Ethical Challenges in AR / VR
Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality is the future. Video gaming, the industry currently driving the most innovation in the medium, is already the largest entertainment industry on Earth and growing. Even beyond the massive amount of resources that are being brought to bear on the medium from an entertainment perspective, AR/VR is begging to be utilized for other purposes, such as business meetings in the Covid-19 era or even military training. The conversation surrounding tech like AR/VR often focuses on the wondrous aspects of it. A Star-Trek like vision of the future where technology can meld dreams and reality into a new, utopian form, but with interest in the space growing, it falls on the developers behind this technology to consider its impacts and implications moving forward into a more and more interconnected world.
The perennial problem of security in the digital age rears its ugly head, more dire than ever now that what is at stake isn’t just the family photo album, but a bundle of advanced sensors installed in one’s home. As the technology advances this problem will only grow in magnitude as what was thought science-fiction only a decade ago, such as Brain-computer interfaces predicated on AR/VR, are now serious avenues of research. As the technology itself becomes more expansive, so too will it grow in fidelity. Beyond 90’s style moral panic of the effect of videogames on human behavior, a program developed for simulator gamers may well grow beyond the pale to becoming a training tool for terrorists and fascist regimes around the world, maximizing their effect when they do strike. Fascist regimes present a second problem as well, beyond their use of the technology as a military implement, but also as a tool of control and oppression. Their capacity to use a mature AR/VR medium to their own ends is enormous, and so the thought should be held firmly in mind as the medium progresses.
The most pressing issue facing the medium is security. Current-generation AR/VR systems are already in the hands of consumers and already vulnerable to hackers. Modern systems that take accurate measurements of the inside of your home and interface heavily with your computer, the focal point of many people’s lives in the modern day. It goes without saying that developers should work to keep their devices secure and protect their customers, but as time goes on and the medium grows in capabilities this problem will become even more critical. Imagine having the AR implant in your brain hacked! Even before that, AR/VR systems are interfacing with more and more of our lives. Before physical implants are commonplace we very well may do our banking and everyday monetary transactions through a conceptual next-gen Google Glasses, further conveniencing ourselves at the cost of creating a catastrophic point failure in the case of a hack. Some might argue that the point failure already exists on our phones, and in that case they are correct, but your phone can’t suddenly obstruct your vision while driving or induce a seizure while walking down the street. The threat will continue to grow and the onus falls on developers to secure their systems and keep the ever-engaged public safe from these kinds of threats. Hardware and software developers alike will need to coordinate and make keeping ahead of this problem a priority as the technology grows.
AR/VR will, without a doubt, continue to grow in capabilities and fidelity as time goes on. The drive for better and more immersive games alone will drive that, let alone the various industry applications for the technology. This is all well and good, and to be expected anyways, but a niche application of this technology could prove disastrous, particularly as the medium grows and evolves. This niche is the cross of two of the most popular genres of gaming, militaria and simulations. Imagining a scenario where terrorists train in a high def VR rendition of their target is hardly a fantasy, if a little on the expensive side, but cost will only ever go down for this sort of thing. This is, admittedly, the worry of a niche of a niche in our industry being the cause of a hypothetical attack, but while our creations can live in as much harmony or turmoil as we leave them in cyberspace, we must live in the real world, where real bad people do real bad things. Beyond the horror of lives lost and damage done, the backlash on the medium for its role would be tremendous and difficult to recover from, setting the industry back years. As developers continue to push the boundaries of what the medium can and cannot accomplish they must keep this in the back of their minds, wary of what they are creating can accomplish in the wrong hands.
That problem becomes infinitely worse when one considers the capabilities that a rogue/totalitarian/fascist state can squeeze out of it. We don’t need to worry that much about states like the DPRK or the PRC conducting a terrorist attack right now (no promises for the future, however), but the toll such states can take of their own populace is astonishing. Beyond the straightforward use of these advanced tools by “security” forces, there lies the possibility of centralizing surveillance in the headset itself. Central hubs for electronic communications and entertainment where censors can keep tabs on everything and the modern Stasi can make sure everything is state-approved. Regardless, this technology will inevitably be built on foundations being laid today and will not be avoided. The only thing to be done is to sabotage it long before it has a chance to get settled. Backdoors, decentralized networking, and individual privacy concerns should be an active conversation as the medium grows, looking to emulate projects such as the Onion Router (originally an NSA project for deployment in totalitarian regimes to give dissidents a way to communicate and organize) in creating a highly secure and redundant basis for the technology that will prove difficult to to build upon for the nefarious purposes of these regimes.
In the end, no developer wants to envisage their creation negatively. No one wants to think about how something they are working so hard on could be used to ruin peoples lives, whether that’s having their money stolen, or dieing in a terrorist plot, or being arrested for wrong think. As mentioned, however, we live in the real world, with real problems, and it is up to us, today, to head off evil before it has a chance to bite us in the future.