courtesy of JGU Pressestelle
Thomas Metzinger is a philosopher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, who specialises in the philosophy of mind and neuroscience. He is co-author, with Michael Madary, of a paper calling for.
Why do we need an ethical code of conduct for virtual reality?
headsets like and HTC Vive will hit the consumer market this year and suddenly millions of people will be using them. VR can induce strong illusions of embodiment, where you feel as if you own and control another body. We do not know what the psychological consequences will be.
What are the risks?
There may be a risk of depersonalisation, where after an extended immersion in a virtual environment, your physical body may seem unreal to you. Fully immersive experiences have a bigger and more lasting impact on people’s behaviour and psychology. We know from the rubber hand illusion that our brains can be fooled into thinking that an inanimate rubber hand is our own. In VR environments, we can be fooled into thinking that we are our avatars.Consumers must understand that not all of the risks are known in advance. There may be a tiny percentage of the population that has a certain psychiatric vulnerability such that binging on VR may result in a prolonged psychotic episode. One can only speculate.
Another issue is that we are easily swayed by our surroundings. For example, a picture of eyes on a wall above a collection box makes people donate larger amounts. similar subliminal influence in an immersive virtual environment will be easy. There are risks we will be manipulated by companies.
What’s more, these technologies could potentially be used by the military. Virtual torture is still torture.
Are you advocating restrictions on VR?
No, no. I don’t want to sound like a Luddite. I can’t wait to watch my first VR movie! And there will be lots of useful things to come from immersive VR. There will be, for example.
My work is part of the European Union’sproject, which is investigating ways to dissolve the boundary between the human body and representations of it in immersive virtual reality.
We want to maximise the freedom of individuals to do what they want with their own minds. The really interesting question is how one restricts this freedom in an intelligent way so that the interests of others are not harmed.
What do you propose we do?
We have to study the psychological effects of long-term immersion in virtual reality. There are also some general principles to abide by. If you don’t do something to someone in real life, you don’t do it in virtual reality.
You should not be able to shoot people in VR as you can in video games today, for example. And the porn industry is excited about VR. But fantasies involving violence are likely to be more damaging in an immersive setting than they are in a video. There is a danger of people getting used to not only observing but also carrying out such acts, because they are embodied in an avatar.
Will people abandon their everyday morals so easily?
People in virtual environments tend to behave in ways that are expected of their avatars. For example, if you embody a tall avatar, you’ll negotiate more aggressively than if you were given a shorter body.
And behaviour in virtual environments can continue to influence you after you exit VR. In another study, people who embodied avatars that looked like older versions of themselves were more inclined to save for retirement after they returned to real life. Such psychological changes are of great concern when it involves violence or criminal activity in the virtual world.
How else might VR change us?
We may change the cognitive niche in which we are evolving. We currently raise our children in a cognitive niche where they learn how to write and do arithmetic. This expands their cognitive abilities. Growing up with VR is also something to which human beings will adapt and that they will evolve around.
The dominant view within neuroscience is that reality is something generated by the brain, as it tries to predict what’s causing all the sensations that are impinging on our senses. When this old, biological “virtual reality” gets embedded in a technological virtual reality there may be complex and surprising consequences
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