Reputation systems are changing why and how we trust strangers and vehicles. Is complete transparency the security blanket we need to accompany the developments of apps like Airbnb and Uber?
The rate at which technology is becoming integrated into our lives is exciting, but let’s face it, unnerving. When moving from an analog to a digital sphere there is one huge leap that we all have to make. That leap is trust.
In an age when we are beginning to lose trust in governments, banks and institutions, our trust in the security of the Internet and complete strangers is radically increasing. We are developing a much more comfortable relationship with the unknown and it is this trust that is enabling more change and radical innovation.
In his TED Talk ‘How Airbnb design for trust’, Joe Gebbia (the co-founder of the enormously successful accommodation app) discusses how his company combatted humanity’s deeply ingrained concept of ‘Stranger Danger’ with good design. Through studies they did in conjunction with Stanford University, Airbnb discovered that people were most likely to trust tasks to individuals who were most akin to themselves; in gender, appearance, race, age etc. This was unsurprising news. However, it was the next aspect of the study that was most interesting and useful to Gebbia and his team. They presented these same individuals with profiles of people that were very dissimilar to them, but had numerous glowing reviews of their trustworthiness. The study found that high reputation beats high similarities and thus Airbnb’s emphasis on the importance of a well-designed reputation and rating system for both providers and users was reinforced. Similarly, with Uber and Lyft, it is the solidarity amongst the transparency of users of the app that give it its strength. Not only are the drivers rated, but passengers too.
Waze Carpool released on June 6th in LA and I downloaded it to give it a try for my commute home. This differs to Uber and Lyft in that a driver may only provide two rides a day, making it impossible to make a living from the app. The aim is for people to discover others who have a similar route to work as themselves and pay a small fee towards their gas, thus relieving traffic. I was excited to try it, however having downloaded the app I discovered that many of my possible drivers had not yet been rated because the app had only just been launched that morning. This made me cancel my request for a driver as I just didn’t feel safe enough sharing a car with a complete stranger without seeing what other people had thought of them. I can certainly vouch for the fact that this was a deciding factor in whether or not I trusted the platform.
In many of her pieces regarding digital trust, author and academic Rachel Botsman makes the point that if reputation and rating systems continue to radically influence how we behave as consumers, this will eventually spill into our behaviors in the real world. Working to preserve our ratings as users is a new phenomenon which over time may incur a more considerate approach to how we behave in relation to each other in general with or without ratings. This may seem like a storyline from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, but it’s a hugely possible outcome. With technological advancements in AI and The Internet of Things gaining momentum at a huge rate, our trust in platforms, services and vehicles may have to evolve at a similar pace.
With the trial release of Uber’s driverless cars and introduction of personalized drones in Dubai, the trust boundary is being pushed even further and this same principle regarding reputation systems can be applied. Although this does differ from the ‘Stranger Danger’ paradigm, it is perhaps even a further leap of trust for the user to make because there is no human involved.
In NPR’s podcast Planet Money, Steve Henn and Katie Mingle compare our approach to trusting driverless cars to how driverless elevators were introduced in an episode entitled ‘The Big Red Button’. When the driverless elevator was invented, and there was no longer a need for a lever and an operator, people were terrified to step into an un-manned car. In fairness, our fear of stepping into large vehicles that could essentially kill us is a warranted fear.
There appears to be two methods by which the developers of the automatic elevator made their passengers feel safe. The first is to hand some of the power back to the user, ergo, they installed a big red ‘Stop’ button. The second is to make the technology powering the vehicle seem fluffy and harmless. They did this by adding a soft female voice and elevator music to put the passengers at ease. Lastly, the company introduced an ad campaign depicting children pressing the elevator buttons with their grandmother, riding carefree alongside them to give the impression of approachability.
Similarly, when Henn and Mingle spoke to Chris Urmson, who leads the self-driving car project at Google, he explained that the aesthetic of the car was designed in such a way to make it look unintimidating and safe. Upon seeing the car for the first time, Henn couldn’t help but be endeared by the vehicle… “It's kind of adorable, all round and soft. It has a tiny, little, black radar mounted to the hood that looks like a button nose. And everything is designed to keep you calm. There's a rearview mirror, although there's no real reason for it. There's a little screen inside that shows you what the car can see. And just like in an elevator in the '50s, there's a reassuring automated voice.” Urmson had ideally envisioned the car to not have a steering wheel for safety reasons. It is statistically more likely that an accident will happen if the driver unexpectedly takes over as opposed to just pressing a stop button. However, this still makes some people nervous, specifically California regulators and politicians. So, in order to test this car on the roads and highways around Silicon Valley, Google has had to add back a temporary steering wheel and a brake.
Unfortunately, the first known death by fault of a self-driving car stopped the industry in its tracks 12 months ago. On the 7th of May 2016, Joshua Brown put his Model S Tesla into autopilot. The sensors on the car failed to detect a truck crossing the highway and Brown was killed. Although the introduction of driverless cars will statistically lessen fatalities, the stigma of public opinion expecting it to be flawless is a damning factor.
Upon Uber introducing their first fleet of driverless cars in Pittsburgh, there were human drivers present to monitor its journey, but also put new users at ease. This seems like a necessary evil that may have to be implemented alongside these new technologies to allow us to ease ourselves into trust. Personally, I feel that part of the reason we find humans easier to trust with our lives despite the statistics of human error in comparison to technology is down to forgiveness. We can take comfort in the fact of having an individual to blame and forgive, but when entrusting technology with our lives, we can blame no one but ourselves for taking the risk.
This shift, however, is inevitable. A revolution is happening. The hospitality and transport industries shall soon be monopolized by programs and apps that require us to instill faith. Personalized drones will no doubt begin to come common place in the near future. They can take off vertically, do not pollute the atmosphere, reduce (ground) traffic, do not burn fuel and are quiet. Interestingly, not only are we going to have to begin to trust the hovering AI vehicle we are sitting in with our own lives, but also the AI vehicles carrying others. Will we need streets anymore? Will a new version of the 'Rules of the Sky' need to be drafted?
We cannot predict this for now. But, we can be sure that developers and designers in these companies will have no choice but to invest huge amounts of time and money into creating a system that puts the user at ease both through the hardware they provide but more importantly the software. Reputation systems are becoming the gauge by which we make any modern-day decision: Yelp reviews for dinner, Amazon reviews for books and every product we can think of, Uber ratings for transport safety, Airbnb ratings for accommodation.
In the next year or two, we may be checking the safety rating of our driverless car or personalized drone via a similar system before embarking on a trip.
We will have to find our faith in the facts.