Last week on Jewschool, Open Hillel denounced the intimidation of Brown University event attendees by a “robot” associated with StandWithUs.
Several days later, StandWithUs clarified that the robot, while operated remotely and accompanied by StandWithUs staff, had not been purchased by the organization. And they pointed to a Facebook post by the device’s inventor that he had received permission from event organizer Prof. Beshara Doumani to send the robot. It is not clear whether event organizers were aware StandWithUs would be involved; emails to Prof. Doumani went unanswered.
Open Hillel organizers responded by saying they hoped robots sent to campus events “will become more adept at navigating campus norms and behaving respectfully towards human participants.”
In an email to Jewschool, StandWithus stated the robot was not theirs and not intended to be off-putting:
The “Robot” used is not a drone, nor is it or was it at any point owned or invented by StandWithUs. It is an invention created by two companies: Telebuddy and Double Robotics and our participation at the event was initiated by Telebuddy CEO, Dr. Roey Tzezana, who told our staff member that he has permission from one of the organizers of the event to attend the discussion with the “robot.”
To the best of our knowledge, the invention was meant to enrich discussions and conversations by allowing remote participation in an interactive manner, with great potential for a variety of opinions, meetings and engagements.
Dr. Roey Tzezana, the device’s inventor, commented on Open Hillel’s Facebook page that he lent the machine to a staff member of StandWithUs. He added that the Israeli government was not involved, a reference to Open Hillel’s mention of StandWithUs’ financial relationship with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. (StandWithUs reportedly jointly funds an 850,000 NIS a year project with the Prime Minister’s office for sharing state messages on social media through student volunteers. StandWithUs disputes these claims and says they did not accept the partnership.)
Anyway, Mr. Shahar Azani from StandWithUs took control over the robot in the event. I can personally testify that he absolutely did not “harass” anyone. He talked with people, and if they didn’t talk back – he just went on talking with other people. It was fun, and people took pictures and were interested to hear about Shahar and the robot.
As for surveillance or Israeli support for this venture: you’re absolutely wrong. No footage of what the robot ‘sees’ is being saved anywhere, and the Israeli government has absolutely no connection to this use of the robot. It was strictly my idea, and I stand behind it: if we can enrich debates with more points of view, to reach more meaningful insights about the future, how can we allow ourselves not to do so?
Open Hillel responded, saying they hoped robots would not used to intimidate participants anymore:
Open Hillel is glad that StandWithUs has responded to our statement by clarifying that they intended to use the robot to promote open discourse rather than shut down conversation.
We initially released a statement out of concern about the potential use of technology to monitor campus discourse.
If robots become a regular presence at Israel/Palestine-related events, we hope that they will become more adept at navigating campus norms and behaving respectfully towards human participants.
We do wonder whether there might be a better way to promote open discourse than using robots — for instance, by opposing Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership.