“Hey, Alexa! Are you trustworthy?”

A family gathers around their kitchen island to unbox the digital assistant they just purchased. They will be more likely to trust this new voice-user interface, which might be a smart speaker like Amazon’s Alexa or a social robot like Jibo, if it exhibits some humanlike social behaviors, according to a new study by researchers in MIT’s Media Lab.

The researchers found that family members tend to think a device is more competent and emotionally engaging if it can exhibit social cues, like moving to orient its gaze at a speaking person. In addition, their study revealed that branding — specifically, whether the manufacturer’s name is associated with the device — has a significant effect on how members of a family perceive and interact with different voice-user interfaces.

When a device has a higher level of social embodiment, such as the ability to give verbal and nonverbal social cues through motion or expression, family members also interacted with one another more frequently while engaging with the device as a group, the researchers found.

Their results could help designers create voice-user interfaces that are more engaging and more likely to be used by members of a family in the home, while also improving the transparency of these devices. The researchers also outline ethical concerns that could come from certain personality and embodiment designs.

“These devices are new technology coming into the home and they are still very under-explored,” says Anastasia Ostrowski, a research assistant in the Personal Robotics Group in the Media Lab, and lead author of the paper. “Families are in the home, so we were very interested in looking at this from a generational approach, including children and grandparents. It was super interesting for us to understand how people are perceiving these, and how families interact with these devices together.”

Coauthors include Vasiliki Zygouras, a recent Wellesley College graduate working in the Personal Robotics Group at the

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