10 real-world ethical concerns for virtual reality

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There are lots of emerging ideas about how virtual reality (VR) can be used for the betterment of society – whether it be inspiring social change, or training surgeons for delicate medical procedures.

Nevertheless, as with all new technologies, we should also be alive to any potential ethical concerns that could re-emerge as social problems further down the line. Here I list just a few issues that should undoubtedly be considered before we brazenly forge ahead in optimism.

1.   Vulnerability

When we think of virtual reality, we automatically conjure images of clunky headsets covering the eyes – and often the ears – of users in order to create a fully immersive experience. There are also VR gloves, and a growing range of other accessories and attachments. Though the resultant feel might be hyper-realistic, we should also be concerned for people using these in the home – especially alone. Having limited access to sense data leaves users vulnerable to accidents, home invasions, and any other misfortunes that can come of being totally distracted.

2.   Social isolation

There’s a lot of debate around whether VR is socially isolating. On the one hand, the whole experience takes place within a single user’s field-of-vision, which obviously excludes others from physically participating alongside them. On the other hand, developers like Facebook have been busy inventing communal meeting places like Spaces, which help VR users meet and interact in a virtual social environment. Though – as argued –  the latter could be helpfully utilized by the introverted and lonely (e.g. seniors), there’s also a danger that it could become the lazy and dismissive way of dealing with these issues. At the other end of the spectrum, forums like Spaces may also end-up “detaching” users by leading them to neglect their real-world social connections. Whatever the case, studies show that real face-to-face interactions are a very important factor in maintaining good mental health. Substituting them with VR would be ill-advised.

3.   Desensitization

It is a well-acknowledged danger that being thoroughly and regularly immersed in a virtual reality environment may lead some users to become desensitized in the real-world – particularly if the VR is one in which the user experiences or perpetrates extreme levels of violence. Desensitization means that the user may be unaffected (or less affected) by acts of violence, and could fail to show empathy as a result. Some say that this symptom is already reported amongst gamers who choose to play first person shooters or roleplay games with a high degree of immersion.

4.   Overestimation of abilities

Akin to desensitization, is the problem of users overestimating their ability to perform virtual feats just as well in the real-world. This is especially applicable to children and young people who could take it that their expertise in tightrope walking, parkour, or car driving will transfer seamlessly over to non-virtual environments…

5.   Psychiatric

There could also be more profound and dangerous psychological effects on some users (although clearly there are currently a lot of unknowns). Experts in neuroscience and the human mind have spoken of “depersonalization”, which can result in a user believing their own body is an avatar. There is also a pertinent worry that VR might be swift to expose psychiatric vulnerabilities in some users, and spark psychotic episodes. Needless to say, we must identify the psychological risks and symptoms ahead of market saturation, if that is an inevitability

6.   Unpalatable fantasies

If there’s any industry getting excited about virtual reality, it’s the porn industry (predicted to be the third largest VR sector by 2025, after gaming and NFL-related content). The website Pornhub is already reporting that views of VR content are up 225% since it debuted in 2016. This obviously isn’t an ethical problem in and of itself, but it does become problematic if/when “unpalatable” fantasies become immersive. We have to ask: should there be limitations on uber realistic representations of aggressive, borderline-pedophilic, or other more perverse types of VR erotica? Or outside of the realm of porn, to what extent is it okay to make a game out of the events of 9/11, as is the case with the 08.46 simulator?

7.   Torture/virtual criminality

There’s been some suggestion that VR headsets could be employed by the military as a kind of “ethical” alternative to regular interrogatory torture. Whether this is truth or rumor, it nevertheless establishes a critical need to understand the status of pain, damage, violence, and trauma inflicted by other users in a virtual environment – be it physical or psychological. At what point does virtual behavior constitute a real-world criminal act?

8.   Manipulation

Attempts at corporate manipulation via flashy advertising tricks are not new, but up until now they’ve been 2-dimensional. As such, they’ve had to work hard compete with our distracted focus. Phones ringing, babies crying, traffic, conversations, music, noisy neighbors, interesting reads, and all the rest. With VR, commercial advertisers essentially have access to our entire surrounding environment (which some hold has the power to control our behavior). This ramps up revenue for developers, who now have (literally) whole new worlds of blank space upon which they can sell advertising. Commentators are already warning that this could lead to new and clever tactics involving product placement, brand integration and subliminal advertising.

9.   Appropriate roaming and recreation

One of the most exciting selling points of VR is that it can let us roam the earth from the comfort of our own homes. This is obviously a laudable, liberating experience for those who are unable to travel. As with augmented reality, however, we probably need to have conversations about where it is appropriate to roam and/or recreate as a virtual experience. Is it fine for me to wander through a recreation of my favorite celebrity’s apartment (I can imagine many fans would adore the idea!)? Or peep through windows of homes and businesses in any given city street? The answers to some of these questions may seem obvious to us, but we cannot assume that the ethical parameters of this capability are clear to all who may use or develop.

10.   Privacy and data

Last, but not least, the more we “merge” into a virtual world, the more of ourselves we are likely to give away. This might mean more and greater privacy worries. German researchers have raised the concern that if our online avatars mirror our real-world movements and gestures, these “motor intentions” and the “kinetic fingerprints” of our unique movement signatures can be tracked, read, and exploited by predatory entities. Again, it’s clear that there needs to be an open and consultative dialogue with regards to what is collectable, and what should be off-limits in terms of our virtual activities.

This list is not exhaustive, and some of these concerns will be proven groundless in good time. Regardless, as non-technicians and future users, we are right to demand full and clear explanations as to how these tripwires will be averted or mitigated by VR companies.

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