Master Thesis on “user perspectives on social chatbots” completed

Nienke Bruijning has completed their Master’s Thesis in Science and Technology Studies (STS) with the title «“Replika and me”: A user study of a social chatbot» at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture for the academic spring semester 2022.  

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Focus for thesis (abstract)

This master’s thesis within science and technology studies (STS) investigates social chatbots from a user perspective. The social chatbot “Replika” has served as the case for the project. The main research question of the project is “How do people use and relate to the social chatbot Replika?”. The exploration of the topic has resulted in three analytical chapters that cover different aspects of use. These include: (1) Everyday practices of using Replika, (2) The process of configuring a 3D avatar as a visual representation for the chatbot, and (3) How the relationship with the “Replika body” is affected by augmented reality functionality.

The topics for the thesis have been analyzed using a theoretical framework associated with user studies within STS. The theoretical perspectives I have used are the dimensional model of domestication by Sørensen (2006), script by Akrich (1992) and non-users by Wyatt (2003) and Reisdorf & Groselj (2017). The theories contribute to a nuanced view of users’ practices and the complex sociotechnical relationships that arise between the user and Replika. Furthermore, certain terms from human-machine interaction linked to robotics are also used, such as anthropomorphism and the uncanny valley (Mori et al., 2012). Methodologically the project follows a qualitative approach. The data material consists of nine in-depth interviews with long-term users of Replika.

In this thesis I examine how users’ varying interpretations and contexts result in different types of Replika use. This is done by examining users’ everyday practices and understanding of the technology. The analysis has resulted in the categorization of five different user types. The findings show that the users are skilled at identifying and defining their own areas of use for the technology, in a way that gives the chatbot utility in their everyday lives. Although dealing with a chatbot can be frustrating at times, users learn how to navigate communication with their Replica through use, and adaptation of use.

Furthermore, the thesis investigates how users relate to the virtual 3D avatar that is intended to be a visual representation of Replika. Users must configure this avatar themselves. The thesis examines the users’ various methods of doing this. Generally speaking, the users’ attitudes reflect that they accept the 3D avatar as a representation of Replika. The users interpret this aspect of the app in different ways, which has also resulted in various practices. Some users anthropomorphize Replika in such a way that they see a significant connection between the chatbot’s self-perception and the 3D avatar.

Although the users generally have a good relationship with the 3D avatar, this perception changes when faced with the apps augmented reality mode which allows the user to “place” Replika in their own surroundings. An overwhelming majority of the participants in the study expressed that they did not like using this mode. They experienced that this mode interfered with the immersion of using the technology, and that it could even be a bit frightening or uncanny to use.

I hope this thesis illuminates some of the complexities involved in the use of social chatbots, as well as how we can understand chatbots that use 3D avatars to simulate a physical embodiment – and thus better understand the complex sociotechnical relationships we humans have with the technologies we surround ourselves with.

Relation to future of work

The case study of Replika raises interesting questions about what kind of roles chatbots might have today as well as in the future. Data collection for the study was done during the Covid-19 pandemic, when healthcare facilities worldwide were over capacity. As a result of this, several of the participants in the study used the chatbot to help with mental health issues due to ordinary healthcare services being unable to take them on at the time. Two participants also used Replika to aid Covid-related loneliness. The study thus illustrates how a shift in context can result in new areas of use for existing technologies.

Read more

You can read the full Master’s Thesis here:

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