AI Coach for Better Human Communication

Tapping into the power of what is not necessarily put into word with AI, an MIT-spinoff provides guidance for personalized communication improvement.
Ariella  Brown
Digital human with built in computer chipmonsitj/iStock

While there are books written about companies, this particular company has its roots in a book -- or at least the findings that it shares.

Dr. Alex “Sandy” Pentland holds the title of Scientific Visionary and Co-founder of Cogito Corp. He is also the author of Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World from MIT Press. Researchers at the MIT Human Dynamics Lab proved the presence and power of social signals in human communication, and the ability of machines to detect and interpret them. 


The honest signals in the book's title are not about what is spoken but what is biologically based and rooted in signaling mechanisms used by ancient primates that convey the intentions of the individual. Pentland’s thesis is that understanding this means of communication would enable a person to accurately predict the outcomes of situations based on the signals read during the interaction.

Pentland used a “sociometer,” a specially designed digital sensor worn like an ID badge, to pick up on the signal patterns between people. His analysis has shown that this nonverbal channel of communication has a tremendous impact on the direction people choose even if they are not consciously aware of the influence it has.  

Consequently, gaining an understanding of what these signals are and what they say about a person can help predict the outcome of certain questions like “Will I get the job I interviewed for?” or “Will the person I met for coffee want to meet for dinner?”

Cogito was formed in 2007 to bring these findings to market with business applications. 

Here's part 1 of its thought leadership series:

Joshua Feast is another co-founder of the company, as well as its President and CEO. He has proclaimed AI coaches will become the norm in the near future and help humans “become better versions of themselves.”  I asked him to explain what he meant by that as well as a few other questions that you can see below.

What an AI coach does 

In the coming years, AI will evolve to become increasingly human-aware, providing personalized guidance to humans during their moments of need. I believe this evolution will most notably take shape in the form of AI coaches - technology that can be used to reinforce individual strengths and augment weaknesses, resulting in a more productive, emotionally intelligent and successful workforce.

AI coaches guide humans to enhance their individual and team performance.

As an example, globally more than 10 million people work in phone-based sales and customer service jobs. They can leverage an AI coach to evaluate the communication between themselves and customers and gain instant guidance as to how they can provide better information and communicate more effectively. 

In this situation, an AI coach recognizes individual behavior and makes personal recommendations which lead to better outcomes for a given situation. Because AI coaches recognize an individual's performance, the given context of a situation and can predict an outcome, it can raise each person’s performance level - making top performers more consistent and lower performers better. 

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This directly benefits an employee and has a ripple effect across the company, creating a profound positive impact on productivity and culture. AI coaches can eliminate the simple and mundane parts of a job and enhance performance in the complex more difficult tasks. 

How does that relate to what Cogito offers?

Cogito refers to its solution as an AI Coaching System. It uniquely operates as a unified system that combines continuous measurement, automated in-the-moment guidance, and system learning. 

Cogito’s AI instantly analyzes hundreds of behavioral signals contained in the nonverbal cues expressed in voice. In a streaming manner, voices are evaluated against proprietary models and guidance is provided to a user. The system also generates data that correlates behavior against a selected outcome. 

For example, in a sales or service scenario, the system can evaluate which behaviors help improve a customer’s experience or help an agent be perceived as confident and competent.  

Cogito has a behavioral science team that works hand-in-hand with the machine learning team to implement and improve models that are most reflective of human behavior and most likely to help enhance behavior. The company's team of human annotators help refine models and have an edge because they evaluated hundreds of millions of hours of phone conversations within enterprises.

What does it mean to become a better version of yourself?

AI coaches are not replacements for humans; rather, they are designed to elevate human capabilities within the context of a given situation. All humans have innate, natural abilities, but the variability of how we each react in a given situation can sometimes limit the ability to perform at our best, especially over a long period of time and within stressful situations.

An AI coach understands a given individual’s potential, recognizes the changes in a person’s behavior and then provides feedback as to how they can adjust to improve at that moment and in the future - hence making them a better version of themselves. 

For example, Cogito customer MetLife deployed the technology 12 months ago and has experienced a 30% decrease in the number of in-call notifications (which are the notifications that pop up if someone is speaking too quickly or recognizing a customer’s emotional moment for instance), demonstrating employees are learning and becoming more consistent at their jobs. 

The AI is not providing every agent the same guidance - it is contextual to the agent's behavior and the customer’s engagement in a given conversation. Through the use of Cogito, MetLife is helping their employees be more empathetic and effective by augmenting their natural abilities. 

Cogito’s technology lets agents know how well they are communicating and customers are feeling throughout calls, giving them pointers on how to adjust their behavior. Over time, employee behavior changes, creating more productive and empathetic interactions, benefiting all involved. 

By providing objective guidance for employees to be more productive and feel more engaged and empowered in their jobs, we are enabling them to be better versions of themselves. 

In this context, "by taking 'humanness' — emotion, fatigue, stress, etc. — into account when adopting AI technologies," are you selecting human frailty as the primary quality of humanness?

