Can computers teach us to be our best selves? Ehsan Hoque, a researcher at the University of Rochester, believes so. He has created two computer systems that train people to excel in social settings.
One program has a virtual businesswoman that can recognize your expressions and statements so she can nod, smile, and prompt you with further questions as you chat with her. At the end of the conversation she’ll give you feedback about your interpersonal performance, including your body language, intonation, and eye contact.
Hoque also designed a pared-down mobile version, free for anyone with Internet access to use. There’s no animated character; instead, it records video and sends you a write-up about your social skills, noting the speed of your speech, the pitch and loudness of your voice, the intensity of your smiles, and whether you overused certain words.
All of Hoque’s research comes back to his brother, a teenager with Down syndrome. Hoque is his brother’s primary caretaker and has seen how difficult social interactions of any kind can be for him, especially in school. But Hoque hopes his tools will be useful to all kinds of people—individuals with Asperger’s, customer service representatives, nervous students with looming class presentations, or even just someone gearing up for a date or an interview.