Two telepresence robots roll into a human-computer interaction conference. Sounds like the beginning of a very nerdy joke, but it really happened (#2017). A few weeks ago in Denver, Colorado, a robot I was piloting over the internet from my computer in Idaho stood wheel-to-wheel with a similar ‘bot in a pink skirt controlled by a researcher in Germany. We huddled. We introduced ourselves by yelling at each other’s screens. Given the topic of the conference, this particular human-computer interaction was a little too on the HD touch-screen nose. But as much as the huddle symbolized of the future, it was also a political statement about a troubled present.
The German researcher, Susanne Boll, was in robot form as a way to protest the Trump administration’s immigration and travel ban, which would bar many of her students and colleagues from attending the conference in person because of where they’re from. The Computer Human Interaction conference is the largest annual gathering of its kind in the world, with 2,900 attendees in 2017—a place where, if this is your field, you need to be. This year it had 14 such robots on hand, though the organizers had originally planned to have fewer set aside for attendees with physical disabilities that prevented them from traveling.
But in January, after President Trump signed an executive order banning anyone from seven Muslim-majority nations from visiting the US, the plan changed. Researchers threatened to boycott the conference if organizers didn’t move it out of the United States, since the location suddenly meant that so many scientists in the field would be unable to attend. The organizers landed on robotics to solve the problem. Beam, the company that makes these ‘bots, gave the conference a steep discount to provide enough to allow anyone with visa trouble to attend.
In the months since, courts in the US halted the ban, finding both the original and revised orders discriminatory. But the battle isn’t over. This week, the administration asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the ban. Whether the high court does rule in favor of the exclusion of people from these countries indefinitely or not, the damage in many ways has been done, as the roboticized researchers at CHI demonstrated. Though many were technically able to enter the US for the conference, they didn’t out of fear or solidarity. But as ever, technology found a way to bridge the divide.
“It is a political statement, right? That we can allow people to come,” says Gloria Marks, General Chair of CHI and a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She says that even with the telepresence robots reserved for people wth denied visas, the conference still lost some attendees over the looming ban. “They just didn’t even want to take a chance of coming,” she said.
Screen to Screen
In my first moments at CHI, I meet Boll when my robot runs into hers during a coffee break. She has her son on her lap because it’s late at night and he’s about to go to bed. I introduce myself and look out the open window to the bright mountain light of Ketchum, Idaho, at 11am. We’re face to face and a world away. The sound of the crowd of humans mingling around us makes it impossible to talk, so I follow Boll and our human student volunteer robot handler to the hallway where it’s quieter. Here I experience the technical difficulties unique to telepresence attendees. Susanne’s robot is much faster than mine, despite mine being on the fastest setting, and I struggle to match her pace. “Hold the shift button as you hit the up arrow,” my handler tells me. This is advanced Beaming. Now we’re rolling, but after a minute my screen freezes. When it reconnects, people are approaching us to say hello and snap pictures. This is a critical networking that makes a conference like CHI so essential to people in the human computer interaction field.
People like Ahmed Kharrufa, a lecturer in human-computer interaction at Newcastle University in the UK, who didn’t travel to the conference for fear of the political situation in the US. Kharrufa was born in Iraq. He had a visa to come to CHI, but then in January the first immigration ban dashed those plans. “Then Iraq was lifted from the ban,” he tells me, “but that didn’t change how I feel about the whole thing.” We’re talking over Skype because it’s too hard to hear each other when we’re two robots talking in a crowded hallway. What Kharrufa means is this: He technically could enter the US since the second immigration ban—which isn’t even in effect because the courts have halted it—excluded Iraq. But he no longer trusts the US to keep him safe.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I go on the plane when I’m entitled to enter and then land when I’m not. It happened to many people. It’s very unpredictable. If there’s any chance of me being interrogated at the border control, why would I put myself through that?” he asks.
He is far from alone in that feeling. His university usually sends a large group to CHI. This year they sent only those who were making presentations. “They didn’t feel comfortable attending knowing that many other researchers couldn’t attend,” he says. The same is true for Boll, who has many Iranian students and researchers in her lab. “I am the head of an international team in which not everybody has the same options for travel to the US,” she says. She couldn’t attend in good conscience.
Nor is Kharuffa’s fear unfounded. Even if the Supreme Court strikes down the ban a final time, the administration is finding new ways to discourage entry. Just this week, the US changed the rules so that visa applicants must provide their social media handles for extra scrutiny.
At a talk on the second day, my robot stands in a row with 10 others at the side of the room. As Ben Shneiderman, one of the fathers of human-computer interaction, spoke to the audience, the robot next to me jostled backward and left the room. Heads turned to watch it navigate away. Later I learn it was Amira Chalbi, a PhD student at the Inria Research Center in Lilles, France, who should have been at the conference in person but was denied a visa. Chalbi is from Tunisia, which is not on the list of banned countries, yet she says the US embassy in Paris denied her visa without even looking at her application materials. She does not know why. Her robot’s screen broke in the middle of the talk, so she scooted out for repairs.
Chalbi studies the use of animation in data visualization and had won a coveted position as a student volunteer at CHI. She should have been one of the many people clad in orange shirts helping people—and robots—navigate the convention center. Instead, the organizers of the conference have gone out of their way to find a way for her to be a robotic student volunteer.
During coffee breaks, Chalbi rolls her Beam into the middle of the crowd and yells out the schedule of sessions coming next. She screen-shares the schedule so people walking by can see where to go. Organizers even put the orange uniform shirt on her Beam.
“It was a really wonderful human experience. I was walking with the Beam and I was lucky to meet some friends who I know already, so I was able to chat with some people who just came across the beam and say hi,” Chalbi says. But she acknowledges that the technical interruptions got in the way of her full participation, despite the conference organizers trying their best to make everything perfect.
Both Chalbi and Kharrufa worry about the long-term effects on their careers of their physical exclusion from conferences like CHI, most of which are in the US. “If you can’t go it significantly affects your networking and the relationships you build, which is super important in research because it’s all about the people you know,” Kharrufa says.
When Kharrufa presents his latest research into childhood education here at CHI, he’s a head on a telepresence robot screen, standing on stage addressing a sea of humans. It’s not the same. But it’s better than not being here at all—even with the technical difficulties.