“Trust is one of the most pervasive - and perhaps for that reason least noticed - aspects of social life. We need it in order to live at all. As the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has remarked, 'A complete absence of trust would prevent [one] even getting up in the morning.” – GeoffreyHosking (2002).“Trust is a big part of human interaction. It is perhaps so big a part of how we deal with each other that it may be taken for granted. Trust is seen to include both emotional and cognitive dimensions and to function as a deep assumption underwriting social order.” Lewis and Weigert (1985)
Trust is important to humans. And that begs the question: what role would human trust play in interactions with extraterrestrials, if we make alien First Contact some day? These authors argue that trust is a social reality. But what happens when our human reality collides with an alien reality?
Perhaps the closest we have come to considering the matter of trust in a non-human scenario is a discussion of Artificial Intelligence. Researchers Cristiano Castelfranchi and Yao-Hua Tan (2001) pioneer that concept in “The Role of Trust and Deception in Virtual Societies.” This is from the abstract: “The authors argue that it is important to analyse the role of trust and deception in interactions between agents in virtual societies. In particular, in hybrid situations where artificial agents interact with human agents it is important that those artificial agents can reason about the trustworthiness and deceptive actions of the human counterpart.”
Developing a trust framework for AI to interact with humans can help us better understand trust from an alien perspective. There is the possibility that aliens would value trust. It is an integral part of the development of the human civilization. It would make sense that trust could be an important part of an alien civilization. Humans use trust for essential parts of our society: trade, communal living and governance. Could aliens have developed a complex society without trust? The answer is yes. Just one Star Trek example: Aliens could have a hive mind, which unlike individuals resorting to trust would involve an implicit understanding of each creature as part of the whole hive. Trust may seem odd to such extraterrestrials. Even if aliens do value trust, the concept of trust may be quite different from ours. Trust expectations change from human culture to culture here on Earth. While both Chinese and Americans value trust, they act on it in different ways.
This goes to the issue of alien thinking. Many researchers argue that our biology helps to define our way of thinking and posit it would likely be the same for aliens. Very different biology could mean a very different way of thinking. That could have a big impact on the concept of trust. And even if the aliens we meet some day are of artificial intelligence they are likely to have been influenced by the biological creatures that created the AI. Humans are currently designing AI to imitate human thinking. It seems plausible that aliens would do the same.
I could sort out these various possibilities for some time, since we have no idea what intelligent aliens might be like or if they exist at all. But there are some key points we can glean from this discussion.
If aliens contact us first, hopefully they would take the opportunity to examine our psychology and sociology before doing so. Those insights regarding trust would be important. They could help aliens design communication to meet human needs.
That then leads to another issue: Humans need to be wary in any First Contact situation. Just because aliens understand how to build trust with us, doesn’t mean they are not deceiving us. We would have no history of extraterrestrial culture to consider and, in fact, no data at all. We would have to learn as we go. That means caution would be necessary at every step. Crafty aliens could find a myriad of ways to deceive us and control us. I prefer to stay optimistic in considering alien First Contact, but cautiously optimistic. That means moving forward slowly and with great deliberation. Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
Ultimately, anything we do in an alien First Contact situation would require some level of trust on our part and on their part. We will have to do what humans have done for thousands of years: observe, learn, take action, evaluate results and refine. We can only hope the aliens will be doing the same. Perhaps then we can develop a real trust together.
Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash
Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash