Virtual Meetings are Virtually Impossible

In Design, Technology, Vision on 2010/02/02 at 12:56 pm

I am what you’d call an Eternal Optimist. Most of the time. I was an “early adopter” of AI (artificial intelligence) in the 80s — I took Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Minds” class at MIT; self-taught myself LISP programming to write a search algorithm for emergent sub-shapes, ie to emulate the creative eye in picking out  implied (‘hidden’) shapes in drawings that did not pre-exist.

One area of technological advancement that I had been optimistic about is virtual meetings — the ability to meet up over distance and time without the need for physical travel (and all the pains and strains that goes with it, not forgetting its CO2 footprint). But, for me, the promise of the perfect virtual meeting took a few steps backwards last Wednesday (27 Jan 2010) when I was in the audience of a dialogue session with Singapore’s Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. This is only the third time I have had the privilege to be in his presence; the first was across the table in his Cabinet Room at the Istana!

MM Lee's 'charged' presence at the International Housing Conference

Last week’s occasion was the International Public Housing Conference in Singapore. The dialogue with members of the audience was moderated by Prof Tommy Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large.  The atmosphere was ‘charged’ from the moment MM Lee entered the auditorium. His presence was gripping. In his usual style, he sketched out the history as well as the issues of the day and the future with great precision and “wow” clarity. At one heart-stopping point he emphatically stressed, “I totally disagree with you!” to a person who spoke up for rental housing as an alternative to costly home ownership. And, like a killer litigation lawyer, went on to demolish any comeback to that idea. He spoke decisively about the way to deal with racial tensions and foreigner enclaves as if he had been into the future and saw their problems first hand.

I pondered why the media reports in the evening news on TV, online and the next day’s newspapers did not capture anything close to the ‘charged’ atmosphere of the auditorium? I think they inherently could not. Here’s maybe why:

It’s not so much the “body language” which can be captured to a large extent by the video camera, especially in HD — the subtle hand and head gestures that syncronised in microseconds to the words spoken. Then there are the words themselves, spoken with clarity, warmth and artistry, and delivered in a way that enables us in the audience to sense the mind behind the man. AI’s long-fought frontier of natural language processing and gesture-based controls has made some progress over the decades, but this occasion with MM Lee shows how intractable this can be. Whilst I am still prepared to be the Eternal Optimist for breakthroughs in body language and natural language processing, the new thing I realised this time is not the body or the mouth, but rather the eyes. Virtual meetings need to replicate eye contact to do the job. I think this is so hard, to the extent that I have resigned to it as virtually impossible. You need to be actually there to see it to believe it.

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