Bologna Business School Commencement Speech

This speech was originally delivered by Reid Hoffman in English on September 8, 2023 at the Bologna Business School at the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world.

I’ve used AI—no human editing in this case to show what’s possible with the technology—to translate this speech into over 100 languages. View those versions here.

Thank you for the kind introduction, Professor Manca.

Ladies and gentlemen, President Prodi, Dean Bergami, Rector Molari, esteemed faculty, proud parents, it’s my distinct pleasure and privilege to be with you today to honor the extraordinary graduates of the University of Bologna Business School.

Graduates, well done! You did it.

I’m honored to join everyone here today to celebrate your achievement.

But I’m also here to invite you to your next course of study: you.

And by you, I mean all of us. And by all of us, I mean humankind. Right now.

In the poem, “An Essay on Man,” English poet Alexander Pope wrote:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

Now he tells you, right? After you just spent all that time studying Fintech, Marketing, or Business Management. Thanks a lot, Alexander!

Of course, the truth is, that in developing your expertise in your chosen field, you actually have been studying humankind.

In fact, as an entrepreneur, investor and a perpetual philosophy student, I’ve always believed that any new venture must have a strong theory of human nature underlying it.

In other words, you need to know about humanity: the everyday person’s wants and needs. Because when you tap into and help them achieve those wants and needs, in meaningful ways, success often follows.

And hopefully—ideally—as you seek success, you’ll also be trying to elevate humanity, by creating new ways to meet our wants and needs. And by expanding our opportunities for pursuing meaning and purpose. This is the highest calling of business.

Obviously, this is no small task.

But the good news is that you’re more equipped for this undertaking than any other generation to date. Your timing is phenomenal.

For you have, at your fingertips, a technology revolution that doesn’t come around more than once every few hundred years:

Artificial Intelligence—or AI.

We are not only entering the AI Generation. You are the AI generation. You are Generation AI.

It might seem unusual to classify a generation of people after a technology, but it’s always been this way, just not explicitly by name.

The G.I. Generation may have been shaped by the Great Depression and the World Wars, but their reality was defined by technologies such as radio, the telephone, and the car.

Millennials or Generation Y grew through a few global recessions and a pandemic. But what shaped their world was coming of age with the internet, mobiles devices, and social media.

And the latest generation has been coined Generation Alpha, for those born in the 2020s. It’s still early, but social scientists predict that educational technology, social networks, and streaming services will frame their world.

I think this is likely, but significantly incomplete.

Generation Alpha will be assisted and amplified by AI. They will come of age as AI natives—and they won’t be the only ones with this tool.

AI will reshape the lives of all of us. It will become the primary technology that we use to make decisions and navigate life. A steam engine of the mind. A cognitive GPS. A tool for orientation, discovery and navigation.

We have this technology in our hands—not the other way around. With it, we have the opportunity to amplify and define the future of humanity. For AI should not be an abbreviation for artificial intelligence, but for amplification intelligence—for its power to augment and elevate us.

Only a few technologies have had the potential to shape and to scale us in this way. The last two were the internet and mobile phones.

I believe AI is not only on that list, but also at the top of it, because of its potential to amplify how we use the internet, mobile phones and many other technologies.

Now some of you may be thinking “Ok, Boomer. What will this world with AI look like? What does this actually mean for me?”

Well, first I’d like to say that I’m actually Gen X—even if one of the older ones.

And, second, that the future is always sooner and stranger than you might think.

Let’s go back to a future we once imagined. In the 1950s, we thought flying cars were just on the horizon. We didn’t get them then, nor have them yet (though we have made strides).

But in that same decade, US President Dwight Eisenhower formed an agency called ARPA—which generated the technology that created the internet.

We didn’t imagine we’d get something like the internet or mobile phones—but we did. And those tools have revolutionized the lives of the majority of humans on earth.

Wouldn’t it have made sense that we’d get a new invention based on a widespread, publicly released technology—cars—before getting a global network of billions of electronic devices that connect nearly 5 billion people and counting?

Makes sense, but no. Like I said, the future is sooner and stranger than we’d think.

Now, humanity is imagining a new future. One with AI.

Given the speed and spread of AI, some people are talking about AI ushering in a potential apocalypse, while others argue that it will bring the new utopia.

