The interactional coordination of virtual and personal assistants in a homecare setting

Saul Albert, Magnus Hamann & Elizabeth Stokoe (for the 6th Copenhagen Multimodality Day), October 2021.


Policymakers and care service providers are increasingly looking to technological developments in AI and robotics to augment or replace health and social care services in the context of a demographic ageing crisis (House of Lords, 2021; Kingston et al., 2018; Topol, 2019, pp. 54–55). However, there is still little evidence as to how these technologies might be applied to everyday social care situations (Maguire et al., 2021). This paper uses conversation analysis of ~100 hours of video recorded interactions between a disabled person, their virtual assistant (Alexa), and their (human) personal assistant to explore how routine care tasks are organized in a domestic setting. We focus on how the human participants organize conversational turn-space around ‘turns-at-use’ with the virtual assistant. Specifically, how turns-at-use ostensibly designed for the virtual assistant can recruit overhearing others. Further, we show how participants include the virtual assistant in their shared taskscape by, for example, putting ongoing activities and conversations on hold, visibly reorienting their bodies, or explicitly making themselves available for – or requesting – assistance when coordination trouble emerges between the machine-human dyad. Our findings show that virtual assistants expand the affordances of a homecare environment but do not replace the work of personal assistants.


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