You might soon have a new tool to help you beat social anxiety: your watch.

Researchers at MIT have created an artificial intelligence system that can help people better understand their social interactions. Using a smartwatch, the system gathers data about the emotions of the speaker and his or her audience, and then breaks it down into an analysis for the wearer.

According to MIT News, the system works by detecting a person's speech--the words used as well as the speaker's tone, pitch, and level of energy. It also collects the wearer's vitals, including heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature. Combining this information, the system reveals at which points in the conversation the wearer felt certain emotions.

The researchers say the system operates with 83 percent accuracy. Right now, it identifies happiness, sadness, and neutral emotions, but the researchers say it will become more sophisticated and understand more complex feelings over time.

The team developed the system by having people tell happy or sad stories while wearing the watch. They then trained two algorithms: one that studied the overall tone, and one that studied the story in five-second intervals and identified them as positive, negative, or neutral. The system takes into account actions like long pauses and monotonous speaking, as well as gestures like energetic flailing or placing your hands on your chin. Using deep learning, the A.I. system is supposed to become more accurate at identifying particular emotions over time.

Just imagine it being able to clearly identify moments of shock, angst, or boredom, both in yourself and your audience. With more refining, the system could be useful for people with social anxiety, who could learn precisely when they become most nervous or excitable during a conversation.

The researchers say it could also have an impact on people with autism or Asperger's, who generally have more difficulty than others at perceiving others' emotions.

If and when the product makes it out of the lab, it might be best suited for use in a structured setting with a social coach--both for the sake of getting the most mileage out of it, and because of the privacy issues that would abound. The researchers admit a consumer version would need established protocols for getting consent from those involved in any conversation. (Talk about a socially awkward conversation.)

Still, should the technology clear that obstacle, it could be useful for anyone who gets nervous speaking in public, whether in front of big crowds or in one-on-one interactions.

Right now, the technology works only with a Samsung Simband--a device meant for researchers--but the MIT team says it could eventually be compatible with wearables like the Apple Watch.

Published on: Feb 2, 2017