Mass adoption of augmented reality will create new ethical issues, especially as we migrate beyond one-off experiences into a shared AR Cloud (or clouds), and as devices emerge which allow for a hyper-realistic blending of the real and digital.
If you can walk down the street and everyone you meet is black, or Asian, or, hey, a character from Star Trek, does this create disadvantages for vulnerable populations? If you’re attacked in a mall by another person, can they get off the hook by claiming that they didn’t think you were real?
A group of researchers , with the participation of Mel Slater, director of Event Lab in the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Barcelona (UB), have published a new paper exploring these and other scenarios.
The review covers both virtual and augmented realities and explores the double-edged sword of these technologies: what can be a benefit for one group of users can cause harm to another.
For example, introducing a phobic agent in a virtual environment (say, a spider) can be used for therapy (learning not to be afraid of spiders), but can also be used to, well, terrify a user.
“Despite all the benefits, however, XR technology also raises a host of interesting and important ethical questions of which readers should be aware. For instance, the fact that XR enables an individual to interact with virtual characters poses the question of whether the golden rule of reciprocity should apply to fictional virtual characters and, with the development of tools that allow for more realism, whether this should also extend to virtual representations of real people.“
Superrealism and XR
Being attacked or denigrated for the colour of your skin isn’t unique to virtual and augmented realities. Privacy concerns aren’t unique to any one platform.
The researchers thus focus on superrealism to help focus on ethical issues that may be unique to (or at least more clearly exacerbated by) XR.
“…we outline some possible ethical problems in XR that are exacerbated by the improvement in realness owing to superrealism. In other words, the issues described below might occur to a certain extent with the use of XR systems but are likely to be aggravated due to the sensation that what is happening virtually could be really happening.“
Realism Doesn’t Always Equate to Feeling Real
Previous studies have shown that while we might know that the virtual environment we’re in isn’t real, we can still respond as if it is. The concept of mirror neurons, for example, can explain how using an avatar, no matter how clunky it looks, can change how we feel about ourselves.
And so there may be some debate as to whether superrealism by itself can cause harm. Stylized violence might have just as much of an impact on a user as highly realistic simulations. I might be more traumatized if my favourite character in a game world is attacked than if the same thing happens to a highly realistic avatar with whom I have no emotional attachment.
The researchers help to navigate these fuzzy boundaries by identifying “placeness” and plausibility as drivers in how we respond (emphasis added):
“These two illusions, place illusion and plausibility, provide the basis for people responding realistically in virtual environments (Slater, 2009). In AR, these illusions may be more easily attained because the virtual components are superimposed or inserted into the real world.“
But more importantly, they draw a distinction between physical and psychological realism. Users can experience a high degree of psychological superrealism even if the objects in that environment have not yet crossed the boundaries of the uncanny valley:
“There are many studies over the past 25 years that show that people do nevertheless respond realistically in virtual environments, even when they know with certainty that nothing real is happening (Slater and Sanchez-Vives, 2016). Hence, many of the issues arising with respect to superrealism are likely to also apply even to today’s XR systems.“
Four Scenarios for Superrealism
The authors outline worst case scenarios for the impact of superrealism in XR:
- Vulnerable populations: the impact on children, individuals with psychosis, and other populations who are not as easily able to discern what is real versus virtual
- After effects: at a simple level, how you react and feel using different virtual embodiments. “Continued exposure to such embodied experiences may also cause confusion in people about their real body, leading to a type of body dysmorphia,” say the authors, and point to examples such as having an avatar with a missing a limb which “may elicit some cortical reorganization (for example changes in brain connections) after a short exposure (Kilteni et al., 2016)”.
- Is it Real?: There can be negative consequences from virtual experiences with a high degree of plausibility. Participants can “have the illusion that the depicted events are really happening (to them)”. If we have experiences that the brain doesn’t differentiate as digital, we may become uncertain about past events or may falsely attribute characteristics to groups of people, may presuppose beliefs that aren’t real (you see someone diving into a swimming pool in AR, follow suit, and discover there’s no water), or may have difficulty adapting back to physical reality.
- XR as an interface to physical assault: Because technology can act as a mediator (a digital layer on top of physical reality) it creates the risk that we become emotionally removed from causing physical harm. The example they use is a VR interface used to conduct drone strikes, or studies where a virtual interface is used to control a real-world robot.
Privacy and Identity
Concurrent with these issues, the study explores how data collection will be required to facilitate experiences that are increasingly engaging and ‘superreal’. They highlight data that isn’t common to non-XR systems:
“Traits including motor actions, patterns of eye movement, and reflexes (a person’s “kinematic fingerprint”) and information about preferences, habits and interests may be recorded (Spiegel, 2018). This type of personal data is not commonly collected by non-XR current products or experiences on the market today, and so new thinking and consideration will be required to address data collection specific to XR. “
Identity will also present thorny ethical issues. Fake news, deliberately mistaken identity, identity theft and body swapping are all issues that will grow in prevalence as the realism of virtual and augmented environments increases.
Ethical Issues and the AR Cloud
The paper uses superrealism as the umbrella concept for identifying ethical issues that will be, perhaps, unique to XR.
It might seem like we’re a long way from augmented reality having this kind of superrealism. We’re hardly fooled that there’s a new couch in our living room when we place one using an iPad/AR app.
The artefacts of these experiences, however, begin to show that AR isn’t immune, even in the short term, to the downsides of superrealism.
Search the Apple App Store and you’ll find a bunch of apps that allow you to take a photo of yourself and reshape your body – adding much needed muscle in just the right places. We’re already reshaping our physical bodies into an idealized version of ourselves, at least for the purposes of modifying and sending a selfie.
