AI   Communication and Technology  

Hanging Out with My Pandemic Pal: Voice Assistants as Human Agents During COVID 19

The COVID-19 global pandemic has been referred to as “the loneliness epidemic.” At the height of quarantine and social distancing, loneliness and isolation permeated society.

With limited human interaction, many people turned to voice assistants for connection.  According to a 2020 Adobe survey, 39% of voice assistant users began using the devices during the pandemic, and 77% planned to increase their usage. Previously confined to daily task assistance, these AI-based tools took on another purpose: to mitigate disconnectedness by mimicking human emotions and relationships. People attributed human-like traits to voice assistants and formed emotional or social relationships with them, evoking a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism.

But what exactly led people to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents like voice assistants during COVID-19? University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications doctoral student Fanjue Liu wanted to explore user motivations for using voice assistants as social agents.

Her study showed that both social attraction, which describes what appeals to people socially, and social presence, which describes the psychological sense of “being there” with other people, were at play during this period. People viewed voice assistants as socially attractive conversation partners who were there when participants were lonely, due to their ability to imitate human emotions and provide social gratification. People relied on this technology more during COVID isolation which in turn may have influenced attitudes towards machines on the whole, and certainly shows that machines once used for utilitarian tasks now fulfill social experience needs as well.

This means that feelings of loneliness, anxiety, boredom, depression and more can be improved by digital technologies that forge feelings of connection and belonging. In the future, developers can use this knowledge to create features that address social needs in particular, increase interactivity and should make sure that older adults, who are often subject to such feelings, can use the technology with ease.

The study offers one note of caution: voice assistants, although reliable companions in the digital age who feel human, are not human. It’s unclear how long their digital comfort extends, and interaction with other people should not be forgotten as an essential component of our shared human experiences.

The original article, “Hanging Out with My Pandemic Pal: Contextualizing Motivations of Anthropomorphizing Voice Assistants during COVID-19,” was published in the Journal of Promotion Management in December 2022.

 This summary was written by Jessica Berube, CJC M.A.M.C. 2021.

Posted: April 14, 2023
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