PARIS — A dark alley. A voice: "It's him!" The sound of a club hitting my head. Everything goes black. Next I'm in a hospital room, connected to a machine that transfers my blood to another person. A doctor hands me a form to sign.
"You can choose to stay here nine months and, with your blood, save the life of this virtuoso violinist," the physician says. "Or you can unplug, leave and let him die."
Anguish, guilt washes over me. Shocked, I unplug, take off my virtual reality headset and find myself facing Erick Ramirez, who teaches philosophy at the University of Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and specializes in the ethics of virtual reality.
"What do you think of this experience?" he asks me. "It's intended to help people understand how a pregnant woman feels after a rape."
Around the world, academics like Ramirez — along with consumer and employee protection agencies and content developers for virtual reality headsets — are starting to think not just about the possibilities, but also the ethical dilemmas virtual reality presents.
The technology can be used, of course, to play video games, or engage in pornography. But it doesn't stop there. What about a program to demonstrate the experience of being homeless? Virtual reality can also be used to treat phobias, or to simulate a manager telling employees that their factory will soon close.
As such, virtual reality isn't just something people have in their homes for entertainment. It's also being used in research laboratories, NGOs, companies, hospitals. And then there's the military.
"I don't have any explicit information on this, but I am convinced that armies are experimenting with virtual reality to train and condition their soldiers before going to battle or to conduct interrogations," says Pascal Guitton, professor of computer science at the University of Bordeaux and research director at INRIA, France's National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation.
Helping drive the craze are the drop in costs. It is now possible to acquire an autonomous virtual reality headset for less than 450 euros. But that doesn't mean everyone should rush to plug in. The technology is certainly alluring. But it's also powerful — and potentially dangerous — as German researchers Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger of Gutenberg University have been warning for the past several years.
No other technology has had the power to change us like this.
"Virtual reality can manipulate human consciousness," says Metzinger. "There is a risk that, in the next five to 10 years, many people will become addicted to it."
Every academic interviewed for this article feels the same. "No other technology has had the power to change us like this," says Erick Ramirez.
Guillaume Moreau, a computer science teacher at Centrale Nantes, offers a similar take. "The fact that virtual reality can be used to relieve pain or treat phobias lis is proof that it can change our behavior," he says.
Starting two years ago, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) began looking into the subject as well. The body assembled a working group of 12 experts, and expects to issue its conclusions next year. ANSES was motivated to do the search by "the potential for psychosocial and physiological impacts."
For that very reason, academics like Michael Madary, Thomas K. Metzinger and Erick Ramirez are beginning to urge codes of conduct: "Any experiment considered unethical if carried out in real life, such as simulating rape or torture, should be prohibited in virtual reality," says Ramirez.
Doctors should take precautions too, says Fanny Lévy, a psychiatrist in Paris and founder of the company MyReVe, which specializes in the use of virtual reality to help people tackle their fears. "Virtual reality is not a magic wand that can be used in any way to solve all problems," she warns. "Hiding behind a phobia can be real psychiatric pathology."
In companies, training managers are treading carefully as well. "Can we agree that making employees immerse themselves [in a virtual reality scenario] will likely psychological trauma?" asks Alexandre Chiriac, head of the Digital Learning & Innovation department at Air France.
Virtual reality training may actually be riskier than traditional training.
Chiriac's concern brings to mind the case of one telecom operator who used virtual reality to train its agents. As part of the immersion experience, employees had to climb to the top of 15-meter pylons. If they didn't fasten their carabiners properly, they fell into a void. The fall was only virtual, of course, but some users, nevertheless, described the training as traumatizing.
An additional concern is data protection. "Virtual reality training may actually be riskier than traditional training because during these sessions, the user's data is collected and stored," says Alexandre Embry, head of immersive technologies at Capgemini consultants. "There need to be strict confidentiality rules in place to guarantee the confidentiality of the information collected."
Yet another question is how content developers might regulate themselves going forward. European video game creators once had a classification system in place called PEGI, short for Pan European Game Information. Some say the virtual reality industry should take a similar approach, and in France, an association of producers called the GIE VR Connection did just that by publishing what it calls a Recommendation Charter.
A survey carried out by the polling firm Ipsos and the CNC (National Center for Cinema and Animated Images) found that so far, only 6.5% of French people own a virtual reality headset. But falling prices could be a game-changer. But while Oculus Quest, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR may seem like tempting gift ideas, all of the experts interviewed for this article urge caution.
Risk are especially relevant for children under 12, who quite simply shouldn't use the technology. For one thing, children's visual systems are more sensitive to blue screens. But also, according to psychiatrist Fanny Lévy, they "don't process virtual information in the same way as adults, because their brains are not yet mature."
Bahman Ajang, a psychologist and one of the authors of the GIE VR Connection recommendations charter, says that virtual reality impacts the brain in much the same way as hypnosis. The technology puts us in a trance, whereby the brain becomes so absorbed by the virtual experience that it pushes the real world to the background, and we become disassociated, and even lose track of time, Ajang explains. We submit, in other words, to the illusion.
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