We met Michael Madary, a philosophy researcher specializing in ethics of new technologies. It was an opportunity for us to learn more about the ethics of immersion and to better identify experiences that cross the red lines !

Uxmmersive: In 2016, you published the Code of Ethics, which lays the foundation for ethical immersion when we use virtual reality. Can you tell us more about it?

Michael Madary : Virtual reality raises exciting opportunities. Nevertheless, this comes with major risks for users, in terms of isolation, manipulation or surveillance. With Thomas Metzinger I have published a set of principles to protect users.

We recommend, for example, to be careful about long-term exposure, personal data and risky content that can may damage the brain.

A part of this code also aims to establish an ethical framework for future research on the subject. Research ethics is a sensitive topic and it should be framed for virtual reality and avoid experiments that cause harm. To do this, researchers must, for example, obtain informed consent and avoid creating a false hope in patients by not overselling technological possibilities.

You can find all the principles of the code >here<

UXM. : Since the publication of this code, have you identified any new risks?

Michael Madary : There are two areas that we did not see at the time: child protection and harassment.

Children are particularly attracted to screens, but their brains are still developing. We do not yet know what the impacts of virtual reality are on them – and it is difficult to test them to measure their risks safely.

Regarding harassment, there was, for example, the case of a woman who participated in an online VR game; upon hearing her voice, a player understood that she was a woman and approached to touch intimate parts of her avatar’s body. It may seem trivial, but our brain perceives our avatar as our own body in virtual reality. So it’s a new form of digital aggression.

UXM : The European Commission had launched this research when virtual reality was the new hyped technology. What has happened since then? How do you view the current uses of virtual reality in relation to your code of ethics?

Michael Madary : Of course, we wanted to raise awareness among the engineers who are shaping the future uses of virtual reality: those who create headsets, but also those who produce content.  There was an enthusiastic reaction among some researchers, but I’m not aware of any of the major companies adopting something like our code of ethics.

We are using technology created by companies that prefer to enact their own rules without any transparency. The risks of manipulation are therefore real.

We had identified some of those risks, such as very precise tracking of what we look at in the head-mounted display. There is a real danger of data collection without the user being informed both of this collection and what will be done with it.

Smile, you’re under surveillance – Crédit Paweł Czerwiński

UXM : These risks remind us a lot of those of personal data protection….

M.M.: Exactly! There is a major issue concerning informed consent and transparency. There is an ethical requirement to take seriously the relationship between the person who offers the product in virtual reality and the person who will consume it. Consumers should know what is being collected, who is using the data, and the way that the data will be used.

Let’s imagine: you watch several short films in VR. Current technologies can track and record what you watch, which makes you react…

UXM : We’ll see for example that I react more when there are cats, that I notice the small details, which colours I prefer, and other things that I’m not even aware of?

M.M.: The most dangerous thing is what you point out at the end: we are not even aware of what makes us react. We reveal a lot about our internal mental states by our bodily expressions.

UXM : To sum up, can we say that the major risk is behaviour manipulation and surveillance? How does it come about?

M.M. : Our brains have a high level of plasticity, as we explain in the first part of our code.  We are all convinced that we act and make decisions independently, in an informed and reasoned way. But we’re very susceptible to influence. Our behaviour depends on our direct environment, on what our peers do when we are in a group…. Of course, we think of Milgram’s experience with the power of authority.

Our social and sensory environment influences us much more than we realize. This is a major challenge that goes beyond virtual reality to all emerging technologies that are moving towards more control and surveillance. I recommend reading The age of surveillance capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, published in 2019.  She does a fantastic job of exploring the risks in this area.

UXM : What can we say to those who are not afraid of this watched world thinking they have control?

M.M. : The danger is the illusion of having control when you don’t. Consider a work environment. If  your boss suddenly tells you that this virtual reality headset is your work tool, how can you avoid it?

Now, in this head-mounted display, your supervisor may be able to track your productivity, attention, and emotions – all without your consent.

Our attention is stuck to the screens – Crédits : Brice Brown

UXM: And what can be done to avoid such a scenario?

M.M. : We must empower individuals, but it is still difficult to figure out how to do so.

There is the path of regulation, as there has been the GDPR in Europe to better protect personal data. Today, we are talking about dismantling Facebook to protect democracy. In the past, there were anti-trust laws that were passed to break up companies that had become too powerful. It’s possible that we may have to do something similar now.

Finally, many parents contact me regularly because their children are stuck on their screens and they don’t know what to do about it. Perhaps a toolkit for concerned parents would be useful, with practical advice. Better informed parents, with children who know how to control their relationship with their digital environment, will be better for society by maximizing personal autonomy.

About Michael Madary :

Co-author of the Code of Ethics, which lays the foundations for an ethical immersion with virtual reality, In 2016, he co-wrote the Code of Ethics, sponsored by the European Commission with Thomas Metzinger. His work ranges from philosophy, to neuroscience and psychology.