Journal of Management Information Systems

Volume 39 Number 4 2022 pp. 969-1005

To Be or Not to Be …Human? Theorizing the Role of Human-Like Competencies in Conversational Artificial Intelligence Agents

Chandra, Shalini, Shirish, Anuragini, and Srivastava, Shirish C


Driven by the need to provide continuous, timely, and efficient customer service, firms are constantly experimenting with emerging technological solutions. In recent times firms have shown an increased interest in designing and implementing artificial intelligence (AI)-based interactional technologies, such as conversational AI agents and chatbots, that obviate the need for having human service agents for the provision of customer service. However, the business impact of conversational AI is contingent on customers using and adequately engaging with these tools. This engagement depends, in turn, on conversational AI’s similarity, or likeness to the human beings it is intended to replace. Businesses therefore need to understand what human-like characteristics and competencies should be embedded in customer-facing conversational AI agents to facilitate smooth user interaction. This focus on “human-likeness” for facilitating user engagement in the case of conversational AI agents is in sharp contrast to most prior information systems (IS) user engagement research, which is predicated on the “instrumental value” of information technology (IT). Grounding our work in the individual human competency and media naturalness literatures, we theorize the key role of human-like interactional competencies in conversational AI agents—specifically, cognitive, relational, and emotional competencies—in facilitating user engagement. We also hypothesize the mediating role of user trust in these relationships. Following a sequential mixed methods approach, we use a quantitative two-wave, survey-based study to test our model. We then examine the results in light of findings from qualitative follow-up interviews with a sampled set of conversational AI users. Together, the results offer a nuanced understanding of desirable human-like competencies in conversational AI agents and the salient role of user trust in fostering user engagement with them. We also discuss the implications of our study for research and practice.

Key words and phrases: Artificial Intelligence, AI, chatbot, human-like competencies, human-like trust, media naturalness theory, user engagement, mixed methods, conversational agents