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Help is at hand for the millions of people whose shyness is ruining their chances at improving their lot in life.

Eggheads at MIT have unveiled a virtual life coaching system called My Automated Conversation Coach (MACH) which helps bashful people practise stressful situations in the hope of allowing them to cope better in real life.

The software helps shy people deal with scary situations including public speaking engagements, first dates and job interviews. Its designers hope it will be of particular benefit to people with Asperger's Syndrome, who often have great difficulty holding eye contact and noticing important non-verbal cues.

The MACH software uses a computer-generated (and therefore extremely good-looking) face to simulate a one-to-one conversation. After chatting away with a person who would be way out of their league in reality, the shy person is then encouraged to get out there and use their new-found skills.

“Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” said MIT Media Lab doctoral student M Ehsan Hoque, who designed the system. “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.”

"People with social phobias want the possibility of having some kind of automated system so that they can practice social interactions in their own environment,” addedHoque. “They desire to control the pace of the interaction, practice as many times as they wish, and own their data.”

A paper (PDF) on the program will be presented at the 2013 International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, known as UbiComp, in September.

To see if silicon can beat shyness, Hoque tested it on 90 MIT students.

He divided the subjects into three groups who all took part in two job interviews with MIT career advisors.

All the groups received some kind of assistance in the week between grillings. One watched interview tips videos, another practised with MACH and the third used MACH as well as watching their own performance played back, accompanied by analysis of "how well they maintained eye contact, how well they modulated their voices, and how often they used filler words such as 'like,' 'basically' and 'umm'."

The third group showed a larger improvement between the interviews than the two others when the MIT interviewers were asked about how well they came across in both meetings.

The software behind MACH took two years to develop as part of Hoque’s doctoral thesis and is designed to run on a bog standard laptop.

The system is able to analyse a user's facial expressions and record their speech, allowing the automated interviewer to respond realistically by, for instance, nodding and smiling while the subject is speaking or asking questions.

Hoque said MACH was effective because of its honesty: “It’s easier to tell the brutal truth through the software, because it’s objective.” ®

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