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A virtual interviewer powered by natural language processing offers socially distanced support for people facing trying times. The dialog system, designed by a collaborative team from the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin, takes inspiration from counseling strategies like motivational interviewing and expressive writing to guide users through written self-reflection.

“It’s like a journaling exercise that has feedback and questions provided to the user to get them to think and write more,” explains Charlie Welch, U-M Ph.D. student and co-author on the project.

Equipped with a set of base questions that outline the experience, the virtual interviewer develops followup questions in real time based on its understanding of what the user replies. It builds the questions from topics of interest they mention or emotions expressed in their language. The tool emphasizes insightful writing and deeper thought, encouraging the user to spend at least two minutes responding to each prompt.

“Unlike other systems that serve similar purposes, which frequently use multiple choice questions to progress in the dialog, our aim is to have a natural dialog where users can respond using free text,” says Rada Mihalcea, Janice M. Jenkins Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at U-M and co-lead on the project. “The goal of our system is to encourage individuals to talk about any difficulties they may have encountered due to the pandemic.”

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