More trust with ethical interfaces

User interfaces More trust with ethical interfaces

Published on 09.08.2021 by Prof. Dr. Edy Portmann, Swiss Post Professor of Informatics at the Human-IST Institute of the University of Fribourg

Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in more and more systems, not least when communicating with customers. When designing user interfaces, how can we make them more ethically sustainable to improve the level of trust placed in them?

Cyberneticist Paul Pangaro of Carnegie Mellon University, whose ideas I explore in this article, looks at the design of user interfaces (interface design), from the perspective of the practitioner. He has already designed numerous dialogues for bots, so he knows his stuff. He argues that as soon as customers are on a digital (corporate) channel, they are engaging in “ethical interaction”.

To clarify his approach, he draws on the “ethical imperative” of cyberneticist Heinz von Förster. This calls for us to “always act so as to increase the number of choices”.

At this point, we must distinguish between “choice” and “option”: a choice does not just mean more possibilities. Choice includes everything someone might do. The formulation of the ethical imperative sees the developer as part of the world. They do not have the right (ethically) to tell others what to do, but they do have a responsibility for what they do and why they do it.

Can the ethical imperative serve as a guideline for increasing choice for users and customers? How does a bot know what a customer wants and what it should do in response?

Automatic recommendations are often not based on who customers are and what they want, but rather build on their past behaviour patterns. As a consequence, systems offer customers choices that are more in the interest of the company than of the customers. This also applies to search engines whose results are based on past user behaviour.

Pangaro views this as an ethical dilemma for interfaces. He asks how customers should be treated by bots as living and evolving organisms. His answer to the dilemma: instead of building search engines, we should develop question machines: “Let’s start our digital conversation by asking questions”. But can we automatically calculate questions that “invite” customers to engage in a conversation – allowing bots to explore new, predictive decisions (known as “turns”)? And can these questions develop trust in our companies’ digital channels?

Ethical interfaces have the potential to clarify and align the values of companies and those of their customers in a prompt-and-response dialogue. Pangaro would like interfaces to be built and integrated in such a way that a customer can query the calculated result.

All in all, companies should build systems with ethical interfaces that give customers as much choice as possible. When doing so, they should enable customers to develop a better understanding of the company’s values, increase their capacity to act, and ultimately learn from the conversations.


Due to the current situation, Connecta Bern will again be held as a digital event in 2021. Connecta is renowned for shining a light on the diverse nature of digitization and this year will be no different with content presented across the three formats of Connecta Blog, Connecta TV and Connecta Talk. Find out more here:


Prof. Dr. Edy Portmann

Prof. Dr. Edy Portmann is Swiss Post Professor of Informatics at the Human-IST Institute of the University of Fribourg. His main areas of research include cognitive computing and its use in cities. He has also conducted research at the universities of Singapore, Berkeley and Bern.

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