Do You Trust a Robot? To Do What?

Do you trust a robot?

Well, you might say, it depends: that depends on who did the programming. 

We do use the word ‘trust’ that way. We can ‘trust’ a robot to do the same thing, over and over. It doesn’t have bad motives, bad days, or bad blood. It does what it’s programmed to do.

But we would never say we’d trust a robot to “do the right thing,” or to “keep its owner’s best interest at heart,” or to “have a conscience.” That would just be silly. A robot is a machine. And silicon is not protein.

Yet much thinking about social trust amounts to nothing more than programming the robot. Got problems on Wall Street? Tweak the incentives. Oil drillers behaving badly? Rewrite the programmer rules of the MMS.

Much of that’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. What’s to be done about all the non-robotic parts of society?

Sister Rettinger Uses Non-robotic Trust to Shame a Thief into Restitution

Writing programs for robotic trust is pretty simple. Go read one of the economists or psychologists who boil down all human behavior to the consistent pursuit of self-interest, and borrow their formula. Define a few processes, insert rules and conditional reward/pain payoffs, and voila—robotic trust.

But that won’t explain Pittsburgh’s Sister Lynn Rettinger: or the thief she undid with her voice:

Rettinger didn’t even have to break out a ruler for man who reached into an open window and stole a wallet from a car on Tuesday. She just needed the voice honed by nearly 50 years in Catholic schools.

After a teacher saw the man swipe the wallet, the 5-foot-3 principal of Sacred Heart Elementary School in the Shadyside neighborhood went outside and firmly told the man, "you need to give me what you have."

The unknown thief turned over the wallet, apologized and walked away.

Rettinger says she merely said what she says to students when she knows they have something they shouldn’t.

Let’s be clear: the Sister called out a stranger for misbehavior: and he responded. While strangers, they shared a moral code. While he was a lawbreaker and she just a little old woman, she trusted that he would not harm her, and that he would do the right thing.   And so he did.

The rules of interpersonal conduct—or morality, or trust, or conscience—are often considered to be far ‘softer’ than the rules governing physics, or programs governing robots. But Sr. Rettinger had enough confidence to calmly place a bet on their power. And she was right.

There is a power that exists between human beings, a binding web of mutuality, that we have systematically denied—to our own detriment.

5th Pillar in India Challenges Bribe-takers to Cease their Demands

Vijay Anand, chairman of 5th Pillar, has printed up over a million zero-rupee notes. The notes are to be given by poor people to officials who try to extort them for basic services.

When confronted with a demand for a bribe, the citizen offers up a zero-rupee note. This act turns out to have serious, positive consequences. In one case, “a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.”

When engineered properly, the power of the force that binds people to each other can overwhelm the selfish power that economists presume drives us all.

Selfishness Is Over-rated: Trust is Under-Rated

I’m getting tired of hearing it cited routinely, over and over, as if it were self-evident, that people are selfish and will behave badly unless stopped or otherwise incented, especially if they work for companies.

They are not. People are vastly flawed and far from perfection; but they are also selfless and capable of great acts of generosity.

Dr. Robert Hoyk lists a number of ways we can think about increasing trust, many of which don’t involve behaviors and incentives. David Gebler suggests that culture drives trust , which seems perfectly obvious when you just put it that way. Then we catch wind of a headline and we’re off to the behavioral sanctions route once again.

Programming the robot; what does it get you? The same thing, over and over.   There’s a lot to like about dependability and reliability. Just don’t claim that’s all there is to trust.

6 replies
  1. deborah nixon
    deborah nixon says:

    Charles: I like your headline- trust it to do what.  We can apply this to people.  As we both know, trust is contextual.  You may trust somebody to come through for you in one situation, but not another. I may trust you to follow you on your work obligations, but I may not trust you to care for my baby.

    Thus I issue a cautionary note for all those enamoured with employee surveys about trust. Remember, the question do you trust your manager has multiple meanings and interpretations. Trust him/her to do or say what?  When you are not clear, the answer does not inform you of much other than a generalized sense of vague trust.  It then becomes open to interpretation by the researcher or test administrator to assume what you meant.  False conclusions and thus false strategies often ensue.

    Isn’t it better to just be transparent?  Clear?  Then we all know what we mean.   So when someone tells you they trust you, ask them to clarify. You may be surprised at the answer.

