We're Already Violating Virtual Reality's First Code of Ethics

Two German philosophers developed the first virtual reality code of ethics to help stave off our descent into a Matrix-esque hell, but we're already violating that code.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

Image: Medical Realities

It seems as though the advent of any radically new technology is inevitably accompanied by a mad scramble to legislate its proper and improper uses. Whether it's nuclear fission and the IAEA's Convention on Nuclear Safety, or modern medicine and the Hippocratic Oath, these new technologies are seldom allowed to remain morally ambiguous for long.

As such it should come as no surprise that a first stab has already been made at establishing a code of ethics for the burgeoning virtual reality (VR) industry, which will see companies such as Oculus, HTC, and Sony all releasing virtual reality headsets in the coming months. Published last month in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, the goal of this pioneering paper was "to present a first list of ethical concerns that may arise from research and personal use of virtual reality and related technology, and to offer concrete recommendations for minimizing those risks."

Written by Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger, two philosophers from Germany's Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, the code of ethics serves as an important counterpoint to all the hype centered on virtual reality's clinical or educational benefits by examining the risks of inhabiting a virtual surrogate body. The duo is particularly looking at immersive virtual reality and the risks run by users when they are subjected to "illusions of embodiment," or feelings of inhabiting a body that is not one's own (like when playing as an avatar in virtual reality, for instance).

"Traditional paradigms in experimental psychology, watching a film, or playing a non-immersive video game cannot create the strong illusion of owning and controlling a body that is not your own," Madary and Metzinger write. "VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as 'conscious experience,' 'selfhood,' 'authenticity,' or 'realness.'"

As the researchers point out, there is good reason to be especially concerned about the influence of virtual reality on the human brain, as opposed to television or non-immersive video games. A host of psychology experiments have demonstrated the plasticity of the human mind and its unconscious molding by its environment (see the Stanford Prison Experiment or Milgram's obedience experiments for particularly bleak evidence of this).

Yet as efficacious as these experiments have been in showing the susceptibility of the human mind to external cues, none have even come close to amount of environmental control that will hypothetically be possible as virtual reality systems become more ubiquitous.

"Unlike other forms of media, VR can create a situation in which the user's entire environment is determined by the creators of the virtual world," Madary and Metzinger write. "[This] introduces opportunities for new and especially powerful forms of both mental and behavioral manipulation, especially when commercial, political, religious, or governmental interests are behind the creation and maintenance of the virtual worlds."

Moreover, a handful of recent experiments have shown that virtual reality experiences have lasting effects even after users have left a virtual environment. Take for instance the virtual reality users who played as a Superman-like avatar and as such were more likely to demonstrate altruistic behavior after leaving the environment, or the virtual reality users who used an avatar with lighter or darker skin who showed a decrease in racial bias after leaving the environment.

Indeed, it was in light of this potential for lasting psychological impact during and after a virtual reality experience that Madary and Metzinger drafted a list of six main recommendations for the ethical future of commercial and research virtual reality applications. Broadly summarized, their recommendations are:

1)In keeping with the American Psychological Association's principle of non-maleficence, experiments using virtual reality should ensure that they do not cause lasting or serious harm to the subject.

2)Subjects participating in experiments using virtual reality should be informed about the lasting and serious behavioral effects resulting from virtual reality experiences, and that the extent of this behavioral influence might not be known.

3)Researchers and media outlets should avoid over-hyping the benefits of virtual reality, especially when virtual reality is being discussed as a medical treatment.

4)Awareness of the problem of dual use, or using a technology for something other than its original intention, in the context of virtual reality. The author's particularly are wary of military applications for virtual reality (which are already being put to a lot of use), whether this means its use as a novel torture device or a means of decreasing a soldier's empathy for the enemy.

5)Adopting procedures that ensure a commercial virtual reality user's privacy is maintained during research at the intersection of virtual reality and the internet. Since virtual reality has the potential to record all new kinds of user information (from eye movements and emotions to the movement of a user's entire body through space), ensuring that this data is managed in a responsible way will become paramount for virtual reality researchers and commercial entities alike.

6)Privacy is also a concern when it comes to advertising. Virtual environments provide fertile new grounds for targeted advertising, or "neuromarketing," and previous studies have shown the various ways in which virtual reality technologies might be used to significantly influence consumer behavior (especially if the virtual reality tech is being built by a company whose business model is largely based unbelievably precise user-targeted advertising, like, say, Facebook).

Despite harping on the latent dangers in emerging virtual reality technologies, Madary and Metzinger are far from Luddites. As they mention in their paper, they "fully support research into VR," and argue that there are ethical demands for more research in this area. Their main concern is that this research is conducted in an ethically responsible way "with the goal of mitigating harm to the general public."

Although Madary and Metzinger's code of ethics lacks a regulatory body to enforce its regulations, its publication marks an important first step toward ensuring that the proliferation of virtual reality technology doesn't lead us into some Matrix-esque hell.

"Increasingly, [the human mind] is not only culturally and socially embedded but also shaped by a technological niche that over time itself quickly acquires a rapid, autonomous dynamics and ever new properties," write Madary and Metzinger. "This creates a complex convolution… in which the biological mind and its technological niche influence each other in ways we are just beginning to understand. It is this complex convolution that makes it so important to think about the Ethics of VR in a critical, evidence-based, and rational manner."

The important caveat here is that this is all assuming that virtual reality technology becomes as ubiquitous as Zuckerberg and the other VR-evangelists are promising. There's still a decent contingent of skeptics dismissing virtual reality as a bunch of BS, and their skepticism is about to be put to the test as virtual reality tech prepares for the most stringent test a capitalist society can throw at it in the coming months: the test of commercial viability.