MIT Software Helps People With Social Awkwardness

Watch the video “MIT Automated Coach Helps With Social Interactions

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

MIT researchers have developed new software that allows people to practice their interpersonal skills to help them better nail that interview.

The National Institute of Mental Health says about 15 million adults in the US have social phobias. For some people, such as those suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, it is difficult to make eye contact and appropriately react to social clues. This is where MITs new software, called My Automated Conversation coacH (MACH), comes in to help.

The software simulates face-to-face conversations and provides users with feedback using a computer-generated onscreen face, along with speech, facial and behavioral analysis and synthesis tools.

“Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” said MIT Media Lab doctoral student M. Ehsan Hoque who led the research. “How we appear and how we convey our feelings to others defines us. But there isn´t much help out there to improve on that segment of interaction.”

Hoque and his colleagues performed randomized tests with 90 MIT juniors who volunteered for the research. During the first test, a group of participants were randomly divided into three groups, and each group participated in two simulated job interviews. Another test involved a separate group performing a practice session with the MACH simulated interviewer, but without receiving feedback. The final group used MACH and saw videos of themselves accompanied by an analysis of how much they smile, how well they maintained eye contact, how well they modulated their voices, and how often they used filler words such as “like” or “umm.”

Career counselors analyzed the results and found the third group showed statistically significant improvement by its members, while there was no significant change in the other two groups.

“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,” says Jonathan Gratch, an associate professor of computer science and psychology at the University of Southern California who was not involved in this research.

“Such programs also offer important advantages over the human role-players often used to teach such skills. They can faithfully embody a specific theory of pedagogy, and thus can be more consistent than human role-players.”

Computer software could be one solution to help people with Asperger’s, but another method is being developed to train kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers wrote back in March about how a humanoid robot could help children with ASD learn to coordinate their attention with other people and objects.

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