Communication and Technology  

Video: Doctoral Student Fanjue Liu Discusses AI-Enabled Virtual Assistants as Social Actors

University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications doctoral student Fanjue Liu is exploring how AI-enabled virtual assistants, like Alexa or Siri, can mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly during the pandemic.  She was interviewed on Sept. 10, 2021 about her research.

Below the video is an edited transcript of the full interview.

Tell us about your research on AI-enabled virtual assistants.

Fanjue Liu: The study I’m doing right now is about how people interact with AI-based voice assistants during the pandemic. Because we can engage AI-based voice assistants in personal, one-on-one conversations and because we were quarantined at our homes and practiced social distancing, people began to feel more lonely and socially disconnected.

We wonder whether people would increase their usage of voice assistants to satisfy their social needs during the pandemic. So, we conducted a survey to investigate whether the feeling of loneliness and the social disconnection can increase people’s usage and also change their perception about the voice assistants.

We found the people actually changed their motivation to use voice assistants because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, people tended to use voice assistants for utilitarian things. For example, they used voice assistants to check the weather or to check for information. But after the pandemic, they began to use voice assistants for social gratification.

For example, they began to use voice assistants to satisfy their social needs, to socially connect with others. One interesting finding was that people began to perceive voice assistants as a social actors, to perceive them as their friends or even to develop parasocial relationships with voice assistants because of the isolation.

So, when people are feeling more lonely and more socially disconnected, they began to talk to their voice assistants more often.

Do you believe that this trend will continue after the pandemic is over?

Fanjue Liu: Yes. Definitely. We believe that the voice assistant can actually mitigate people’s feelings of loneliness and social disconnection. So, I think in the future, brands can develop a more personalized function for voice assistants to have people engage in more personalized conversations.

Even though they’re not dealing with people. So, in some ways it seems counterintuitive. How does artificial intelligence play into this?

What is the role of artificial intelligence in this technology? How does it enhance the experience for users?

Fanjue Liu:  I think the draw of artificial intelligence is that you can involve the voice assistant to engage in a very personalized conversation with people. The voice assistants are embedded with a sensor so they can distinguish users’ voices, and they can know the particular user’s needs. So, that’s a way they can develop more personalized user experiences and can use the conversation to mitigate the feelings of loneliness and social disconnection.

How can media companies use the findings from this research?

Fanjue Liu: We found that people tend to stick to social benefits when anthropomorphizing a voice assistant. And people tend to satisfy their social needs when they perceive the voice assistant as social actors. So, for brands that intend to develop voice assistant applications, we suggest that they focus on that behavior. They can develop more appealing applications and also some more customized applications to help users to develop more personalized conversations with voice assistants. They can use the voice assistant, for example, to improve people’s mental health.

And also, they can improve the sensor function of voice assistants. And so they can become more actively engaged in a conversation with users. So, I think that’s a big potential function for the voice assistant in the future.

Posted: September 16, 2021
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