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A Computer To Teach You Not To Act Like A Computer

This MIT-created program gives users training in how to better interact with other people (though it’s just a computer itself).

Technology enthusiasts who spend their days playing with computers and robots often have the amount of social graces of the machines they’re programming. So it’s either a brilliant or incredibly off-base intervention that an MIT graduate student has designed computer software to attempt to teach the socially-maladjusted how to be more sociable, via a Siri-like virtual conversation coach.

The program, called My Automated Conversation Coach (MACH), "uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech, and behavior analysis and synthesis software, to simulate face-to-face conversations," according to a press release. "It then provides users with feedback on their interactions," for example, how good was their eye contact, which words did they emphasize, how did their voice rise and fall.

In test runs using MIT students as subjects, people who received feedback from the system in between two fake job interviews received better marks in the second interview. So it sounds like it could work, and perhaps it’s a great idea for people with severe social phobias, who really need to practice at home before trying out conversations with real, live humans.

But for people who are just awkward? Isn’t this maybe a bit much? "Many of us want to improve these interaction skills but don’t have the resources to do so," declares the service’s demo video, a sentence that seems odd, since there are legions of humans you can talk to for free. It’s even cheaper to talk with someone than to buy a computer or some new software.

There’s something sinister about getting computers to teach people how to act less like, well, computers. But again, if someone feels most comfortable in the digital space, perhaps a computer program is the best way to nudge them out of the darkness of the computer lab into the light of a Pink Berry date.