Now, Computer That Teaches People Social Skills

Scientists have developed an automated personal-computer system that can help people enhance their social interaction skills.

The programme called MACH, or “My Automated Conversation coacH” has been developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mainly to help those who suffer from social phobia linked to autism.

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It uses a computer-generated face that simulates a conversation. Using a standard web camera, MACH scans facial expressions, listens carefully to patterns of speech, and

reads behavioural cues. MACH keeps track of weak language, like utterances of ‘Mmm’, ‘Uhh’, and ‘Basically’. It also provides feedback about how effectively the user has been communicating.

The software plays back a video of their speech, alongside charts monitoring intonation, head movements, and other coded gestures. “MACH must appear and behave human like, adapting its behaviours to changes in the interaction,” researchers said in their paper to be presented at UbiComp conference in Zurich this month.

To achieve that level of realism, the animation of the virtual coach incorporated arm and posture movements, facial expressions, gaze behaviour and lip synchronisation.

The software was constructed over two years and tested on 90 MIT undergraduates seeking to improve their self-presentation in front of prospective employers, the ‘New Yorker magazine’ reported.

The team’s paper stated that MACH led to a significant improvement in social interaction, based on a before-and-after evaluation of subjects by a professional career counsellor. Beyond job interviews, the programme could be useful for helping people with social phobia linked to autism – the root of the project – as well as public speaking or even dating, according to M Ehsan Hoque, who led the research.

While the prototype runs locally on computers, Hoque, whois now at the University of Rochester, would like to make it widely available online, which he said would take between six months and a year for two or three engineers to develop.

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