Snapchat is a daily experiment in augmented identity. Filters let you de-age to a small child or add animal parts or tattoos to your face. The results are perhaps only less-than-superreal because other users know how the images were created.
VR might be the current playground in which we explore increasingly ‘real’ experiences. But the implications are perhaps more profound for augmented reality, especially as we start to create a 1:1 digital map for the physical world.
And it’s this blending of the physical and digital worlds that will potentially create consequences that won’t emerge from VR alone.
Who Owns a Building?
While the paper focuses on individual users, there are larger ethical issues that will play out in the AR and Spatial Cloud.
For example, will physical world property rights translate to the digital realm?
I can buy water rights, I have certain rights governing the height of the buildings on my land (and can often trade those rights to others), but do I own the digital rights to my physical building?
Superrealism in augmented reality could mean that as I walk down the street the faces of buildings are seamlessly replaced with a medieval city or a noisy landscape of billboards and product advertisements.
How will the owners of the billboards in Times Square feel about being replaced by virtual overlays?
But these aren’t just commercial considerations. For municipalities, who owns the city square? Will the public commons become fair game for AR experiences that replace our public parks with a walk-through version of Fortnite?
These issues are already emerging at the edges: Pokemon Go, for example, tries to prevent intrusions on private property. And yet the app treats our public commons as, well, fair game.
If you’ve ever seen a small crowd of people at the corner staring at their phones as they play Pokemon Go, you’d hardly think they’re a threat to society.
But as augmented reality games become more pervasive and as superrealism becomes part of the game experiences, those small crowds might become more of a threat. They might not intend it! But the ‘game worlds’ will have their own designs.
How Am I Seen?
The authors cover the impact of identity in XR, in particular how we represent ourselves. If I’m thin in a virtual environment, this can be helpful, therapeutic, and aspirational – but can also lead to psychological issues as I transition back to my physical body.
But augmented reality presents a unique challenge in that we might not always know how we’re seen. In a VR environment, we usually choose our own avatar, and we can be offended (or pleased) by the avatars of others.
But what if you didn’t even know your body, your skin tone, even your gender was being changed by others?
The concept of the glasshole will take on a whole new meaning when, instead of being surreptitiously filmed, our whole body is being replaced in the ‘view’ of others.
The Ghosts in the Machine
And what about non-participants? I can choose not to be a part of the AR Cloud. Other people can walk around, have data collected about their movements and have their gaze tracked when they go through the grocery store.
And yet unlike VR, choosing not to use AR devices only removes my agency. I can still be a character in other people’s fictions. They can still see digital data attached to my physical body – whether generalized or specific. The store assistant might still be able to see my loyalty card history floating over my head even if I have no agency in the experience.
While not unique to AR or VR, these issues of privacy can become more pronounced with superrealism: in one user’s world, everyone wears Gucci because that’s how he’s chosen to dress everyone he meets. But as a ‘non-participating’ user, I have no agency in that decision, and my identity choices have been coopted.
The battles over our right to be forgotten will easily extend into battles over our rights to not be seen at all. These are issues that are playing out at a larger scale, of course, but AR will exacerbate the impact.
The Ethics of Superrealism: Next Steps
The researchers outlined several principles for action which we’ll explore in future posts. Among them, for example, they propose giving users a choice for the level of deception available in an XR experience:
“For example, level 10 means that the XR should try its absolute best to completely convince participants that what they are experiencing is real. Level 1 might be ‘give me some experience, but do your best to keep reminding me that this is not happening, it is not real.’ “
They also outline scientific questions which bear further research. Among them:
- Do people trust virtual characters more if they are more realistic?
- Does greater realism lead to greater confusion between the real and the virtual?
- Does greater realism lead to greater behavioral and emotional impact?
- Will there be greater plausibility (illusion that the events are really happening) in interactions with superrealistic characters?
- What are the long-term cultural effects of superreal XR usage?
Who’s Asking (And Answering?)
Participants in the study included a broad cross-section of industry and academic partners, including BBC R&D, Digital Catapult, Dimension /Hammerhead VR, Facebook London, NESTA, Jigsaw (part of Google), Magic Leap, Microsoft Research, and University College London.
I can’t help having some concern over the presence of so many industry heavy-weights.
Questions about the ethical issues of superrealism as they relate to physical property, for example, might not be a high priority for Google.
The report comes across as guarded and cautious around issues of privacy. The presence of so many stakeholders whose business models rely on data wasn’t necessarily the cause of this, but it would be informative to hear a response to these issues from the European Commission Data Protection Supervisor (or others).
And the grouping of AR and VR under the rubrics of XR and superrealism is useful, but a more refined review of the issues that will arise specifically in AR, and the AR Cloud will become increasingly important.
It may be worth having a deeper representation from the AR community to help address these ethical questions going forward.
A World of Magic and Extreme Change
Augmented reality today gives us the barest glimpse of what’s ahead.
The AR Cloud promises to create a 1:1 digital representation of our world. It will turn the physical world into an interface and operating system.
We’re edging towards superrealism in AR on handheld devices, but the very fact of holding up a mobile phone or iPad creates significant distance and usually breaks the illusion for the user that what they’re seeing is ‘real’.
There is still a low level of plausibility and illusion of place in AR. Sure, the physical world itself seems real, but the augmented world built on top of it doesn’t.
But once the form factors change, once we arrive at view-through or see-through superrealism in augmented reality, we will truly break through the fourth wall: we will walk through reality itself and what we see will become indistinguishable from magic.
And with it, the challenges and power to transform will exceed everything that came before, including the ethical challenges we’ll face in this new world.