Conferences on Gaming and Sex Robots Cancelled After Protests Over Steve Bannon Keynote

Over the past few weeks, a 15-year-old computer entertainment conference dissolved into controversy from which it may never recover after the organizers announced Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald J. Trump and prominent right-wing figure in American politics, as a keynote speaker. The conference was subsequently cancelled after Bannon’s involvement drew vocal protests from scheduled speakers and attendees.

The Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology conference (ACE) was supposed to take place from December 10 to 12 in Missoula, Montana. Bannon’s participation — ostensibly to speak about employment opportunities for minorities in the computing entertainment industry — was announced in late October.

The uproar over Bannon’s keynote also led to the cancellation of a sister conference, the 4th International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots (LSR), where scholars were to present research on wearable touch sensors, the moral psychology of sex robots, the effects of virtual relationships, and people’s feelings about intimacy with robots.

On November 28, David Levy, the LSR conference co-chair and author of “Love and Sex with Robots,” emailed conference speakers and participants explaining that the sex robot event was being postponed “due to ‘force majeure’ circumstances beyond our control.” Levy said that the cancellation of the “co-located” 2018 ACE conference, with which LSR was “inextricably intertwined,” left no other choice.

According to the ACE website, its main aim “is to stimulate discussion in the development of new and compelling entertainment computing and interactive art concepts and applications.” Major conference sponsors included Samsung and Tencent. The first ACE conference took place in 2004 and Springer, a major academic publishing house, has published the conference’s proceedings in some years. ACE’s founder, Adrian Cheok, also serves as co-chair of the Congress on Love and Sex with Robots.

The dust-up over the participation of Bannon, a polarizing figure with a reputation for stoking misogyny and racism, marked another blow for an industry that has long struggled to rid itself of its own brand of toxic bro culture, which arguably reached full blossom during 2014’s Gamergate scandal. A sustained campaign of harassment toward women and others who advocated for more inclusion and diversity within the video gaming industry, Gamergate was supposed to mark a moment of reckoning for the male-dominated technology industry writ large. But for many observers, this month’s dual collapsed conferences — a bizarre convergence of computer entertainment, robot sex, and with the addition of Bannon, alt-right politics — suggested that the industry still has a very long way to go.

Responding on Twitter to the announcement of Bannon’s participation in October, Mata Haggis-Burridge, a professor of creative and entertainment games at Breda University of Applied Science in the Netherlands, noted: “The extra kicker is that the banner above that announcement says they celebrate women in entertainment computing — the opposite [of] Bannon’s impact on video games.”

The Missoula cancellations aren’t the first controversies for the tech conferences and organizers. In 2015, LSR cancelled its annual conference after authorities in the host country, Malaysia, declared it illegal. And in 2017 at the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG) conference, Cheok gave a controversial keynote speech in which he disregarded questions about sexual consent and apparently drew parallels between human-robot marriage and marriage between same-sex or interracial couples. Cheok’s comments drew fire on Twitter under the hashtag #fdg17. Gillian Smith, a computer scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, tweeted, “Well, I’m coming away from the closing keynote feeling violated. How y’all doing? #fdg17”

Matthew Guzdial, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, tweeted “Hey #fdg17 maybe consider not inviting keynoters who equate POC/queer folk with non-human entities?”

More controversial than the speech were Cheok’s attacks on his critics. A number of FDG 2017 conference organizers, as well as the Board of Directors of its parent organization, the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Digital Games (SASDG), published a letter condemning Cheok’s behavior.

Three months later, at the 2017 ACE conference, Yoram Chisik, a digital media researcher at the University of Madeira in Portugal, joined the ACE organization’s steering committee. In late June, Chisik learned that the ACE conference had become “co-located” with Levy’s LSR conference. According to Chisik, the ACE steering committee members, for reasons they never understood, weren’t notified of the change, and didn’t approve of it. In August, Chisik and two other steering committee members resigned.

Then, on October 26, ACE announced Bannon’s keynote address.

Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who was also scheduled to give a keynote at ACE, withdrew from the conference the next day. “[M]y participation as a co-keynoter with Bannon would severely impair my credibility with the many diverse groups with which I am involved,” Gray wrote in an email. “I have appeared, happily, on the same stage with libertarians and others with whom I disagree on many issues, but Bannon’s alt-right brand is personally odious to me and, more importantly, by association, would work against my credibility and that of the causes to which I am passionately devoted.”  

