What are Trust Systems?


I’ve been working for many years on what is called computational trust. It’s basically taking trust the way humans do it, thinking about how computers might do it, and creating ways to make that happen. This usually involves a bit of mathematics, but since I am not that much a fan of maths, I tend to make it simple (others make it much more complicated, and that’s fine). I teach a course at Ontario Tech University called Trust (and Trustless) Systems and it’s based on the research and philosophizing that I do. The idea of Trust Systems is one that has evolved in my head to become something identifiable (and even published). It’s not entirely new as a name (for example, in 2006 this paper talks about trust systems, and there’s even a company in the UK called Trust Systems, but we won’t be treading on their toes with what we talk about here).

New or not, it’s a way of thinking about trust systemically, and making sure that all the bits fit together. It’s recently become much more important because the AI that is coming to dominate our lives in many ways is something we are going to have to think really hard about in terms of trust.

So what exactly is a Trust System? For me, it’s a combination of three important things working more or less together to accomplish something. I call them my “3 Ps”:

  • People
  • Process
  • Place

People are pretty obvious — they are us! But it goes a little further than that because a Trust System is a partnership where humans and computational systems interact. So people in our sense is humans and computational systems — systems such as robots, autonomous agents, regular general purpose computers, phones, tablets, things like that. Don’t worry, as we go on down this rabbit hole, it’s going to become more clear!

Process is the way the computational part of the partnership works. This is through trust models, for the most part. There are many many (many) trust models out there. I have my own and in this place I’ll talk about what that looks like as well as introducing others. But people are part of this too, and so in our process bit

Place refers to the context the partnership exists in — the physical place, the time, the electronic ‘place’ (networks, status, things like that) — in fact, any kind of data that we can gather from the environment.

That last sentence should make you think about privacy. I think about it too. All the time. One of the problems with things like reputation systems for people, social credit, things like that, is that privacy is directly impacted. I’ll be talking much more about that as time goes by too.

I long ago decided I had to write a book about all this stuff. After all, I’m an academic and writing is pretty much one of the most important things we do. Writing in an accessible way, maybe not so much, so I decided to write a book about Trust (and Trustless) Systems that was both informative and accessible. And also fun. I’m in the middle of it now and I do all the writing and the illustrating (and I’m a pretty rubbish artist!). I’ll be posting it here in chapters, and also as an ebook. I’ll also be posting explainer videos and interviews with experts in the field (with their permission). It’s my hope that this becomes a focus point for my version of what things like computational trust are all about. But it won’t stop there because I rarely can keep my mouth shut about many things — politics, life, working at home and teaching from home, things like that. I’ll post stuff about that too. And finally, because I was asked by some of my students, I’m going to start posting explainers for how to program (not just how to code). Just not quite yet. I’m a little busy and I need to make sure I do this stuff properly.

What technology do I use? Before I tell you that, I’m going to tell you I don’t make any money from telling you. I use these tools because they work for me, I’ve used them for a long time for the most part, and I love the way they fit together to make a great experience for me. I’m happy to answer any questions about how I use them if you ask them. An M1 Mac mini, an iPad Pro (and the essential Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard). I’m using Ulysses to write it (and to write this blog too!) and enjoying it a lot. I use Tayasui Sketches as well as Explain Everything to do the pictures. I’m also recording a bunch of interviews as well as explainers (I use Explain Everything for them too, as well as LumaFusion to edit and finalize the videos. I use Notability a whole bunch for keeping, marking up and maintaining my little reference library, as well as sometimes to record lectures and explainers. Other than that, regular stuff!

I’m going to be posting irregularly, but I’m writing the book as I go. I plan to post drafts here for anyone to look at and comment on, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading this far! Until next time.

Published by Steve

Partner, Dad, Prof, Writer

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