Social Proxies, Ethics in the Experiential Age & Harnessing its Emergent Properties

Often we see photos from science fiction speculating on a future with animated holograms floating before controllers of the world around them. However, in actual fact, the world itself will become the interface. As all surfaces become artificially intelligent, we will rapidly iterate and coalesce the disparate parts into a unified, mediated, seamless dance.

As we move into the era of artificially intelligent or networked objects, we will need to find a more contemporary narrative for the way in which the world of once seemingly innocuous and inanimate things suddenly factors into an emotional and communicative paradigm; your running shoes will talk to your refrigerator.

More importantly, there will be a narrative that forms between those various networked items as you develop an emotional connection to them like Pee-Wee saying good morning to everyone in his playhouse. I posit that when I am in my bed and I can make a single macro command statement to my automatic speech recognition device and it can change the temperature dim the lights to an exact percentage lock the front door turn on my security cameras and my computer record my daily to-do list order me a taxi and deliver food within 45 minutes that I have effectively created a form of virtual reality, but, when hybridized in this manner, the term begins to fall apart.

Pee-wee's playhouse

Everything is alive at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse

Cutting Edge Vintage

We should not assume that this will be expressly a digital shift. In fact, as IoT makes previously dumb objects responsive and artificially intelligent, heirlooms and collectibles will become animated like Frankenstein’s monster. As Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian:

“The resurgence of retro technology is neither negative nor a hipster fad. My landline is simply better than my mobile, as my FM radio is better than my digital one. Photographers say that pictures printed from film are superior to digitised ones. A DJ knows that a vinyl groove holds a deeper bass line.”

My question is how do I make sense of this in a meaningful way, in a philosophical way, in a way that will matter not only to me but to those around me whom I want to draw into the world of the play. What is really going on here is an ontological exercise, wherein we are learning about the very nature of being. As we reevaluate those objects that are imbued with sentimental meaning and memories, like holograms[0], we might begin to reconsider the very nature of our perception up to this point as a whole. Is everything, already animated by unseen forces – meshnets at the atomic and molecular level that communicate their presence to one another?

This is one of those liminal moments that may happen every quarter-century where the elite in the ivory towers to send to the street to speak with the street punks and all figure out among them what exactly is going on and where to go next. These beautiful transient moments are when humanity truly becomes its finest form and discusses in and among itself how to involve next.

The self-reflexivity of our nature, moreover enhanced by this sort of technology, is something quite unlike any advancement we have seen before. Yet its effects are exactly like so many technological disruptions of the past and the same dynamics emerge – wherein we all resist at first we all fear the implications and the consequences and at the same time immediately begin to absorb it and contemplated and move forward from that new platform

Before I get too far ahead – let’s relist just some of the ways in which VR will impact the culture: real estate, tourism, design, scientific research, archaeology, small and big business commerce and communication, Fintech, psycho and physiotherapy, tele-robotics, entertainment and storytelling, journalism, social exchange, training and simulation, data visualization, education and so much more.

VR is not a stepping stone to Augmented Reality, as many posit; we have fully left the linear behind us. We now live in a paradigm that doesn’t wait for its user to catch up, or comprehend or even become aware that it exists. There is no polite booklet filled with instructions. The rate of iteration and innovation is so intense and networked that we can only grab an oar and learn to navigate the rapids. Indeed soon enough VR, AR, will provide and interface for a hyper-connected world of things – each with its own sensors – ears, eyes, sniffers, autonomous mobility, even the ability to repair and heal itself, to learn and to advance its own agenda. If we are lucky we will get enough influence on this movement to instill a sense of conscience into the AI.

CES this year was rife with ASR (automatic speech recognition) devices embedded in everything from cars and anthropomorphic robots to door locks, thermostats, hotel rooms and medical equipment. In 2017 the brand winner in this regard was Amazon’s Alexa technology[1] – a company whose very engineers shared their surprise at many ways in which their tech had been appropriated by innovators and entrepreneurs. In previous years, at NAB – North America’s largest tech showcase typically populated by industry leaders and trendsetters, we have seen Virtual Reality rapidly infiltrate every sector of the entertainment and information technology conversation.

