The Future of Interpersonal Skill Training: Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Posted by Joel Bennett on

By Dr. Gale Lucas

Will AI provide such training? As virtual role-players? Perhaps even more?

From Futurists and Science Fiction writers to Computer Scientists and Engineers, people predict that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a big role in shaping our future.  Some play on our fears that these mechanical counterparts will take over many services and put people out of jobs.  Others believe that AI will help the workplace in many positive ways. To help on the more optimistic side, Google recently released their own principles and objectives for AI Applications, which I mention below.

To start with, AI could be given those jobs humans consider to be “drudgery,” freeing us up for more creative and fulfilling endeavors.  AIs could supplement – but not necessarily replace – human workers on other tasks. They could provide menial or technical support, allowing us to focus on more complex aspects of the work. When there are not enough people to meet the demands of a certain line of work, AI could help fill the gaps.

Ultimately, when we consider the diverse innovations possible with AI, it becomes possible to conceive of AI as helping organizations in their own ongoing development. Google’s AI principles  include building AI applications that are socially beneficial, uphold scientific principles, and support training. A real testing of these principles may lie in the use of AI for role playing in interpersonal skills.

AI in Interpersonal Skills Training

 Organizations are increasingly using online or virtual training for various purposes – from compliance or ethics to safety. As technology advances, applications will employ scenarios or simulated situations in which users practice learned principles.  A strong potential for innovation lies in interpersonal skills. Traditional classroom or video training typically employs human role-players who facilitate such practices as listening, empathy, conflict management, or  other communication skills. Accordingly, role-players often have to be present to both train and give feedback to trainees who then practice the new skillset. To improve participant engagement and diversity, multiple actors may be hired to conduct the role-play. And, often, only a couple of trainees get to participate. In cases where professional role-players/actors are not available or feasible, training participants can get paired up for practice. While this is convenient, novices are usually paired together - neither of whom have the expertise necessary to perform optimally for the other’s learning.

It is now possible to use “virtual humans” (virtual representations of humans whose behavior is determined by AI) in interpersonal skills training, and, specifically as role-players. Multiple possible benefits of this include:

    • Cost-effective once developed
    • Consistent across time and users
    • Easy to deploy on a mass scale

Researchers are discovering other potential benefits. People report being more comfortable practicing with AI role-players than human role-players. They might feel an increased sense of psychological safety, and feel encouraged to open up and try new approaches during the practice. Additionally, it is not feasible for instructors to give feedback to all students during large classroom trainings. AI can be programmed to give such feedback during practice sessions.

Domains of Interpersonal Skills Training where AI are Working

Researchers have now developed AI as role-players in interpersonal skills training in several ways:

Public Speaking. Many people are anxious about public speaking. Some are more afraid of speaking in public than dying. The most common approach to address this fear is exposure. People usually practice speaking in public as part of Toastmasters, Dale Carnegie, or other training programs. AI could allow people to practice public speaking in the safety of their own home. Early research suggests that such an approach will be effective at reducing anxiety and improving public speaking.


Job Interviewing. Interviewing can be challenging for anyone, especially those who struggle with fundamental social skills like individuals on the autism spectrum. Practice can not only improve social abilities, but also increase confidence and even foster a sense of “polish” in job candidates. Researchers designed AIs to help give such individuals the practice they need to develop skills essential for job interviews.

Clinical Interviewing. Doctors and other healthcare professionals can practice their clinical interviewing skills with AI. With online training, doctors can practice again and again, finely tuning both clinical interviewing and diagnostic skills (especially those who aspire to be as observant as Dr. Holmes). Other such trainings help healthcare professionals practice their bedside manner. Indeed, a number of other technologies have been developed for interpersonal skills trainings in other areas of health.

Negotiation. According to AI researchers, AI will require new capabilities and “intelligence” to negotiate with humans. Nevertheless, researchers have begun to develop AI that can practice negotiating with humans, even making hackathons and competitions to find the best AI to negotiate with human users. Such AI can serve as role-players during negotiation courses. As described earlier, people are more comfortable practicing with an AI than with another human.

Leadership. Leaders need a variety of social skills to be effective. Online training for leadership – often involving interpersonal skills -- has become ubiquitous. The most advanced of these trainings include AI that role-play as subordinates who prompt users to practice influence, performance feedback, conflict management, delegation, or even counseling skills.

The reverse is also possible. Indeed, there is a call for AI to play the role of leaders so subordinates can practice interacting with leaders. In the context of our nation’s Cyber Defense, for example, the authors claim that “it will be important for junior cyber operators to convey convincing information relevant to a mission in order to persuade or influence a leader to make informed decisions. The power dynamic will make it difficult for the junior cyber operator to successfully influence a higher ranking leader… Accordingly, there is also potential for [AIs] to be useful in helping train interpersonal skills in cyber decision-making and teaming contexts.”

Using AI For Social Good

Just like Cyber Defense has become an important part of our future, so too will be AIs. As a society, we can harness AI capabilities to improve our lives. While this is often thought of in terms of menial labor, there are also jobs (like role-players in interpersonal skills training) where it is untenable to harness enough human labor to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. In these circumstances, AI may be able to do more than we typically expect of a machine – in this case, act like a human in an engaging and compelling way that allows trainees to practice their interpersonal skills.

Imagine the various competencies reviewed above – public speaking, interviewing, negotiating, leadership – working together to produce positive outcomes in complex situations. When we as a society are open to such possibilities, we may end up raising our expectations of machines – and, ultimately, of ourselves.

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