Co-Designing AI Agents to Support Social Connectedness Among Online Learners: Functionalities, Social Characteristics, and Ethical Challenges

Our online interactions are constantly mediated through Artificial Intelligence (AI), especially our social interactions. AI-mediated social interaction is the AI-facilitated process of building and maintaining social connections between individuals through information inferred from people’s online posts. With its impending application across a number of contexts, the challenges and opportunities of AI-mediated social interaction remain underexplored. This paper seeks to understand the design space of AI-mediated social interaction in the context of online learning, where students frequently face social isolation. We deployed an AI agent named SAMI in three-class discussion forums to help online learners build social connections. Using SAMI as a probe, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 26 students to understand their difficulties in remote social interactions and their experiences with SAMI. Through the lenses of social translucence and the social-technical gap, we illustrate online learners’ difficulties in remote social interactions and how SAMI resolved some of the difficulties. We also identify potential ethical and social challenges of SAMI such as user agency and privacy. Based on our findings, we outline the design space of AI-mediated social interaction. We discuss the design tension between AI performance and ethical design and pinpoint two design opportunities for AI-mediated social interaction in designing toward human-AI collaborative social matching and artificial serendipity.