An automated coach to improve your social skills

by CXOtoday News Desk    Sep 03, 2013


The research team at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has developed an automated personal computer system that can help people improve their social skills. The program MACH or ‘My Automated Conversation coacH’ uses a computer-generated face that simulates actual conversations.“The system includes a virtual agent that reads facial expressions, speech, and prosody and responds with verbal and non-verbal behaviors in real time,” says the research paper describing MACH.

Prepare for interviews

Just like a professional coach, MACH can ask you questions, mimic people’s behaviour and expressions and provide visual feedback on the interviewee’s performance.

According to the MIT paper, the development of this application draws on data from 28 interview sessions, involving employment-seeking students and career counselors. The effectiveness of MACH was assessed through a weeklong trial with 90 MIT undergraduates. Students who interacted with MACH were rated by human experts to have improved in overall interview performance, while the ratings of students in control groups did not improve.

The paper states: “Interviews indicate that participants found the interview experience informative about their behaviors and expressed interest in using MACH in the future.”

Improve conversations

MACH has the ability to processes facial expressions and speech and generate conversational behaviors, including non-verbal behaviors. The system can engage in dialogue with a participant real-time, creating the illusion that it can actually see, hear and respond.

It can also keep track of weak language, like utterances of ‘Mmm’, ‘Uhh’ etc. and provide 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 humanlike, adapting its behaviours to changes in the interaction,” researchers said in their paper to be presented at UbiComp conference in Zurich this month.

Learn more social skills

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.

 The paper states that MACH led to a significant improvement in social interaction, based on a before-and-after evaluation of subjects by a professional career counsellor.

While the prototype runs locally on computers, Hoque, who is 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.

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.

Tags: social, skills, MIT, MACH