AI, Humanoid Robots Enhancing Cross-cultural Communication
April 17, 2015      

Communication skills are critical in a global economy.

Since communication often occurs across cultures, people must know more than just the vocabulary and grammar of a foreign language. They must also have cultural awareness – a recognition of the “dos and don’ts” that each culture maintains – to communicate smoothly, effortlessly and with confidence.

Virtual role-play, where learners engage in simulated encounters with artificially intelligent agents that behave and respond in a culturally accurate manner, has been shown to be effective at teaching cross-cultural communication.

“You learn by playing a role in a simulation of some real-life situation,” said W. Lewis Johnson, a former professor at the University of Southern California and co-founder of Alelo Inc., a company that makes cyberlearning tools. “You practice communication with some artificial intelligent interactive characters that will listen and respond to you, depending on what you say and do. It helps develop fluency, but it also helps to develop confidence.”

With an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Johnson and his team at Alelo (a Hawaiian word that means “language” or “tongue”) developed a range of products to teach cross-cultural communication using virtual worlds. Alelo’s tools have already achieved success in military training and English-as-a-second-language programs and are now being applied to a wide range of learning applications.

“We found in our military training that when soldiers use this approach, once they get into a foreign country–let’s say they’re sitting down with local leaders–they feel as if it’s a familiar situation to them, even though they’ve never experienced it in real life before,” Johnson said. “That degree of comfort is extremely powerful.”

As an example, Johnson showed a role-playing scenario that orients officers to the etiquette expected at a Chinese banquet. (The goal: Don’t get drunk!)

Alelo’s virtual role-play technology creates safe learning environments for students to practice real-life conversations.

“How do you show proper respect for your host in participating in these toasts but not fall down drunk in the process?” Johnson asked. “That’s an effective communication problem. Role-playing teaches some of the communication skills that you could use if you find yourself in this situation.”

Importantly, Alelo’s virtual role-playing tool gives one the ability to practice conversation and etiquette until you get them right.

To develop a version to teach English as a second language (ESL) to those in the United States, the researchers interviewed immigrants to determine what cultural issues they found most problematic. The instruction they created – available in multiple languages – explains how to handle different situations that one might face as a new immigrant in the United States and provides tips on culturally appropriate behavior.

Students can practice on a range of devices, allowing them to use the program to prepare for classroom activities, as follow-up to classroom activities or as needed in the field. The ESL program even offers a virtual coach who provides help and feedback.