They either rejoice or worry about AI refashioning our world, whether their lens is gene editing, geopolitics, climate—or pick any other facet of life.

I encourage them—and you—to avoid setting up camp around either extreme, particularly at this stage of development with AI.

Let’s return to cars for a moment. Say cars were the nascent technology of today.

We could focus on spacefaring cars—talk about utopian dreams! Or we could focus on traffic jams—we all know that dystopia. But, at this stage, I’d recommend that we focus on the car itself, both as an innovation and as a tool to transform society.

Of course, spacefaring cars and traffic jams deserve our attention. Eventually.

But we are much more able to assess futuristic possibilities or solve foreseeable challenges through the continuing development of technology.

So our order of operations should be: how do we invent the car? Then, how do modify and amplify that technology—such as electric, autonomous, or flying vehicles? And, then, how do we navigate traffic jams or the prospect of space travel by car?

That’s why the answer is not to slow down technology, but to accelerate it.

Technology is a tool. And the faster we have it in our hands, the better we can solve the problems we have—and the problems it might create.

Our tools are a reflection—and the creation—of us.

That reminds me of the famous dictum from Father John Culkin and Marshall McLuhan:

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

With AI, I encourage us to focus on shaping the tool that will, in turn, shape us.

With this task in mind, I offer you three questions to consider.

The first is: How can I make better tools?

The second question is equally vital, but might be unexpected coming from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur: How can I increase beauty in the world?

And the third: How can I make better tools and increase beauty to the benefit of my fellow humans?

One of the most significant times humans asked—and acted—on these questions was thousands of years ago. Right here in Italy.

As much of the world knows, the Renaissance was a cultural rebirth spanning the 14th to 17th centuries, marking a transformative era in Europe. It celebrated the revival of classical learning, art, and humanism, breaking free from medieval constraints. This vibrant period witnessed a flourishing of intellectual inquiry, artistic innovation, and scientific exploration, which paved the way for modern thought and inspired a profound shift in societal values and achievements.

The Renaissance was a resurgence of beauty and better tools, to the benefit of humans.

A prime example of this is Brunelleschi’s Dome, which crowns The Duomo, a cathedral about 100 kilometers from here. Six hundred years later, it remains one of the most remarkable and beautiful works of architecture in the world. It is an astonishment—every time.

The beauty of Brunelleschi’s Dome can be attributed to many things. There’s its stunning fresco on its interior surface, or its masonry vault, which I believe is still the largest in the world.

But to me, its beauty is also in what’s long gone and no longer visible: the people who built it—and the tools they used to make it.

You see, a dome of that size couldn’t be built with the existing technology of the day. So, Brunnelleschi decided to innovate. He invented mobile scaffolding, and designed a crane for hoisting bricks, with the help of local blacksmiths and carpenters.

He consulted with a famed mathematician to make calculations for the dome, which was arranged in an innovative herringbone pattern that secured the structure.

With his dome, Brunelleschi increased beauty in the world, made better tools—all of which benefited his fellow humans. He answered those three questions.

But there is a fourth question—there is always another question:

How can my work transcend me and benefit humankind, now and into the future?

This question is best answered once the other three have been—and often only with the perspective of history.

You see, Brunellesci not only honored and used past traditions and influences, but also forged a movement with contemporary and future masters, such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. He expanded the toolbox for generations of artists and architects, having been credited with the invention of linear perspective and mobile scaffolding. His tools and techniques were not only used in art and architecture, but also in many other fields and applications.

And, as importantly, Brunelleschi and his Renaissance contemporaries built in service of beauty. Beauty in terms of craft and aesthetics. In terms of tooling, effectiveness and efficiency. And in terms of elevating humans and humankind.

But, to me, what made the concept of beauty in the Renaissance so special is how dynamic and unifying it was.

It was about harmony and proportion. About the natural world and the human form. Intellectual pursuits and emotional expression. Narratives and symbolism.

In the Renaissance, beauty was a conversation, an interaction, an exchange.

It happened between people.

Between a scholar and classical texts.

Between artists and their art.

Take Michelangelo’s David. What a sight to behold! But the most beautiful part about it? Michelangelo used a block of marble that was deemed flawed and unsuitable by other artists. He worked with the material’s natural qualities, subtly adjusting his design to incorporate the imperfections of the marble. Now that’s a conversation with—and about—beauty!