According to an email to Undark, Bob Sturm, a computer scientist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, “asked Cheok via tweet how the ACE 2018 committee made such a decision to invite Bannon,” and he questioned Bannon’s relevance to the conference. Sturm said Cheok blocked him before tweeting that Bannon “will give a very important talk about how economic nationalism will help minorities (blacks, Hispanics, etc.) to obtain more high tech jobs such as in computer entertainment industry.”

When Sturm checked the ACE website soon after, he said the majority of the steering committee had been replaced. (ACE began introducing new steering committee members — 16 in all, including Cheok and Levy — on August 23).

Soon after, participants began withdrawing their submissions and many called for a conference boycott. Of the five papers left at the time of the conference cancellation, Cheok is credited or co-credited with writing three.

Springer also severed its affiliation, according to Wired, because “the number of submissions to ACE 2018 compared to previous years is extremely low and remains well behind expectations” and because the papers and the overall organization of the conference “do not comply with our publishing guidelines.”

As of the publication of this article, the ACE conference website depicts an Antifa (anti-fascist) protest that appeared to be unaffiliated with the conference, and the accompanying text read: “the 15th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology becomes the first academic computer science conference in history to be shut down by fanatic left-wing anti-free speech protests.” The page names the “anti-free speech fascist style mob,” which includes former committee members and researchers who questioned the decision to invite Bannon. The ACE site compares their actions with the 1933 “Nazi university student association” blacklists.

One of those named on the ACE website is Petri Lankoski, a game studies researcher at Södertörn University in Sweden, who said he thinks he’s included because he warned other researchers that Springer wasn’t going to publish the 2018 conference proceedings. He also noted that the ACE website doesn’t “mention that they lost Springer as proceeding publisher” before the conference boycott. In other words, ACE’s problems began before Bannon’s invitation.

Until Tuesday, the only event to survive all the cancellations was Bannon’s talk, which had morphed into the Athenian Parrhesia Free-Speech Forum and ultimately focused on the “Future of Populism.” The event was set to take place at the University of Montana and include a debate between Bannon and Michel Valentin, an author and former professor at the university, according to the Missoulian.

While the university emphasized that it was not sponsoring the event and that it rented out the space months ago for the ACE and LSR conferences under conditions that don’t “involve regulation of content,” many residents were still angry, with some calling on the university to cancel Bannon’s appearance. On Tuesday, Cheok sent registered attendees an email saying that the event is postponed “due to the unavailability of Mr. Stephen Bannon.”

Conference attendees expressed disappointment over the cancellations of the original conferences. “In my opinion, this highjacking of that conference — which has questionable quality in the first place — is quite unique,” said Sturm. In September, Cheok tweeted “Leftists are such weak sissies, and against free speech!” after the New Yorker Festival cancelled an appearance by Bannon, so the ensuing protests from ACE and LSR participants were not likely a surprise. The Bannon invitation, critics point out, may also undermine Cheok and Levy’s goals, as it’s easier to write off a controversial research niche such as sex-tech if the conference headliner is a politically contentious figure.

Beyond the conferences, farther-reaching questions and concerns remain. Gamergate wasn’t so long ago, and the culture wars it exemplifies have arguably intensified. Online video game chatrooms have become popular venues for hate group recruitment. Breitbart News facilitated the rise of Gamergate — in particular, through the work of the site’s former senior editor, Milo Yiannopoulos.

Then there’s the lack of diversity in tech — the topic Bannon’s keynote on economic nationalism was supposed to address — which leads to countless forms of programming bias in various branches of computer science and artificial intelligence. Katharine Neil, a game developer, thinks the concerns about ACE tie “into broader social concerns about who is designing and controlling the future of AI/robotics.”

Given the importance of ethical questions regarding AI, it’s crucial to include as many voices as possible, said Neil, which makes “this drama all the more infuriating to those researchers, I think.” The researchers who planned to show work at ACE had to choose between presenting at a conference keynoted by Bannon or withdrawing, losing an academic platform and a non-refundable $880 conference fee.

Despite these concerns, some researchers remain hopeful for the field. Among them is Kate Devlin, a computer scientist at the University of London who hosted the 2016 LSR conference and co-edited the 2016 LSR conference proceedings. While Devlin said she’s “really saddened that this area of research, which often gets dismissed as trivial or sensationalist, is having its portrayal tarnished further,” she added that there is a “growing community of researchers working in the area independently from LSR” and, presumably, ACE.

Joelle Renstrom is a science writer who focuses on robots, AI, and space exploration. She teaches at Boston University.