Six ethical problems for augmented reality


This week the BBC reported that the augmented reality (AR) market could be worth £122 billion ($162 billion) by 2024. Indeed, following the runaway success of Pokémon GO, Apple and Google have launched developer kits, and it’s now beginning to look as though the blending of real and virtual worlds will be part of our future.

Although we get excited at the prospect of ‘fun and factoids’ spontaneously popping-up in our surrounding environment, it’s also important to ask where the boundaries lie when it comes to this virtual fly-postering. Does anything go? Here are just a few of the moral conundrums* facing those looking to capitalize on this new market channel:

  1. The hijacking of public spaces

Public spaces belong to us all, and firms could easily upset the public if they use brash augmentation to adorn cherished local monuments or much-loved vistas. Even if your AR placement isn’t overtly controversial (remember the storm over the insensitive placement of Pokéstops?), it could be characterized as virtual graffiti if it isn’t appropriate and respectful. Though AR is only accessible through a device, we might see a future where the public can veto certain types of augmentation to preserve the dignity of their local environs. This will be especially pertinent if all AR ends up sharing a single platform.

  1. Parking up on private land

A business wouldn’t throw up yard sign on a family’s private lawn without asking, so why should AR be any different? Though the law may take a while to figure out its stance on AR, there are sentient ethical concerns that shouldn’t be ignored. Should a burger chain be able to augment a house where the residents are Hindu? Is it okay to transpose publicly available census information onto private houses? It seems as though private owners could have rights over the virtual space that surrounds their property.

  1. Precious anonymity

The free-to-download Blippar app already boasts how it can harness “powerful augmented reality, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and visual search technologies”, allowing us to use our phone cameras to unlock information about the world around us. At present, they encourage us to look-up gossip about famous faces spotted on TV or in images, but there is clearly the very real prospect of AR technology identifying individuals in the street. If this information can be cross-referenced with other available records, then AR could blow holes through personal anonymity in public places.

  1. Who should be able to augment?

Many distasteful things lurk on the internet, from extreme adult content to unpalatable political and religious views. At the moment, such sites are outside the direct concern of the general public who are rarely, if ever, exposed to their exotic material – but AR could change this. If many different AR platforms start to evolve, ordinary folks could find themselves, their homes, their neighborhoods, and their cities used as the backdrop for morally questionable material. Are we okay with any type of image augmenting a nursery or a church, so long as it is “only virtual”?

  1. Leading users by the nose

The Pokémon GO game has led to a number of high profile incidents, including the death of players. So much so, that there is a Pokémon GO Death Tracker which logs the details of each accident. Though it might be a stretch to hold game developers responsible for careless individuals and avoidable tragedies, to what extent should companies using AR be compelled to understand the environments they are augmenting (where their product is location specific)? Should they know if they’re leading users into dangerous neighborhoods, onto busy roads, or to places where the terrain is somehow unsafe?

  1. Real or faux?

Though we might be a little way off yet, if AR experiences become the norm we may see accusations of deception in cases where the real and the virtual aspects of the experience become indistinguishable. Should there be some way to indicate to users which parts of an AR experience are fake if it isn’t entirely clear? What if convincing or compelling augmentation leads to serious confusion amongst vulnerable members of society (e.g. children and the mentally disabled)?

We might be on the cusp of something newly useful and thrilling (imagine being able to uncover facts about the world around us just by pointing a phone camera!), but it’s important that those developing AR think through all of the implications for individuals and society before a virtual Pandora’s box springs open.

*Some of the ideas here are inspired by an excellent paper by the philosopher Erica Neely.


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