirit of innovation that transcends time.

The synthesis of reverence for history and the embrace of innovation at RPI’s bicentennial commencement underscores the transformative power of technology in our lives and the importance of preserving and celebrating the legacies of those who have paved the way. As participants witness the AI-assisted voice of Emily Roebling, they are reminded of the institute’s role as a vanguard, the enduring impact of historical figures on our current world, and the infinite possibilities AI holds in reshaping our engagement with the past. This profound occasion not only pays homage to RPI’s storied history but also heralds a future where the confluence of tradition and technology fosters new, enriched experiences.

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