Or The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio. Aesthetically, it’s a stunning painting. But it’s most beautiful because it put his pupil, Leonardo da Vinci, on the map. Verrocchio had tasked Da Vinci with painting an angel in the painting. It was at that moment that he realized the magnitude of Da Vinci’s abilities—and the rest is history.

The reason the Renaissance has echoed through the ages is not just that it was an incredibly generative period, but because it wove beauty into all that prolific production.

Today, we are entering another historically generative period.

But whereas the Renaissance masters mostly reshaped the physical realm, we have the same opportunity with the mental realm.

We are already seeing how AI can supercharge the way we share ideas or express ourselves, whether that’s through writing essays or books, creating art and poetry, or helping us communicate with each other in ways we might otherwise not have attempted, like this:

Non è tanto ciò che dici, quanto il modo in cui lo dici.1

OK, it’s true, AI needs to help me as much with my accent, as it did with this translation.

But the point is that AI can help us with both with what is said and how it is heard.

And that is where humans—and humanity—can level up:

Not only in getting more people to participate in conversations, but also in getting them to better communicate, connect and relate.

Because what defines humans—and humanity—is not just our unusual level of intelligence, but also how we capitalize on that intelligence by developing technologies that amplify and complement our mental, physical, and social capacities. All in service of each other.

If we merely lived up to our scientific classification—Homo sapiens—and just sat around thinking all day, we’d be much different creatures than we actually are.

A more accurate name for us is Homo techne: humans as toolmakers and tool users.

And we build tools not only to make our lives better, easier or faster. But more collaborative. And more beautiful.

That’s technology.

The story of humanity is the story of technology.

And the history of technology developed here in Italy is astounding:

There’s the barometer, programmable calculator, radio, typewriter, parachute, compound microscope, motorcycle, internal combustion engine, and eyeglasses.

We often talk about having a good vision for technology, without acknowledging good vision as technology!

And now there’s AI, a new tool for us to shape, and which will, in turn, shape our world.

What will we do?

This brings us back to you, Generation AI.

You are the inheritors of Brunelleschi. We are all Brunelleschi.

AI is our cognitive “mobile scaffolding.”

And it will help us build all kinds of “cathedrals of the mind”—many of which we could not have built before.

It’s already happening:

We’re already using AI to make new metal-glass hybrids 200 times faster, paving the way for improved batteries, alloys, and sensors—decades ahead of time.

With AI, we’re catching cancer diagnoses that we previously missed, and screening for cancer at a fraction of the price—a game changer for the global population.

We’re using AI to unlock lost languages like Akkadian or decode animal communication, thus resetting our relationship with past humans, as well as the rest of nature.

The examples go on.

This is what it can look like to shape AI. And, in turn, how AI can shape all of us.

But, for many of us, our use of AI need not be as profound or as far-reaching to start.

At a minimum, we just need to start using AI, if we haven’t.

And continue growing with it, if we have.

Because AI, like many technologies, gives us more abilities and time, both of which are invaluable gifts. And there’s something foundationally beautiful about that.

Empowered by AI, humanity can do more of what it does best: explore.

And that progress will come at the periphery—the frontier that we explore.

As the University of Bologna’s own Umberto Eco once wrote:

“We can only add to the world, where we believe it ends.”

As we venture to add to the world, let’s explore together and for each other. 

Of course, we’re bound to get lost in technology every now and then. One way to keep our way is to remember that technology is human. It is from and about us. How we choose to organize, create, and improve ourselves, together. This is one of the legacies of the Renaissance that we can weave into our story.

That’s how I understand this university—the oldest in the Western World—was created.

It emerged not from a mandate from a prince or a pope, nor under the direction of a group of teachers, but it grew from the spontaneous, informal initiative of a few students.

Now, 935 years later, here you are: thousands of students from over 70 countries.

I’m honored to be here with you. And to share this moment.

Standing up here and seeing the future—all of you—in this historic Piazza Maggiore reminds me just how essential it is to include the best of Renaissance in our trajectory with AI.

Which is the same technology I used to revise Keats’ words about truth and beauty for this occasion:

“Beauty is made by tools, and tools make beauty—and that is the story of the elevation of humanity.”

It starts with you, graduates.

Right now.

There’s an exciting—and beautiful—future ready to be shaped.

The tools are in your hands.

Thank you.

1“It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.”;