AI Chatbots Could Ease Demand on COVID-19 Hotlines

A solution to overtaxed COVID-19 hotlines could be only a chatbot away.

Researchers from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business found that when callers felt comfortable in the chatbot’s ability they considered the bot at least as good as a human.

“The primary factor driving user response to screening hotlines — human or chatbot — is perceptions of the agent’s ability,” said Alan Dennis, chair of internet systems at Kelley and corresponding author of the paper to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

“When ability is the same, “he said, “Users view chatbots no differently or more positively than human agents.”

Noting that, as they write in their report, “The sudden unprecedented demand for [COVID-19] information is overwhelming resources,” Dennis and three other researchers set out to learn if people would use a chatbot and follow its advice. They presented text chats between callers and agents. Each study participant saw the same exact chat. Some were told the agent was a bot; others were told it was a human.

The researchers found the participants biased, believing the chatbots less able than a human agent. Those who trusted the provider of the chatbot service were more comfortable in the bot’s ability.

“The results show that the primary factor driving patient response to COVID-19 screening hotlines (human or chatbot) is users’ perceptions of the agent’s ability,” the researchers wrote. Driving that perception is the user’s trust in the provider of the screening hotline.

“A secondary factor for persuasiveness, satisfaction, likelihood of following the agent’s advice, and likelihood of use was the type of agent, with participants reporting they viewed chatbots more positively than human agents.”

“This positive response may be because users feel more comfortable disclosing information to a chatbot, especially socially undesirable information, because a chatbot makes no judgment,” they theorized.

To make hotline callers more comfortable and confident speaking with a chatbot, the researchers suggest the sponsoring organization develop “a strong messaging campaign that emphasizes the chatbot’s ability. Because trust in the provider strongly influences perceptions of ability, building on the organization’s reputation may also prove useful.”

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