Originally published 30 Mar 21
Can we trust technology? Should we try to make technology, particularly AI, more trustworthy? These are questions that have perplexed philosophers and policy-makers in recent years. The EU’s High Level Expert Group on AI has, for example, recommended that the primary goal of AI policy and law in the EU should be to make the technology more trustworthy. But some philosophers have critiqued this goal as being borderline incoherent. You cannot trust AI, they say, because AI is just a thing. Trust can exist between people and other people, not between people and things.
This is an old debate. Trust is a central value in human society. The fact that I can trust my partner not to betray me is one of the things that makes our relationship workable and meaningful. The fact that I can trust my neighbours not to kill me is one of the things that allows me to sleep at night. Indeed, so implicit is this trust that I rarely think about it. It is one of the background conditions that makes other things in my life possible. Still, it is true that when I think about trust, and when I think about what it is that makes trust valuable, I usually think about trust in my relationships with other people, not my relationships with things.
But would it be so terrible to talk about trust in technology? Should we use some other term instead such as ‘reliable’ or ‘confidence-inspiring’? Or should we, as some blockchain enthusiasts have argued, use technology to create a ‘post-trust’ system of social governance?
I want to offer some quick thoughts on these questions in this article. I will do so in three stages. First, I will briefly review some of the philosophical debates about trust in people and trust in things. Second, I will consider the value of trust, distinguishing between its intrinsic and extrinsic components. Third, I will suggest that it is meaningful to talk about trust in technology, but that the kind of trust we have in technology has a different value to the kind of trust we have in other people. Finally, I will argue that most talk about building ‘trustworthy’ technology is misleading: the goal of most of these policies is to obviate or override the need for trust.