  2. Alex Todd
    Alex Todd says:

    Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs as a possible guide in helping us understand selfishness and selflessness.  I would suggest that you can only be truly selfless in certain aspects of your life if you are sufficient in those areas.  For example, as a general principle, if you do not have sufficient food and shelter to survive, you are unlikely to be selfless with respect to food and shelter.  Fear of losing what you perceive you need to survive (whatever survival means to you) precipitates selfish behavour.  As you move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you are likely to increasingly value intangibles and be far more generous with lower level needs.  The higher level these needs are no longer a zero-sum resource, but in fact grow when shared.  Trust is like that, so is love.

    However, there is another consideration.  Even a hungry lioness won’t eat her young (although the paternal lion might).  We have an intrinsic need to perpetuate our species, which will cause us to perform seemingly altruistic and selfless, even self-sacrificing acts for a bigger need.  It is not inconceivable that the nun in your story provoked a deep-seated fear of god in the thief – the need for self-preservation at a higher level, or with a longer-term horizon.  So people who have higher level needs (such as belief in god) may well subordinate their lower level needs.

    Speaking of robots, check out this article "One robot, one vote?" at  I commented "If you think this article is about the future, reread it replacing the words  ‘robot’ and ‘cyborg’ with ‘corporation’."

    Yes, we also need to trust legal persons like robots and corporations.


  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Thanks Howard for posting and linking us to Jennifer Wilson’s post on selfishness, on point both.

    And then, to hear from two Canadians Alex Todd and Deborah Nixon, slumming it with us southern folk: what a pleasure!

    Underscore what Deb says: any trust metric of trust is pretty meaningless without an object: as in trust to do what, or to act how, or to behave in what way? Other plays on that formulation include I trust my dog with my life, but not with my lunch. 

    Deborah’s right not only about the false inferences we can draw by assuming what the other meant when they answered a question.  One of my favorites is to check out the top ranked twitter names on TweetLevel.  As of this moment, CNN ("the most trusted name in news") does indeed rank pretty high; but the New York Times ranks higher.  Still, they are both outranked by the number 1 Top Trusted Name on Twitter–Justin Bieber.   I kid you not, go check it out.  (Though last week, the top spot was owned by Perez Hilton.)  What an example of how lack of context destroys meaning.

    Alex raises a couple of neat points.  Seems to me he’s broadly right about Maszlow’s hierarchy, but I also think there are more exceptions than he might cite.  In various cultures, the "loss of face" is so important that it will lead people to do wild things–like continue to dress up and commute to work for a year after being laid off so the neighbors don’t catch on you’ve been fired (true story from Japan some years back).  I suspect Maszlow-san may have a different hierarchy.

    And while it’s true that you can evoke an infinite logical regress by substituting the survival of the species for the survival of the individual, always making sense of an action by taking it one step removed, at some point I think we have to just step back and say wow, people make some crazy-ass sacrifices for others–and just wonder at it all.

    I recommend the Globe & Mail robot article Alex cited to anyone as provocative reading.  It reminds me of the Turing Test, proposed by Alan Turing in the 1950s, as a way of determining whether a machine can think.  The test boils down to, "If you were to interact with a machine and a human by remote keyboard and screen, and each were trying to appear human, and you couldn’t tell the difference–then who’s to say they’re not equally intelligent?"

    Regardless of what you think about the ensuing philosophical debates (trust me, they’re un-interesting), the question itself is fiendishly provocative. 

    Thanks you guys; fascinating dialogue.


  4. Ian Brodie
    Ian Brodie says:

    Not a deep comment from me today – but just my immediate thought triggered by reading the post:

    One of the phrases in marketing I hate the most, with a passion, is "People are tuned in to WIIFM radio – What’s In it For Me".

    It’s trotted out so repeatedly without question.

    Sometimes it’s put to good use – to get people to focu on their client or customer rather than themselves.

    But I certainly know that my friends, colleagues and contacts aren’t just interested in what’s in it for them.

    Using WIIFM as the only guide to how to communicate with them leads to very shallow communications. Communications that never get past customer-supplier.


  5. deborah nixon
    deborah nixon says:

    Ian:   Sometimes simplicty equals depth. I really liked your comment.  And you’re right. The WIIFM perspective in life leaves us with a very shallow and vacuous world.  And at times, the world is that way- and so are we. I find myself getting to that point when I’m feeling overwhelmed either by the incredible negativity the news puts in my face or the daily grind and interaction of life in a big city.  And when I find myself thinking like that, I know it’s time for me to go on one of my retreats to the monks.

    So I wonder how often what is the WIIFM stuff we see is people feeling invisible. And business perpetuates that with a message of me first.  So maybe what we need to focus on is empathy.  I know it’s hard when you’ve been cut off in traffic for the 10th time or somebody is oblivious to your existence.   It will, however, lower your own blood pressure and get you into a better psychological and emotional place.  


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