Good Gadgets: The rise of socially conscious tech

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From algorithmic bias to killer robots, fake news, and the now almost daily prophesying about the dangers of AI, it’s fair to say that tech is under scrutiny.

Episodes like the Cambridge Analytica scandal opened our eyes to the fact that some of our nearest and dearest technologies had become fully socialized before we truly understood the full force of their influence. Consequently, new tools and gadgets coming down the line are being closely examined so that we can begin to uncover any damaging consequences that could manifest 10, 20, or even 100 years from now.

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Learning to Believe the Unbelievable: Fortifying Ourselves for a VR Future

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The Cottingley Fairies

As humans, we are accustomed to suspending our disbelief. Indeed, we’re known to indulge in it. Each time we dive into a book, a movie, a video game, a TV show – even a spiritual flight-of-fancy – most of us are willing and able to disengage from the pedantry of our everyday judgment, and allow ourselves to be convinced by things that are less-than-absolutely-convincing…

This coaxing is a consensual arrangement. I allow you to present me with the improbable on the proviso that it is entertaining, or educational, or uplifting, or philosophical – i.e. my pay-off is that I am emotionally stimulated in some way. I don’t need to scrutinize a movie in its every detail, what is important when I watch it is that I enjoy it and it makes me happy (or scared, or angry, or sentimental!).  Continue reading

Online choice “nudge” and the convenient encroachment of AI

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The beginnings of the internet seem so long ago to those of us who lived through them. Hours spent trawling through pre-Google search results, which often ranged from the useless to the bizarre. Blindly researching gifts and listening to music, sans intelligently selected recommendations.  Checking social media accounts of our own volition, rather than through prompting from “notifications”.

Then the world began to change.

Under the banner of convenience, clever algorithms started to adapt both to our interests and – critically – the interests of commercial entities. We saw (or rather didn’t see) the covert introduction of the digital “nudges” that now regularly play upon our cognitive blind spots, and work to “guide” our decision-making.  Continue reading

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.

Why would I want a VR headset?

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Earlier in the week I tweeted this:

“Genuine question: for what reason might an ordinary/modern household want a #VR headset? Assuming they don’t play video games or similar…?”

Now, I don’t have a very large band of followers (I’ve only recently started using Twitter with any purpose), but nevertheless I was shocked that the tweet was met with a stony silence (bar one “like”!). Even when I retweeted with a spectrum of related hashtags, I got nothing…

Perhaps it’s just that the limited number of bots that constitute my twitter following don’t have much to say on the matter, but I can’t help thinking that this isn’t the easiest question to answer. Virtual Reality still hasn’t taken off, and I’m reluctant to agree with “experts” and Zuckerberg on the sticking points: price and portability.

Though I agree that the price can be extortionate when the headset is coupled with appropriate hardware, it is still the case that lots of things are expensive. If the rise of technology – and indeed, consumerism – has shown us anything, it’s that people will pay top dollar for desirable items, no matter how frivolous.

It’s a similar story when it comes to portability. VR sets certainly look cumbersome, and somewhat 80s, but without being a VR expert I feel sure that this becomes trivial if the experience is suitably immersive and fascinating. I must admit, I’m also slightly confused as to why I might need to transport it with enough regularity that portability becomes an issue. The idea of taking something with me which, for it’s very purpose, is designed to carry me off elsewhere is quite a strange one.

A Gartner expert has thrown in the suggestion that wiring might putting potential buyers off, saying:  “I can only imagine what that would be like for my retired parents. Someone is going to break a hip for sure.”

What a strange image. Retired parents? What would they be doing on their VR machine? This is the question to which I cannot find the answer…

These thoughts had been percolating for a little while when, on a recent flight from Boston to SF, I came across this video from LinkedIn Learning named “Virtual Reality Foundations”. It was the single most boring video I have ever watched, narrated by a man who can neither move his facial muscles nor shift his vocal tone, but I persevered (through most of it…) in order to see what wondrous potential uses I had overlooked.

I was largely underwhelmed. Though the technology is undoubtedly impressive, the arguments for its incorporation into various business practices felt weak. It’s as though the focus has been squarely on its creation, rather than its use. The most convincing application I’ve heard about is its use in medical care, which is excellent but isn’t likely to spike mass market sales.

We’re told the future will be full of VR, but it has already been noted that AR is snapping at its heels. It’s not difficult to see why. AR games like Pokémon GO and applications like Blippar can be social, interactive…collaborative even. However, when I stick a VR kit over most of my critical senses, I am cut off from anything other than virtual reality. VR is socially isolating.

Therefore, I continue to push the question: “why would I want a VR headset?”, and I’m actually asking for more than the selling points of a product. Even if VR was somewhat helpful with my work as a journalist, or a marked improvement on my experiences as a gamer, is this worth the solitude it imposes? And for that matter, the vulnerability that comes hand-in-hand with being cut-off from the real world?

We are – perhaps laudably, perhaps accidentally – resisting totally immersive experiences at the moment. We are refusing to walk into entire worlds constructed by engineers working for Google or Facebook. This must be causing much frustration in their respective camps…

Though the internet is – as we can all vouch – an extremely beguiling arena, it’s 2-dimensionality at least allows us to keep our toes anchored in the sobering waters of real reality. This means that companies whose models are built on advertising (like Facebook) have to compete with our surroundings and their distractions. If they can coax us into a world which cuts away other sensory disturbances – as with virtual reality – then presumably their adverts and product sales will have to compete less, and will win our wallets over more often.

It will be interesting to see if we, as a society, relent in the way tech companies hope. It is difficult to envisage it happening in the near future. Why do I need a VR headset? What for? Until the answer to that question is tantalizing enough to eclipse the isolation and vulnerability aspects of VR, we will (hopefully) remain in the real world, with all it’s helpful perspective.