Envisaging the AI-enhanced Future of the Conferencing Process


Anthony Judge | Laetus in Praesens – TRANSCEND Media Service

Meeting Design through Interactive Incorporation of Participants and Content


14 Dec 2020 – Whereas virtual gatherings were relatively exotic in 2019, they have become commonplace (if not essential) in 2020. This is especially the case for international institutions which previously had little interest in meetings that did not offer face-to-face encounters in physical terms — with all the networking possible in associated receptions.

The shift in modality has been most striking globally on the occasion of the celebration by the United Nations of its 75th General Assembly (September 2020). The gathering took the highly unusual form of using virtual conferencing technology unimaginable in the very recent past (Julian Borger, Why the UN’s 75th general assembly could be worse than the world’s worst Zoom meeting, The Guardian, 22 September 2020). As the latter notes: The worst parts of UN events will be on display, the endless speechifying first among them, but none of what normally makes the general assembly indispensable.

Commentators have indicated other challenges (Marcus Holmes, et al, UN general assembly: why virtual meetings make it hard for diplomats to trust each other, The Conversation, 22 September 2020; Nicholas Westcott, UN general assembly goes virtual: a former ambassador on what that means for diplomacy, The Conversation, 21 September 2020). Especially relevant to the following argument is the very extensive use of pre-recorded interventions — raising the question as to who listens to what, when, and if at all.

More recently the impacts on institutional complexes like the Brussels “European Quarter” have been remarkable — now virtually empty as a consequence of the massive shift to teleworking from home (Maïa de La Baume, Out of Office: has coronavirus changed Brussels’ EU Quarter for good? Politico, 30 November 2020). Ironically the shift may resolve the long-standing controversy over the costly periodic displacement of sessions of the European Parliament between facilities in Brussels and Strasbourg — illogical in a period of budgetary constraint (Lauren Chadwick, EU Parliament’s €114m-a-year move to Strasbourg ‘a waste of money, but will it ever be scrapped?, EuroNews, 20 May 2019; EU Parliament’s journeys from Strasbourg to Brussels, BBC News, 26 October 2012). Representatives may no longer meet physically in either location. The long-term impact on national parliaments and their debating function has yet to become evident — as indicated by cases of their exceptional closure during lockdown.

The consequence of the shift is dramatic for the many cities around the world which have invested heavily in conference halls in the expectation of the income they would generate — and the extensive economic side-benefits from the associated tourism. The conference halls have been transformed into “white elephants”.

Whilst the massive shift to zoom-style meetings has already become evident, less evident are the emerging technologies which will transform their current form — soon to be recognized as primitive from a future perspective. Clearly the number and frequency of meetings will increase, given the far lower cost of holding them. Far more subtle however — as argued here — will be the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in enhancing and manipulating the manner in which virtual encounters are experienced. How indeed may these enable new forms of collective intelligence — and the unforeseen possibilities of community organization these might enable?

Some early indications of possibilities are evident in the innovative enhancements already offered by collaborative software applications in the organization of virtual meetings. A more dramatic sense of this transformation is offered by the enthusiasm of many for the immersive experience of online gaming and the manner in which identity can be reframed in that context.

The speculative exploration which follows frames the question as to how the impact of AI on meetings might be experienced. The approach contrasts with the assumption that plenary meetings will continue to take the form to which people have become habituated in conferences and parliaments — reinforced by the manner in which this pattern has been portrayed by science fiction, even in future millennia.

For the author, this exploration follows from early involvement in the series of International Conferences on Conference Organization and subsequently in organizing gatherings of representatives of the meetings industry associated with the Union of International Associations. In parallel this preoccupation focused on the enhancement of interaction between participants in large conferences (History of Participant Interaction Messaging 1979 to 1995, 2007).

As the unfruitful nature of debates between polarized perspectives has made dramatically evident at the highest level, the question is whether AI will enable dialogue of a “higher order”, and what form this might take (Forthcoming Major Revolution in Global Dialogue: challenging new world order of interactive communication, 2013). What might be understood as meaningful dialogue by the future? Specifically it can be asked why is there no concern for how mediators might be in some way “enhanced” or “augmented” — to counterbalance the emphasis on exacerbating the consequences of enhancing the application of AI in combat performance?

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