Indian-origin researcher among others say Alexa help develop eliminate public speaking fear

indica News Bureau-

Individuals who fear to talk in front of a crowd could soon have a new tool to ease public speaking anxiety: their smart speaker.

A team of researchers at Penn State has developed a public-speaking tutor on the Amazon Alexa platform. The tutor enables users to engage in cognitive restructuring exercise – a psychological technique that helps anxious individuals recognize and modify negative thinking behaviors. When users deployed the tutor in a recent study, their pre-speech anxiety was relieved, according to the researchers.

An Indian-origin researcher S. Shyam Sundar has played an important role in this crucial development.  S. Shyam Sundar is the founder of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, a leading facility of its kind in the country. “This study represents a significant shift in our use of smart speakers, from a tool that answers questions to one that acts as a helper or coach,” said S. Shyam Sundar.

He teaches courses in the psychology of communication technology, media theory, and research methodology. He earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in communication. He also holds bachelor’s degrees in communication and engineering from Bangalore University in the year 1988-1989. He has done MA from the University of Alabama in 1991 and Ph.D. from Stanford University, Communication, and Psychology in 1995.

Sundar added, “People are not simply anthropomorphizing the machine, but are responding to increased sociability by feeling a sense of closeness with the machine, which is associated with lowered speech anxiety.”

According to the study lead author Jinping Wang, users’ interactions with Alexa not only helped to ease their speech anxiety, but their feedback suggests that the tutor could be a viable alternative to person-to-person coaching sessions. “There is often a concern of being judged by human tutors or human therapists,” said Wang.

“If we can use a machine like Alexa to provide such training to individuals with speech anxiety or social anxiety, we can help them get rid of their concern about being judged by a human,” Wang added.

In the study, participants were guided to interact with an Amazon Echo smart speaker and were randomly assigned to interact with either a highly social Alexa or one that was less social in its greetings and expressions. The participants were then encouraged to use what they learned to prepare and present a short speech through a virtual reality application that simulated a room with a 20-person audience. After their speech, participants completed a questionnaire about their experience.

According to the researchers, who released their findings in the Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, participants completed a questionnaire about their experience after their speech.

They found that the high-sociable condition – through which Alexa adopted a more personal conversation style- provided a better user experience by establishing a sense of interpersonal closeness with the user.

“If you think about the usual interactions with Alexa, they’re quite dry and very functional but providing some sort of social cues seems to result in positive outcomes for users,” said researcher Saeed Abdullah.

Hyun Yang and Ruosi Shao, doctoral students in the Bellisario College of Communications, contributed to the project. The researchers’ paper was accepted after blind peer review to the 2020 ACM Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, which has been canceled due to the global coronavirus outbreak. The work is being published in the conference proceedings, released on April 25, reported Penn State News


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