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“If no one’s in, I talk to Alexa all the time:” Researchers on how in-home voice assistants are being bought by the lonely

Amazon's Alexa is being trained to recgonise more UK regional dialects.
Amazon's Alexa is being trained to recgonise more UK regional dialects.

Have to ask Alexa? Then the answer might be loneliness.

More than 100 million Amazon Echoes have been sold worldwide but researchers believe many are being bought for company.

The warm tones of in-home voice assistants may be a substitute for friendship, or family, according to the study.

The analysis, led by University of Strathclyde’s Dr Graeme McLean, found that people could not help but make friends with the smart speaker.

The study found: “Voice assistants may serve as a means of overcoming loneliness in a household with fewer occupants.

“Individuals converse with voice assistants in the same way as they do with other humans, developing a rapport with the artificial intelligent assistant. Robots can provide a sense of companionship, while assisting their users.”

While for couples at home alone, used to a big family, the report found “the additional social presence offered by the voice assistant replaces interaction that may be had with a human counterpart in a larger household.”

In December, the Scottish Government launched its first strategy focused on social isolation and loneliness in society, backed by £1 million.

A range of public and third-sector organisations and experts are helping to develop a strategy to tackle the endemic problem.

The university’s team asked more than 700 people online, who had been using their Echo for at least a month, about why they had bought one of the devices which cost up to £200.

They found that the entertainment value of owning a voice assistant was almost as great as its usefulness, while prestige also played a part. Social companionship was also seen as a great benefit.

The authors said: “As AI technology has become more widely available, embedded as part of our everyday life and somewhat trendy to use, individuals may be adopting and using the technology to enhance their social status to make them appear important within their peer groups.

“In the same way individuals may furnish their home with designer hard and soft furnishings, Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, and Apple’s HomePod smart assistants have become a worldwide phenomenon in the last decade.”

Echo was the first in 2014, and was the market leader with 20,000 devices supporting interaction with Amazon Alexa.

The number of smart speaker users in the UK is set to grow by almost a third this year, after doubling in 2018.

A study by eMarketer found that 9.5 million people in the UK used a smart speaker, up 98.6% over 2017. More than two thirds of those were on an Amazon Echo.

The most common commands are for music, then weather, fun questions, and alarms.

However, there is concern over security and privacy.

Amazon has admitted workers eavesdrop on conversations with the device, and copies have been sent to third parties.

The authors, in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, said people had concrete fears about privacy, and financial details being stolen, but they were willing to ignore this for the convenience and company.

The Scottish Government’s A Connected Scotland strategy, which aims to tackle social isolation and loneliness, and build stronger social connections, was launched by Christina McKelvie, Minister for Older People and Equalities.

Yesterday, Sarah Van Putten, chief executive of Edinburgh-based charity Befriending Networks, which is taking part in the initiative, said: “Loneliness and social isolation are damaging to our mental and physical health and can impact on anyone at any point in their life, at different ages and stages.

“The statistics vary but estimates suggest 1 in 10 people feel lonely, although some would suggest that it is more common than this.

“This research is interesting and suggests a way in which technology is helping to tackle loneliness.

“Loneliness, however, is complex and no one solution will be right for everyone.

“In some cases, technology may help people stay more connected.

“However, it should never entirely replace face-to-face interaction, relationships and friendships.”

By Alice Hinds

When Jamie Shuttleworth and girlfriend, Ashley McAdam, 25, bought their flat together, an Amazon Echo was one of the first items on their shopping list. Now, it has become a part of the family.

Jame, 27, a social media analyst from Paisley, said: “Our smart speaker was one of the first things we purchased as it was half price and we liked the idea of having something interactive in the house that could make our lives easier.

“I talk to Alexa all the time when I’m home alone. I ask her silly questions, play music and check the weather forecast. The only problem is she seems to have selective hearing – much like my girlfriend – and she often doesn’t respond to me the first time around.

“I know Ashley speaks to her too. One day when she was home alone I must have annoyed her because I checked the Alexa app a few days later and saw a search for, ‘Alexa, why are boys so silly?’

“I’m not surprised people are talking to Alexa when they’re lonely. I can only imagine how horrible it must be to go days at a time without hearing another person’s voice, so if a smart speaker can even help just one person not feel alone then it’s worth it.

“As advances in technology are made, the concept of using robots to combat loneliness can only evolve and become normalised. We’ve seen on shows like Netflix’s Black Mirror just how powerful technology can be – and if we can recreate some of that it can only be a good thing.”

When Jamie Shuttleworth and girlfriend, Ashley McAdam, 25, bought their flat together, an Amazon Echo was one of the first items on their shopping list.

Jamie, 27, a social media analyst from Paisley, said: “I talk to Alexa all the time when I’m home alone. I ask her silly questions, play music and check the weather forecast. The only problem is she seems to have selective hearing – much like my girlfriend – and she often doesn’t respond to me the first time around.

“I know Ashley speaks to her, too. One day when she was home alone I must have annoyed her because I checked the Alexa app a few days later and saw a search for, ‘Alexa, why are boys so silly?’

“I’m not surprised to hear that people are talking to Alexa when they’re lonely.

“So if a smart speaker can even help just one person not feel alone then it’s worth it.”