Robert Scoble (far right) discussing the future of tech at NAB 2016. His latest book – “The Fourth Transformation” – focuses exclusively on Virtual and Augmented Reality – photo copyright the author

Hack To the Future

While it is easy to imagine and speculate, it is important to remember that often the original intent of an invention may be rerouted to newer and more interesting use. With the Microsoft Kinect we already saw the ability for the machine to read our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, all of which will provide biofeedback to be used in any way imaginable. It has a massive hacking and modding community [2] applying and reverse-engineering its technology for many novel applications.

One of the modes of intuitive interaction coming from the V/A/M/r revolution is gaze-based navigation of course. Recently FOVE sold 7,000 units for the growing Asian VRcade LBE market. From moderating an exercise regimen to detecting anxiety, honesty, or arousal of any type, the technology will respond and engage with us in whatever way our future selves may find useful. But as we rapidly introduce always-on tech that monitors us for commands – be it through eye-tracking, automatic speech recognition or Wearables, we introduce a whole new level of a privacy concern as we submit minutiae about our emotional response to content. How will we build in sufficient safeguards to protect users from always-on devices being exploited while avoiding creating regulation that stunts blue sky creativity?

Of course, some of the brightest minds in the popular sphere – Hawking, Musk, Gates, Kurzweil, Minsky, Mann also caution[3], without reservation, about the dangers of AI running amok. Do we build in an expiration date like Tyrell did for Replicants in Blade Runner? At what point do pseudo-sentient-beings have rights? If we are monitored, do we, in kind have the ability to monitor back?

At the VRTO World Conference and Expo in Toronto 2016, Professor and CTO of Meta Steve Mann presented his Code of Ethics for Humanistic Augmentation wherein he described the effect of surveillance and sousveillance. The right to know that one is being monitored and the right to disclose that one is monitoring in return.

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in a powerfully social game like World of Warcraft, Second Life, Sims Online or even Facebook or Snapchat – understands how profound a connection can emerge, not just between a couple but a tribe, a community especially as the neural network between those connections strengthens. But there has still always been a thick layer of abstraction in this 2D UI.

Today some of the leading platforms for social VR include AltSpace, High Fidelity, VRChat, Project Sansar and soon Facebook. Once we are operating with other human agents in a social Virtual or Augmented reality, one with a spatial context, and persistent horizon – let alone haptics, olfactory augmentation or other sensual stimuli, the sense of presence and shared memory will be as potent and meaningful (if not, perhaps even more) as anything in the Meatverse. There is something extremely powerful about the intermediary, this proxy reality that permits humans to connect more directly and wholly.

Through this, we can reach people who may otherwise be emotionally or physically unavailable, address issues that may otherwise be too taboo, difficult or unlikely to be fielded in other contexts.

The Maligned Leading the Blind

Of course with this there must come a respect from the platform and for the platform – if people are to surrender themselves intellectually, socially, emotionally in this manner, they must be protected – the spaces and methods for communication must be protected in their favor. There needs to a be shared ethics upon which we agree[4] to realize the potential for this transition to transportive technology. We must also always remember that we are essentially hijacking the evolutionary neurological functions of a human so as to trick them into believing something is real that is not actually there. With that must come the sense of responsibility that comes with taking another person’s trust and mental health into your hands.

How will we open our minds, heart, and bodies to this radical change towards networked, artificially intelligent and neuroscientific tech so as to both protect ourselves and each other, while benefiting from its unpredictable exponential capability for renewal and evolution? This should always be at the forefront in considering how to create the best compelling and transformative content, the same way we test cars, furniture and toys for safety before deploying into the home, always bearing in mind, and leaving open the possibility that these products and the tools to create them may be utilized in ways we could never have expected. Let’s hope and build for that.


This is a work in progress by author Keram Malicki-Sanchez who is the executive director of the VRTO Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo and the FIVARS International Festival of Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories.

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