Anthropomorphic devices such as Siri, Alexa or even a Roomba robotic vacuum can diminish feelings of loneliness and cause people to be less likely to engage in compensatory behaviors, according to a study done by James Mourey, an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul.
Mourey’s study shows how when people feel socially excluded, they may demonstrate behaviors such as exaggerating how many friends one has, expecting to speak with close friends or family more often in the future and an increased willingness to engage in prosocial behavior in order to compensate for their feelings of loneliness.
Mourey said he became interested in discovering the potential social effects of humanlike products when he began to notice the increasing number of these products on the market.
“There are so many different products and services out today that have very humanized qualities,” Mourey said. “As marketers, we saw this trend of more humanized products and became curious about what possible consequences these types of products could have on humans and human social interaction.”
In order to study the impact of these devices on people, Mourey set up a series of experiments to test the products on feelings of social assurance.
Mourey and his fellow researchers made participants write essays to prime participants towards feelings of loneliness and exclusion, both vital to the coming experiments. Mourey says he then divided the participants into two groups: one group was shown an image of a Roomba with a smile on it so the Roomba resembled a face while the other group was shown the same image, but rotated 90 degrees so it no longer appeared as a face.
“Then we would ask them questions like ‘Do you think you will spend more or less time talking to family and friends this month?’ or ‘How likely are you to donate to a charity this month?’” Mourey said. “What we found was that the group who was made to remember a time when they were socially excluded, but did not engage with the humanlike device, were significantly more likely to compensate for the feelings of exclusion by saying they would talk to friends and family more.”
“Also, more participants in this group stated that they thought they would be willing to donate to a charity than the group who did engage with the human-like Roomba,” Mourey continued. “We found for the group who did engage with the more human-like Roomba, the effects of social exclusion were diminished and they did not compensate for social assurance.”
Mourey can see both positive and negative consequences of these findings.
“(Anthropomorphic digital devices) can be good and bad,” Mourey said. “For instance, with elderly people who might be lonely or with people who are just alone, these kinds of devices could be great because these products can make them feel less lonely.”
According to Mourey, the problems lie in whether marketers will be able to keep in mind the effects these devices have on the need for social interaction. Mourey says the effects the anthropomorphic devices have on peoples’ desire to interact with friends or engage in prosocial behavior is mitigated once they are reminded that the objects are not human beings. Mourey also does not believe these devices will take over the world or completely replace the need for human friends.
“The biggest misconception is that these humanlike products are taking over our lives socially. Humans are able to understand that what they are interacting with is not a full replacement for actual human interaction,” Mourey said. “There is also the caveat that once you remind someone that they are interacting with a device and not a human, any diminished effect of social exclusion is negated.”
Dr. Steven Lytinen, a professor at the College of Digital Media and an expert on artificial intelligence (AI), understands why people might be scared of AI.
“It’s only natural for people to be concerned because the threat of (AI) taking their work or taking over as their friends is a scary thing,” Lytinen said.
Lytinen also believes the fear surrounding AI is overblown, stating technology has repeatedly scared humans throughout history, but humanity has been generally better off after accepting it.
“Humans should understand that computers won’t replace them but will instead enhance them. AI is nothing to be scared of,” Lytinen said. “Over time it has happened repeatedly like with the industrial revolution and with computers. Revolutions such as these require people to become more aware of the new technology and how to use it. I think these fears are overblown because over time a population who uses technology will be better off than before the technology was accepted.”
Senior Seamus O’Connor believes human-like products replacing the human need for socialization could pose many problems for people who use these products as a social clutch, especially if those people are especially lonely already.
“I think it will cause people to become more isolated than they already are,” O’Connor said. “If everyone can have perfect interactions in virtual reality, why would they go outside?”
O’Connor paints a picture of a far-off reality, but the possibility of a time when socialization only requires a device with simulated consciousness still exists.