Virtual Aid

For millions of people around the world, social interactions are a difficult and sometimes painful experience. For those diagnosed with disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome, making eye contact and responding correctly to social cues can be difficult. While there are therapies and sometimes even medications that can help, the most useful practice would of course be spending time communicating with people. New technology created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) can take the real people out of the equation, allowing people to gain confidence through an ‘automated coach.’

Idiom: Out of the equation: When something is taken out of the equation, it is no longer a part of the arrangement.

M. Ehsan Hoque is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. Under the supervision of Professor Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab he developed MACH (My Automated Conversation coacH). The software allows people to practice communication privately. They can gain confidence in skills ranging from a job interview to a first date. MACH is a computer-generated onscreen face and has incorporated facial, speech and behavior analysis software. This is necessary to copy face-to-face conversations. It then provides users with feedback on how they communicated.

Designed to run on an ordinary laptop, the system uses the computer’s webcam to monitor a user’s facial expressions and movements. The computer’s microphone will capture the person’s speech. MACH then analyzes the user’s smiles, head gestures, speech volume and speed and use of filler words, among other things. The automated interviewer is a life-size, three-dimensional simulated face. It too can smile and nod in response to the subject’s speech and motions, ask questions and give responses. This was the part of the program that was trickiest for Mr Hoque.

“Understanding how to display the nonverbal behaviors to people so that it makes sense to them without any prior training was tough,” Mr Hoque told The Word.

Collocation: To put into practice: When you put something into practice, you start using it in real life.

Mr Hoque has already put MACH into practice, running a study with MIT students. Ninety students were randomly divided into three groups. Each group participated in two simulated job interviews with MIT career counselors. Unknown to the counselors, the students received some help between the two interviews, which were held a week apart. One group watched videos of interview advice. A second group had a practice session with MACH, but received no feedback other than a video of their performance. The  third group used MACH and then saw videos of themselves accompanied by an analysis of such measures as how much they smiled, how well they maintained eye contact, how well they adapted their voices, and how often they used filler words such as ‘like’ and ‘umm.’ The third group improved while the other two groups did not.

“Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” Mr Hoque said. “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.”

Original article by Jacy Meyer – Phoenix, Arizona. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team 

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Computer generated: If something is computer generated, it is created by computer software.

Some people find meeting other people difficult. If those people have Asperger’s Syndrome looking people in the eye can be hard. New technology created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may help people. Instead of practicing with other people they can practice with a computer generated ‘automated coach.’

M. Ehsan Hoque is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. Under the supervision of Professor Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab he developed MACH (My Automated Conversation coacH). The software lets people practice communication privately. The practice can be for many different situations. The program then gives the person feedback.

The program can run on an ordinary laptop. The computer’s webcam can follow a user’s facial expressions and movements. The computer’s microphone will record the person’s speech. MACH then analyzes the user’s smiles, head gestures, speech volume and speed and use of filler words, among other things and responds and asks questions.

“Understanding how to display the nonverbal behaviors to people so that it makes sense to them without any prior training was tough,” Mr Hoque told The Word.

Mr Hoque has tested the MACH with MIT students. Ninety students were randomly divided into three groups. Each group had two simulated job interviews with MIT career counselors. One group used MACH and got comments about their performance. This group was the best group of the three.

“Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” Mr Hoque said. “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.”

Original article by Jacy Meyer – Phoenix, Arizona. Text edited by The Word’s methodology team 

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Idiom: Out of the equation: When something is taken out of the equation, it is no longer a part of the arrangement.

For millions of people around the world, social interactions are a difficult and sometimes painful experience. We wrote about gaining confidence in public speaking through improv a while back, but for some people it’s not just a nervous stomach before making a speech. For those diagnosed with disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome, making eye contact and responding appropriately to social cues can be difficult. While there are therapies and sometimes even medications that can help, the most useful practice would of course be spending time interacting with people. New technology created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) can take the ‘people’ portion out of the equation, allowing people to gain confidence through an ‘automated coach.’

M. Ehsan Hoque is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. Under the supervision of Professor Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab he developed MACH (My Automated Conversation coacH). The software allows people to practice social interactions privately. They can gain confidence in skills ranging from a job interview to a first date – basically anything that requires a certain level of communication and appropriate responsive reactions. MACH is a computer-generated onscreen face and has incorporated facial, speech and behavior analysis software. This is necessary to replicate face-to-face conversations. It then provides users with feedback on their interactions.

“Many people desire people, but they fear social stigma,” Mr Hoque told The Word. “That’s why I created a program so that people could practice social interactions in their own environment, control the pace of the interaction, practice as many times as they wish and own their data.”

Designed to run on an ordinary laptop, the system uses the computer’s webcam to monitor a user’s facial expressions and movements. The computer’s microphone will capture the person’s speech. MACH then analyzes the user’s smiles, head gestures, speech volume and speed and use of filler words, among other things. The automated interviewer is a life-size, three-dimensional simulated face. It too can smile and nod in response to the subject’s speech and motions, ask questions and give responses. This was the part of the program that was trickiest for Mr Hoque.

“Understanding how to display the nonverbal behaviors to people so that it makes sense to them without any prior training was tough,” he said.

Collocation: To put into practice: When you put something into practice, you start using it in real life.

Mr Hoque has already put MACH into practice, running a study with MIT students. Ninety students were randomly divided into three groups. Each group participated in two simulated job interviews with MIT career counselors. Unknown to the counselors, the students received some help between the two interviews, which were held a week apart. One group watched videos of interview advice. A second group had a practice session with MACH, but received no feedback other than a video of their performance. The  third group used MACH and then saw videos of themselves accompanied by an analysis of such measures as how much they smiled, how well they maintained eye contact, how well they adapted their voices, and how often they used filler words such as ‘like’ and ‘umm.’ Evaluations by another group of career counselors showed significant improvement by members of the third group. They were rated on points such as appears excited about the job, overall performance, and would you recommend hiring this person. There was no significant change for the other two groups.

“Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” Mr Hoque said. “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.”

Mr Hoque is currently looking for funding to move the project forward and says there are many people interested in the technology. He hopes to make it a web platform so anyone can user their browser to practice. While MACH has a range of potential uses for many people, Mr Hoque believes he knows what its biggest strength is.

“Objectivity. A computer program doesn’t get tired. It doesn’t judge you. The feedback is consistent.”

Jacy Meyer – Phoenix, Arizona

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