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DREAMS/CPAR/BDD Seminar – Matt Beane on Sensitivity Theory

CITRIS People and Robots hosts a weekly seminar series every Monday afternoon jointly with UC Berkeley’s “Design of Robotics and Embedded systems, Analysis, and Modeling” Seminars (DREAMS).

SPEAKER: Matt Beane

TITLE: Sensitivity Theory: Explaining How Workers in Deskilled Jobs Advance within an Organization

ZOOM: https://berkeley.zoom.us/j/97238125697

ABSTRACT: Millions work in deskilled jobs, and prior research suggests that advancing out of these jobs within an organization is uniquely difficult:

in order to advance, workers must demonstrate skills other than those that their current position gives them the opportunity to develop. Through our two year, nationwide, multi-sited ethnographic study of AI-enabled robotics in e-commerce and parcel warehousing, we both reveal the profound challenges to internal advancement out of actively deskilled jobs and the systematic ways in which a small minority of workers managed to do so, in spite of these challenges. In particular, we show that workers advanced by capitalizing on a “sensitivity”: an attunement to a domain of organizational operations, experienced as some combination of fascination and irritation and enacted through small attempts to understand or address related problems. The remainder of sensitivity theory accounts for the practices and organizational conditions that allow workers in deskilled jobs to develop sensitivity-related skills, add value in their organization and advance into jobs that are not deskilled. Beyond this core contribution, sensitivity theory helps us predict individual career trajectories, the talent-related dynamics of automation, deskilling and workplace skill polarization, and better understand the diversity of work-related human capability.

BIO: Matt Beane is an Assistant Professor in Technology Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Digital Fellow with both Stanford’s Digital Economy Lab and MIT’s Institute for the Digital Economy. He received his PhD and Masters from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Information Technologies department. In between his doctoral studies and his current professorship, Beane helped found and fund Humatics, an MIT-connected, full-stack internet of things startup. Its mission is to drive seamless collaboration between humans, machines, and infrastructure. Beane conducts field research on work involving robots and AI to help us understand the implications of intelligent machines for the broader world. All of his projects involve many hundreds of hours—sometimes years—watching, interviewing, and often working side by side with people who use robots to get their jobs done. And unlike most social scientists, each of his studies is designed to uncover success in conditions where we would expect failure. Finding these “positive needles” in the negative haystack of technological progress allows Beane to offer unique insights that can guide us as we try to navigate the future we’re building for ourselves.

Currently, Beane is leading a team engaged in unprecedented—nationwide, multi-organizational, longitudinal—research on AI-enabled robots in e-commerce warehousing, looking for conditions in which frontline workers and their organizations adapt particularly well and rapidly to the introduction of these systems. He has also studied robotic surgery, robotic materials transport, and robotic telepresence in healthcare, elder care, and knowledge work. He is likewise in the midst of applied research to develop two intelligent technologies to address the challenges evident in his prior studies.

Beane’s award-winning research on robotic surgery has been published in premier management journals such as Administrative Science Quarterly and Organization Science, and Harvard Business Review. In 2012, he was selected as a Human Robot Interaction Pioneer, and in 2021 he was named to the Thinkers50 Radar list. He is a regular contributor to popular outlets such as Wired, MIT Technology Review, TechCrunch, and Forbes. When he isn’t studying the intersection of intelligent tech and apprenticeship—which is hardly ever—he likes to play the guitar, cook with his wife Kristen, and read science fiction.

ABOUT THE SERIES: CITRIS People and Robots hosts a weekly seminar series every Monday afternoon jointly with UC Berkeley’s “Design of Robotics and Embedded systems, Analysis, and Modeling” Seminars (DREAMS). Seminars will be held in room 250 Sutardja Dai Hall on Mondays from 4-5 PM and available online via webcast.

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