Researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany have prepared a list of ethical concerns that might arise with the use of virtual reality (VR) by researchers and the general public. Along with this list, Dr. Michael Madary and Professor Thomas Metzinger have produced concrete recommendations for minimizing the risks. According to Madary and Metzinger in their article in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, additional focused research is urgently needed. They are especially concerned about the possibility of unanticipated consequences for the psychological states and self-images of users who are able to inhabit a virtual environment almost as if it is the real world. The technological capacity for generating virtual worlds from home computers will soon be widely available to the general public, as special head-mounted displays are brought to market that create the illusion of being immersed in virtual three-dimensional worlds. The opportunities for research, education, and entertainment using VR have been much discussed in the media, but Madary and Metzinger seek to raise awareness about the risks that accompany these opportunities – risks that have received far less attention so far. Both philosophers have participated over the last several years in an EU project on “Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment” (VERE) with a focus on illusions of embodiment, in which one has the feeling of owning and controlling a body that is not one’s own, such as an avatar in VR.
The fact that VR can create these strong illusions serves as a main reason why VR brings new risks. Madary and Metzinger refer to recent studies showing that immersion in VR can cause behavioral changes that last after subjects leave the virtual environment. Importantly, VR creates a situation in which the user’s bodily appearance and visual environment is determined by the host of the virtual world. Such considerations raise the possibility that VR will create vast opportunities for psychological manipulation. “These studies suggest that VR poses risks that are novel, that go beyond the risks of traditional psychological experiments in isolated environments, and that go beyond the risks of existing media technology for the general public,” the authors write. Participants in VR experiments showed strong emotional reactions in addition to behavioral changes, all of which could have an impact on their real lives.
Code of conduct for the ethical use of VR
Based on their analysis of the risks, both researchers from the Department of Philosophy at Mainz University offer concrete recommendations for the use of VR. For example, in experimental work developing new clinical applications, researchers should be careful not to create false hopes in patients. They should repeatedly remind them of the merely experimental nature of the research. Madary and Metzinger also note that a code of ethical conduct, however important it may be, can never function as a substitute for ethical reasoning itself on the part of researchers. Out of concern for consumers of VR, they call for long-term studies into the psychological effects of immersion. They see a special danger with particular content such as violence and pornography, where the advanced technology increases the risk of psychological trauma. Users should be clearly informed of these dangers, as well as risks of hallucinations, personality changes, and the powerful unconscious influence of advertising in VR. Finally, Madary and Metzinger draw attention to the need for regulations regarding ownership and individuation of avatars, regulations that should also address concerns about surveillance and data protection.
The authors sum up their article, “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology,” by writing, “One of our main goals was to provide a first set of ethical recommendations as a platform for future discussions.” The article appears in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, a well-known Open Access platform for scientific publications.