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Could an artificial intelligence-based coach help managers master difficult conversations?

MIT alumni develop an executive coaching bot.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  February 23, 2017

2017-CoachOtto screenshot

The Coach Otto bot in a Slack messaging interface

Facing a difficult conversation with an underperforming employee? Need to confront a challenging colleague? While some companies help managers prepare for those conversations with the support of executive coaches, such specialized resources aren’t available at all levels or all firms. But what if a chatbot could provide similar guidance?

Jeff Orkin, who has a doctorate from the MIT Media Lab, and Dan Tomaschko, MBA ’15, have co-founded GiantOtter to do just that. The company is using artificial intelligence, or AI, to develop and train “Coach Otto,” a bot that provides online coaching for companies.

During his time studying at the MIT Media Lab, Orkin explored ways for computers to converse naturally with humans. While today’s robots, like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, can generally answer questions or respond to commands, they are not fully capable of natural language understanding, a critical part of both teaching and coaching.

“In my research, I was interested in how we could mine data from real human beings talking to each other so we could learn the social norms and patterns of dialogue that can be used to create machines that could converse and cooperate with humans,” Orkin said.

Help from the humans
AI needs some human guidance to model the complex ways human beings act, Orkin said. He and Tomaschko started building the Coach Otto tool by recording 50 managers at 20 different companies and using the resulting transcripts to train the bot. A tagging process gave hints to the AI system that allowed it to understand and learn from what people were saying to one another. The system could then respond to a live person by referring back to the database of transcripts to see how people had reacted to similar scenarios in the past.

“With our approach, you give us a small set of transcripts and we run it through our process, and you get back this living conversation that will continue to get better as more people interact with it,” Orkin said.

Coach Otto will integrate with team messaging apps such as Slack and HipChat. Users can access the coaching bot on their smartphones or computers, where they can practice a conversation and receive feedback before meeting with a colleague in person.

The tool is not meant to replace in-person conversations between colleagues, said Tomaschko, but it could improve the quality and reduce the tension in those conversations by allowing people to practice and improve their approach before they meet.

GiantOtter was recently funded by a National Science Foundation grant, and the company is in talks with a number of corporate training companies, Orkin said.