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They Can’t Make Graduation. TepperBot To The Rescue!

The TepperBot3000 will help two MBAs get their degrees May 20 by walking across the stage for them. It will be remotely controlled by the graduates, who will look out from its digital “face” and see the scene from its perspective. Shown here is the bot with one of the students, Matt McElhaney, controlling it during a trial run this week. Courtesy photo

From hydrofoil surfboards to self-driving cars, the future has arrived. Now, for MBAs who are too busy working to attend their graduation ceremony, we get another leap into science fact: robots that will complete the symbolic walk across the commencement stage for them.

Matt McElhaney and Ben Harris, members of the second graduating class of the online hybrid MBA at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, can’t make it to their graduation this Saturday (May 20): McElhaney works in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, more than 1,000 miles away, and Harris, a radiologist who has to book his vacations half a year in advance, will be away with family.

TepperBot3000 to the rescue!

In a Tepper (and probably B-school — and possibly college) first, McElhaney and Harris will “walk” the stage by remotely controlling a wheeled robot, TepperBot3000, a “telepresence” robot that resembles a small Segway with an iPad for a head. The robot, invented by Double Robotics, retails for about $2,500; Tepper has used it connect online students at networking events and on-campus activities — but never before to bring distant students live to their own graduation ceremony.

TEPPER AND TECH GO HAND IN HAND

This is definitely the first time Tepper and CMU will have a robot standing in for a graduating student, Bob Monroe, associate professor of business technologies and director of the Tepper online hybrid MBA program, tells Poets&Quants.

But robots have served other purposes on the tech-friendly CMU campus, notably in other capacities in School of Computer Science diploma ceremonies: A robot bagpiper plays at the ceremony annually, and a robot has delivered the names of graduates to the podium in at least one previous year. More than a decade ago, Monroe says, a robot named Grace sat on the stage for a professor who couldn’t be there. “Grace didn’t move or say anything,” Monroe says. “It just made faces during the ceremony.”

In the business school, the appearance of a robot shouldn’t cause too many waves. After all, in 2016 Tepper sent one third (33.5%) of its graduates into the tech industry.

‘I NEVER DREAMED I WOULD GRADUATE BY ROBOT’

Benjamin Harris. Courtesy photo

Neither McElhaney, who works for BP in Oklahoma City, nor Harris, a radiologist in Erie, Pennsylvania, are in the tech industry. Both, however, are excited to take part in a commencement they were sure they’d miss — and to be part of history.

“I never dreamed I would graduate by robot,” Harris tells Poets&Quants, laughing. “I actually know Matt really well, so it’s great that Matt and I will get to graduate together as robots.”

Harris and his family — he’s a recent father — will be on a long-planned vacation, because that’s how doctors must plan their vacations: a long time in advance. When he realized the schedule conflict with commencement, he was “bummed” but “planned to just sort of fade into the distance” and move on.

Then Monroe emailed Harris with a proposal. “He said, ‘We’d like to offer you the opportunity to graduate via the Tepper robot,’ and I said, ‘What?’

“An email or two later, I said, ‘This is hilarious — let’s do it!’ How could you say no to graduating by robot?”

‘YOU’RE CRAZY IF YOU DON’T DO THIS’

McElhaney, a former U.S. Army captain, is an analytics manager for BP, where he has worked since July 2016. The hours are long, and the chances to get away few, largely because he travels every week for work. Another trip, on a weekend, would have been very difficult.

McElhaney realized weeks ago that he would probably miss graduation. “So when I was told there’s a robot that I can be inside and control and go across the stage with, I thought that was pretty cool,” he tells Poets&Quants.

Still, he needed a little convincing. He got it from Harris, who was in McElhaney’s capstone project group. “He said, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t do this. It’s a robot — how cool is that?'”

LOOK FOR THE ROBOT IN THE WINGS

Harris and McElhaney will take turns controlling TepperBot3000 remotely. (Both got what Harris calls “minor training” to learn the ins and outs of controlling the robot.) While in control, they will be able see and hear the diploma ceremony from a camera mounted on TepperBot3000’s “head,” as well as roll forward, backward, turn left or right, and raise or lower the robot’s head/camera/screen.

Each will walk the stage once, and everyone in attendance will see the students’ faces — “allowing them to virtually interact with their classmates,” Monroe says.

Sadly, Tepper’s graduation ceremony won’t be broadcast in its entirety, but the commencement speech by Gillian Tett, U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times, will be streamed via Facebook Live. Look for the nervous robot waiting in the wings!

TepperBot3000, controlled by Matt McElhaney. Courtesy photo

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