Robotics on the night shift

Doctoral student Matt Beane studies robotic systems equipped with artificial intelligence

February 20, 2014

Matt Beane, PhD student

Matt Beane, PhD student

Long fascinated by artificial intelligence, MIT Sloan PhD candidate Matt Beane finally decided to pursue an academic career after reading about MIT professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s work using technology to evaluate human conversation.

“I read this paper and thought, ‘The future is coming way faster than we expect,’” Beane said. “I applied to MIT Sloan because I was very motivated to see how people would react to getting sensitive personal feedback from technology.”

At the time, Beane was a senior consultant for Roger Schwarz & Associates working with top executives on culture change initiatives at large companies. Often, he found he could improve group dynamics simply by helping people to communicate more effectively. But he discovered that Pentland’s technology was able to accomplish much the same task—taking note, for example, when one person was dominating the conversation or interrupting others. What’s more, feedback from the device actually affected the way people behaved. “It immediately changed participation in groups,” Beane said.

Pentland’s study made Beane realize that software might someday be doing his job. He decided to change course. Today, Beane is on his way to a new career studying robotic systems equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) and their implications for the workplace. Why robotics and not just software? “If you want to pick the most evocative technology that’s both fascinating and creepy at once it would have to be a physical robot that’s moving around. We have 30-plus years of research on the implications of IT and AI for the world of work—but very little on what happens as AI starts to act in the physical world,” Beane said.

Now in his fourth year in MIT Sloan’s Information Technology doctoral program, Beane recently teamed up with Professor Wanda Orlikowski to study the use of telepresence robots in a hospital’s post-surgical intensive care unit. Something like Skype on wheels, these robots can be driven around by remote control and come equipped with screens to enable off-site physicians to check in with residents supervising the care of patients in the hospital overnight. While attending physicians traditionally confer with residents by phone, quizzing them about how well patients are recovering, the robot enabled them to hold virtual meetings with the resident in the presence of both the patient and the nurse on duty.

Beane observed how the doctors worked together using these robots and then compared those interactions with what occurred when the same kinds of patient checks were handled over the phone.

“I’ve been trained as both an anthropologist and sociologist at MIT Sloan,” Beane said, noting that he spent 10 months on the hospital’s night shift conducting field research. What he found was that the conversations that took place differed significantly depending on whether doctors used the phone or the telepresence robot to communicate. However, he said more research is needed to determine whether using the robot actually helps doctors provide better care to patients.

“The basic assumption is that the robot would be better—and this seems both true and false,” he said. “While it did allow for a lot of exploratory dialogue, using the robot took twice as long, and it’s not obvious to me that that extra time is net worth it in all cases.”

To help separate the hype about robots from reality, Beane led a one-day workshop on “The Business of Robotics” at MIT during Independent Activities Period in January. About 60 graduate students attended the session, which featured a panel of experts from industry, mature robotics companies, and startups discussing the opportunities for robotics in business.

Beane has also written about robotics in the workplace, notably contributing an article to MIT Technology Review, “The Avatar Economy,” in which he explores the potential for robots one day to enable even manual labor to be outsourced around the world. Bottom line? “The legal, political, and social obstacles to an avatar economy may prove greater than the technical ones,” Beane wrote.

For all the hype about robotics, Beane said other types of technology still dominate in business. “If you want to look at role of technology, software is still king by a huge, huge margin,” he said. “I just happen to be interested in how AI is moving into the physical world.”

Beane said the School community is very supportive of his research. “At MIT Sloan, if you’re interested in something very particular that’s off the radar screen, no one will say no,” he said. “I’m only limited by the amount of energy I’m willing to exert.”