First Virtual Reality Code of Ethics
Researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany have compiled a littany of ethical concerns that might arise with the adoption of virtual reality (VR) by researchers and the general public. Along with this list, Dr. Michael Madary and Professor Thomas Metzinger have created specific recommendations for reducing the risks. According to Madary and Metzinger in their piece in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, additional focused research is expeditiously necessary. They are especially worried about the possibility of complicated consequences for the psychological states and self-images of users who are able to inhabit a virtual environment almost as if it real life.
The technological capacity for generating virtual worlds from home computers will soon be widely available to normal people, as special head-mounted displays are brought to marketplace that create the illusion of being immersed in virtual three-dimensional worlds. The needs for research, education, and entertainment using VR have been much examined in the media, but Madary and Metzinger seek to raise knowledge about the risks that accompany these changes– risks that have gotten far less attention so far. Both theorists have been part over the last several years in an EU project on “Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment” (VERE) with a focus onVR, 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 issue that VR can create these strong delusions serves as a main reason why VR brings issues. Madary and Metzinger refer to recent results showing that immersion in VR can cause behavioral changes that last after participants leave the virtual world. Importantly, VR creates an environment in which the user’s looks and location is determined by the host of the virtual world. Such advances raise the possibility that VR will create vast chances for psychological manipulation and distortion. The authors said, ”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.” Participants in VR experiments showed strong emotional reactions in addition to behavioral complexities, all of which could have an impact on their daily lives.
Code of behavior for the ethical use of VR
Based on their research of the risks, both researchers from the Department of Philosophy at Mainz University offer very straightforward suggestions for the use of VR. For example, in research work developing new clinical programs, researchers should be careful not to create unfair hopes in patients. They should always remind patients of the merely changing nature of the research. Madary and Metzinger also note that a rule of ethical conduct, however pertinent it may be, can never work as a substitute for logical reasoning itself on the part of scientists. Out of worrying for consumers of VR, they call for ongoing studies into the psychological effects of VR. They see a special concern with graphic content such as violence and pornography, where the advanced technology allows for the risk of scaring and trauma. Users should be clearly informed of these problems, as well as risks of visions, personality changes, and the powerful influence of advertising in VR. Finally, Madary and Metzinger draw attention to the need for laws regarding ownership and customization of avatars, regulations that should also address issues about surveillance and data protection.
The writers sum up their piece, “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Suggestions 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.” This article can be read in Frontiers in Robotics and AI which is an established Open Access platform for scientific publications.