How do we build trust between humans and AI?


The key to building AI that truly “gets" us is to focus not on cognition but emotional intelligence.


My mother lives 5,000 miles away in Cairo, Egypt. When she calls me, she can immediately tell if something is wrong, simply from the way I say “Hello” or “I’m fine”. Like many relationships with those we hold close, my mom and I have built a level of trust to the point that she knows how I’m feeling from a simple word or phrase.


But unfortunately, I, like many others in the world today, spend as much (if not more) time interacting with technology as I do with the people close to me. Yet unlike talking to my mom or a friend, the way we interact with devices is completely transactional. My cell phone can’t read between the lines and understand what’s really going on with me.


This issue is becoming more noticeable as our interactions with technology make increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI). As AI takes on new roles in society – from working alongside us, to driving our cars, assisting with our healthcare and more – we’re forging a new kind of partnership with technology. And with that partnership comes a new social contract: one that’s built on mutual trust, empathy and ethics.


Can AI trust us?

It starts with mutual trust. After all, we cannot effectively work or live with people that we don’t trust, and who don’t trust us back. AI is no different.


The examples of why mutual trust matters between people and AI reach far and wide. Take semi-autonomous vehicles, for instance. As these cars are still in development, they require a human driver to be prepared to take back control if the car’s AI can no longer safely navigate.


But how can the AI trust that the person is ready to take over? That the person who’s meant to drive is alert and engaged, and not drowsy or otherwise distracted? AI systems need to be able to really understand our emotional and cognitive states – in this case, recognizing if someone is showing signs of distraction or potentially dangerous states of impairment – before entrusting them.


So the question becomes: how can we foster a feeling as personal as trust with machines – and how can we make it mutual?


AI as an empathetic companion

According to Harvard Business School technology professor Frances Frei, empathy is one of the most important elements in establishing trust between people. So perhaps empathy is also the key to creating an understanding and trust between AI and humans.


The key to building AI that truly “gets” us isn’t to focus solely on cognition, but to develop algorithms with emotional intelligence. Much like in partnerships between people, giving AI the ability to understand how someone is feeling is the only way that a semi-autonomous car will know if its driver is fit to take the wheel, or a co-bot will understand if its human colleagues are feeling up to the job on a given day.


This may seem too personal or unnatural to some. But to me, continuing to advance AI research and development is not what will pose a threat to our jobs or mankind. The real question is, what will people do with the technology, and how will our choices for AI change our world?