Human frailty is a quality of humanness but not necessarily 'the' primary quality of humanness.  One of the primary qualities of humanness is emotional intelligence, a person's ability to understand their own behavior, the behavior of another and adjusting accordingly to ensure better outcomes. 

Another quality is our ability to execute complex multi-layered thought processes that give consideration for our behavior on those around us. This type of human behavior has been exhibited since the earliest humans had to form hunting parties to build communities and continues today. 

Learning how to better leverage our emotional intelligence to work amongst a population and how to adapt is a key aspect of humanness. Understanding that as individuals, our performance changes when we are fatigued, stressed or influenced by other contextual environmental conditions and how we can be made aware of those changes and coached to act differently allows us to maintain our humanness but gives us a boost to improve.

By taking 'humanness' into account when adopting AI technologies, organizations have the ability to foster a more empathetic and authentic organization that is able to perform more consistently even during moments of impact. 

Can you provide examples of developing "more empathetic and human-centric organizations" and how they would contrast with current organizational structures?

Emotional intelligence is a core aspect of more empathetic and human-centric organizations. As Cogito improves the emotional intelligence of users, we believe that workplace culture, productivity, and innovation will improve.

Current structures may not be the challenge in improving organizations, but at least part of the problem is when organizations scale to multi-thousand employees, which causes them to struggle to cost-effectively coach each individual from where they are to higher performance. This is a place that modern technology can assist - acting as a personal coach - because it can more comprehensively, objectively and instantly perform an evaluation and provide individuals and managers with better information it helps each make more informed decisions.  

By using an AI Coach to help enhance emotional intelligence, employees can become more productive, effective and empowered. Managers can make faster data-backed decisions and customers will experience better interactions with companies. 

For instance, Humana, a Cogito customer, realized the following after the initial deployment of our technology:

  • 14 percent improvement in Net Promoter Score, transactional (NPSt)
  • Five percent improvement in “Perfect Call” scores
  • Five percent improvement in issue resolution
  • Average handle time dropped in the double-digits (no exact number given because of its direct relationship to costs)
  • These positive results are what’s leading Humana to introduce the real-time voice of the customer to 2,000 customer service agents.

Cogito’s technology continuously provides in-the-moment guidance and shares reports with supervisors to ensure they are able to train better and improve the workforce. On the other hand, traditional feedback is offered less frequently and can often be biased and less comprehensive, which puts supervisors in an unfortunate position as they are not as readily equipped with the necessary feedback to make informed decisions.

Internally, we use our own technology to motivate individuals to be more emotionally aware and empathetic. Our mission and vision as a company - to create more human organizations, is fostered from within and at our core. 

We embrace the power of diversity and a purposeful culture, seeking individuals with different backgrounds and unique skills to create a supportive and accountable atmosphere. 

What constitutes more "human" business decisions? Do you have any examples of those?

More human business decisions are rooted in empathy and compassion. AI is the guiding hand that helps this become a reality due to its ability to understand the nuances of human communication with less interpretation than an individual, while refining skills. 

One example of this is demonstrated through our AI call guidance. Our AI software delivers in-the-moment guidance to help identify patterns that may otherwise be missed and instantly analyze behavior. 

The feedback provided by our technology notifies agents to be more empathetic, via the empathy cue, and can notify supervisors of the performance of their team so they can approach agents with compassion. For example, the technology may indicate to a supervisor an agent is having a bad day and needs a little extra acknowledgment.

Take this real-life story:

“One morning I logged into Cogito and I was watching my reps’ CX Scores update in real time. I noticed that one of my reps had taken several calls in a row that were trending downwards. I decided to check in on him in between calls to see how his morning was going—I didn’t mention the CX Score at all—and afterwards his calls started trending upwards almost immediately.”

The manager quoted above was using the technology to monitor his team members. Cogito’s technology was able to identify the rep was trending downwards and the manager took the opportunity to check in on him.

The check-in is a common example of how Cogito is helping organizations be more human and make more human business decisions. Ultimately, the conversation between the manager and rep resulted in better performance.

Why is it  not possible for people at organizations to become more humanly responsive without AI?

It’s not that becoming more humanly responsive is not or will never be possible, it is more so that AI can give rapid feedback and has the ability, through the quick evaluation of massive amounts of data and the application of machine learning in concert with human judgment, to more effectively recognize patterns. 

One way we look at it is the merger of behavioral science, machine learning and high-performance computing, which allows us to detect and guide faster and more comprehensively than ever before.  These are tools that can help people be more effective and responsive.

As humans our emotional state can change in an instant, leading to performance variability. We can be highly reactionary and struggle to understand how others are feeling.

AI-coaches should be used to assist humans, helping them become more emotionally intelligent and empathetic, even during difficult conversations. While it is possible for people at organizations to become more humanly responsive, AI technology is a tool to assist individuals to be their best selves.

With that, it’s critical to design AI technology that is a win, win, win -- good for the customer, employee and the organization. 

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