Using the wrong word or misinterpreting body language can throw off an international business deal or sabotage efforts to negotiate an agreement between countries.
Hoping to ease tensions and enhance cross-cultural dialogue, the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics at California State University, Northridge is part of a multi-university, interdisciplinary project — funded with $5 million from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-assisted app to help with real-time interpretations.
The project’s researchers said the smartphone-based app, when paired with smart glasses, could play a key role in facilitating diplomatic talks, international business and tourism.
“While this project is being funded by the Department of Defense, and clearly has applications in the diplomatic world, it also has applications in the business world,” said Zhaleh Semnani-Azad, an assistant professor of management in the Nazarian College and the primary behavioral scientist on the project. “If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that business is truly international.
“Dealing with people is already messy,” she continued. “When you’re dealing with people with different values, norms and beliefs, it’s even more complex. I think that this will be just the kind of tool that can help alleviate some of the uncertainty we all have when we are interacting with people we don’t know, particularly in those situations where tensions are high. You can think of it as a smart mediator.”
In addition to Semnani-Azad, an expert in cross-cultural communication that incorporates comprehensive analysis of verbal and nonverbal patterns over a period of time, the project includes engineering teams from the Vision and Language Group at the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University in Australia and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London in England.
“Dr. Semnani-Azad’s research plays a crucial role in the success of this project and will ultimately affect how diplomatic talks, international business and tourism will be approached in the future,” said Chandra Subramaniam, dean of the Nazarian College. “It’s great to see the impact our faculty’s research has on such critical programs at the national level. We are very proud of this accomplishment and congratulate Dr. Semnani-Azad.”
The goal of the project is to develop a smartphone-based assistive dialogue system using smart glasses, such as Google Glasses, that will apply machine learning, speech recognition and vision technology to provide cross-cultural communication assistance in real time. Specifically, the AI will incorporate cultural norms and communication styles, along with advanced speech technology and multimedia analysis, to generate a comprehensive assessment of communication patterns to help the user avoid using the wrong word or making the wrong gesture when they are talking to someone from another culture.
“Culture is basically comprised of shared behavior, shared values and shared beliefs of people who are living together in different parts of the world,” Semnani-Azad said. “When it comes to communication, that culture manifests itself in how they interact with others, and it drives a culturally appropriate set of behaviors.”
Semnani-Azad’s role in the project is to drill down beyond known cultural norms and to develop new and better understandings of cultural behaviors, emotions and values.
“Basically, I’ll be studying people, collecting video recordings of conversations and interactions, so that can I can gain an understanding of the nonverbal behaviors that are being displayed during conversations, and then applying that to short and long interactions — from a couple minutes to as long as an hour or more,” she said. “I’ll be looking at behaviors across multiple types of situations, whether it’s a conversation about the weather or a meeting about generating new ideas for a business.”
What Semnani-Azad learns will be incorporated into the AI system to help its users avoid cultural missteps.
For example, she said, during a conversation, the system may notice an imminent communication breakdown by analyzing audiovisual cues in real time. The system can then provide appropriate culturally attuned prompts, through the smart glasses, to help guide the user through the negotiation.
“There are apps out there for smartphones that can help you with translations, but the beauty of this technology is that it is also incorporating computer vision,” she said. “It will be incorporating what work that has already been done when it comes to cross-cultural communication, and the work that I will be doing to better understand all aspects of communication. The app will then provide you with information about how to interact in this particular culture, what are the norms.
“For instance, as a woman you need to be aware, before you go into an international business meeting, that there are different norms for interactions with a woman versus a man in that particular culture,” Semnani-Azad continued. “The point of the app is to inform you of that culture’s expectations, and provide some recommendations, which can be helpful if you have very limited knowledge of that particular culture — including what certain gestures or behaviors mean — so that you are more respectful of their culture while, at the same time, helping you finding ways to make the conversation, the negotiation, easier.”
Semnani-Azad said the project is expected to take part in two phases over the course of three years, with the first prototype being released in March 2023.
“What makes working on AI so exciting is the potential for the system to continue to learn and grow,” she said. “What we are doing is using AI to build bridges for communication between cultures, to dispel conflict and facilitate easier negotiations.”