As part of the “Debates on the Future of Robotics Research” virtual workshop on June 5 at the 2020 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), Katherine J. Kuchenbecker and four other leading scientists in the field discussed whether the costs of in-person conferences outweigh the benefits. Kuchenbecker, the Managing Director of MPI-IS and head of the Haptic Intelligence Department in Stuttgart, presented arguments in favor of virtual conferences.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought international travel to a standstill, scientists frequently attended large conferences to present their latest findings and network with other researchers from around the world. Many scientists, including other members of the debate panel, consider such in-person gatherings an important and necessary part of an academic career. However, a growing number of academics are calling for new formats that would make conferences accessible to a larger number of people without the need for extensive travel.
Katherine Kuchenbecker took on the position of the latter group during the debate. Over the course of her career, she has attended more than 30 international conferences and co-chaired the organization of two such events. “Not only are in-person events often expensive and time consuming, they also have a high environmental cost. As the current situation has shown, we can have meaningful scientific discussions virtually,” she said. “For the past 11 weeks, I have been doing science online. I have learned that building relationships digitally is possible.”
Kuchenbecker argued that complementing or even replacing conferences with online formats would make them more accessible to students and scientists with limited means. At the same time, archiving virtual events would also give researchers the possibility to consult presentations later on. “Considering the time and effort that goes into preparing scientific presentations, it’s a shame that they are often given once and then lost forever. There is greater potential for dissemination when presentations are made available online.”
While she acknowledged the importance of in-person meetings, Kuchenbecker advocated for smaller gatherings, including visits to partner institutions and labs. She argued that “the online format is worth exploring and should be given a chance to evolve,” even once travel restrictions have been lifted.
A recording of the 90-minute-long debate can be viewed at https://roboticsdebates.org.