A robot representing a right-leaning Israel advocacy group has been accused of “harassing students” and “policing academic discourse” at a Brown University discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week. The robot’s creator, however, claims its only purpose was to “introduce greater diversity” into the debate.
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The robot-spy at the center of the bizarre incident was built by Israeli robotics engineer Roey Tzezana, cofounder of the firm Tele-Buddy. Tzezana’s robot was a wheeled contraption topped by an iPad, which showed the face of Shahar Azani – northeast executive director of pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs. Via live video, Azani was able to “move” around the room and chat with students.
“The latest development in the attack on open discourse by right-wing, pro-Israel groups appears to be the use of robots to police academic discourse,” student group Open Hillel said in a statement, calling the incident a “dystopian twist.”
Open Hillel, which advocates for conversations about Israel on campus and includes supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, asserted that the robot “approached students and harassed them about why they were attending the event. Students declined to engage with this bizarre form of intimidation and ignored the robot.”
“If robots become a regular presence at Israel/Palestine-related events, we hope they will become more adept at navigating campus norms and behaving respectfully toward human participants,” Open Hillel wrote in an email to Haaretz. “We do wonder whether there might be a better way to promote open discourse than using robots.”
However, Azani claims the purpose of the exercise “was completely innocuous. We were not policing the thoughts of anyone, it was just enriching the conversation.” He said he only approached students to introduce himself and explain the robotic technology, and added that he did not approach students who didn’t seem interested in engaging with him.
Tzezana said he decided to bring the robot to the event because he felt that the panel lacked diversity, favoring left-leaning views. “When I looked at the list of participants, I saw that they all came from the same background,” he said. “I thought it would be a shame to have such a critical discussion with only one point of view.”
He added that he contacted the event’s organizers, who said it was open to all participants, “including robots.”
The panel discussion, titled “Suffering Embrace? The Futures of Palestinians in Israel,” was sponsored by Brown’s Department of Middle East Studies. The keynote speaker was MK Haneen Zoabi (Joint Arab List), the controversial Israeli-Arab lawmaker who was suspended from the Knesset for six months in 2014 after declaring that Palestinians who kidnapped Israelis were “not terrorists.”
Panel participants said the robot did not interfere with the event’s proceedings. “There was no disruption or incivility,” panelist Gershon Shafir, from the University of California, San Diego, wrote in an email to Haaretz. “The academic panel went on as planned and covered some of the incivilities aimed at Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
Shira Robinson, a professor at George Washington University who spoke at the event, stated that the robot did not play a significant role. She said the discussion was productive and enabled her colleagues to share various perspectives on the state of the Palestinian community. Some of the issues raised included Palestinian activism and suppression of Palestinian expression in Israel.
“The event wasn’t a Fox- or CNN-style debate about the state of things,” Robinson said. “It was looking at things from different social and political angles,” adding that it was a “scholarly, not an ideological discussion.”
Tzezana said he hopes technology will continue to enable people to virtually attend academic events and conferences. He added that the robot doesn’t have the capacity to record its surroundings.