With artificial intelligence (AI) technology growing in popularity, the need for research and understanding on this topic has become important. The unknown can be scary, but researchers like Dr. Gain Park are helping to bridge the gap by exploring human-computer communication, its impact on users, and its implications on the future of communication.

Dr. Park, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University (NMSU), initially became interested in human-computer interactions when she and an NMSU student worked on a study titled, “Hey Siri, I’ll Have What You’re Having: Chabot Pressure on Food Choices.” They found that chatbots are social actors, meaning they can play a meaningful and participatory role in a communication interaction, and that the same social pressure and influence that exists in human-human interactions is also possible in human-computer interactions. This is supported by the Computers Are Social Actors (CASA) Paradigm, which says that humans apply human social rules and scripts to computers. This served as a foundation for many of Dr. Park’s future studies.

Dr. Park has worked with a team of researchers and a developer from other universities and countries to create an impressive body of research that has evolved over the past few years. This body of research includes numerous professionally published scholarly articles, many of which have been presented at national conferences. Dr. Park’s research journey has explored AI in areas of consumer services, mental health, and fundraising.

In the consumer services field, Dr. Park and others studied how to improve human-computer interactions so that these interactions would be helpful to humans and not triggering. The COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in mental health struggles during that time prompted Dr. Park’s studies to shift to the mental health field. The focus became how chatbots could be a resource for those who feel that their struggles are moderate and just need some emotional and social support and someone to talk to. More recently, the studies shifted to fundraising efforts, which have also struggled since COVID-19, and how positive human-computer interactions could impact users’ willingness to donate.

According to Dr. Park, “A big part of future human communication will include human-computer interaction.” Human-computer interactions have already begun integrating into many workplaces, organizations, and institutions. According to Dr. Park, people are turning to chatbots for both professional and interpersonal interactions. That is why it is important to study these interactions and their impact on human behaviors and attitudes.

This is what differentiates Dr. Park’s research from other AI research; it is human-centered and user-centered. “The current focus in the scholar world, in my opinion, is too focused on the machine side,” said Dr. Park. “But I wanted to move the focus to the human side. What do these functions do to the human to change their behavior and perception?”

Another reason Dr. Park’s research is so important is because it encourages and highlights the need for AI literacy. There are entire classes dedicated to teaching college students about media literacy and ways they can wisely engage with the whirlwind of media around them. AI is both a new media agent and a new social agent that is being increasingly interacted with in professional and personal contexts. This research emphasizes the importance of users being aware of the social factors at play, how they may be impacted or influenced, and how they can benefit from the interaction.

Dr. Park’s research demonstrates that AI technologies can be a helpful tool for struggling and overworked consumer service, mental health, and nonprofit organizations – not to take people’s jobs, but to support them by taking simple tasks off their plates so they can focus on bigger tasks. AI can also be helpful to individuals, including people with moderate mental health struggles or college students. Dr. Park’s research exemplifies that two things can be true – one, that AI can be a positive and helpful tool and two, that it is a new and evolving agent that requires some understanding and literacy to interact with.

“This is just a machine, like computers and internet and other media, and having firm literacy skills, so that I will have this conversation and actually be benefitted from this conversation, will be important,” explained Dr. Park. “People are using it, people will rely on this technology more and more, and now is the time to look at its social effect on general users.”

Dr. Park’s research aims to bring information about AI technology and human-computer interactions to general users, so that AI will not just be a tool understood and used by organizations and specialized groups but will be a tool understood and used by the general public.

“It’s about making the world a better place,” affirmed Dr. Park. “That’s my actual belief. I want to make the world a better place by finding connections within the area of AI media agents and people/users.”