SCIENCE
09/03/2013 03:20 pm ET

Computer 'Coach' Teaches Social Skills, MIT Researchers Say (VIDEO)

She can tell when you're smiling, nodding, engaging in conversation, or losing interest. No, she's not a body language expert--at least not a human one. Rather, she's a 3D character on a computer screen. Her name is Mary.

MIT researchers developed Mary, along with her male counterpart, to serve as "robo-coaches" in a computer program called MACH (My Automated Conversation coacH). The program is designed to help people boost their conversational skills by simulating face-to-face interactions with their computer coaches.

After all, social phobias--like fear of public speaking--impact about 15 million adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And people with syndromes such as Asperger's may have difficulty developing social skills and reacting appropriately to social cues.

So how would a machine like Mary help exactly?

“It smiles when you smile,” lead researcher M. Ehsan Hoque, a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab, told The New Yorker. “It gives you the feeling, ‘Hey, this software is listening to me.’” And after each simulated conversation, the users receive feedback on their interactions. Check it out in the video above.

Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” Hoque said in a written statement. “How we appear and how we convey our feelings to others define us. But there isn’t much help out there to improve on that segment of interaction."

So Hogue and his research team developed MACH to fill that void. They tested the program with 90 MIT students, who participated in two simulated job interviews, one week apart, with MIT career counselors.

What did the researchers find? Students who interacted with MACH and received feedback before their second interview showed statistically significant improvement in their performance compared to students in the control group, who either watched videos giving interview advice, or practiced with MACH but received no feedback.

“While it may seem odd to use computers to teach us how to better talk to people, such software plays an important [role] in more comprehensive programs for teaching social skills [and] may eventually play an essential step in developing key interpersonal skills,” Dr. Jonathan Gratch, associate professor of computer science and psychology at the University of Southern California who was not involved in this research, said in the statement.

A paper documenting the testing and development of MACH has been accepted for presentation at this year's International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, being held in Zurich, Switzerland from Sept. 8-12.

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