Combining AI and VR Without Destroying the World

Every product is worth designing responsibly.

Harrison Lloyd

“Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again.”

— Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Be honest, doesn’t the idea of combining virtual reality and artificial intelligence concern you a little? At work we continue to push progress, but at home we go on media fasts because our screens already make us feel less human. Aren’t we immersed enough already?

World building comes with great responsibility. As creators, technologists, entrepreneurs, and marketers we’ve being given a tremendous privilege to shape the genesis of new media and ultimately change the way humanity works. What can we do to secure a future that elevates the truly positive values of humanity instead of the apocalyptic visions of a dystopian world we so often see in sci fi and talk about around the dinner table?

When new technologies emerge, going back to the old proverb that there’s nothing new under the sun causes us to ask ourselves when we’ve seen this sort of cultural change before. What stories, models and approaches have we seen in history that give us hope that humans will be responsible with their new tools?

Did early humans hold debates about whether or not to create and adopt fire — a tool famous for its positive utility and its devastation? I hallucinate that they did — and ultimately had to endure some pain before learning how to use it responsibly.

There will always be people who abuse technology. Where there is ad space, there will be spam. Where there is a weapon, there will be violence. No sooner do we start teaching children through the web than terrorist organizations use it to recruit them. Certainly, reducing enablement of abuse will be a key activity in bringing new tech into our lives. It’s the unintended consequences, the accidental forrest fires, that are more likely to surprise us.

Using technology to empower social, cultural and economic change is just as important in every conversation we have about protecting the downside. Breaking cultural barriers, empowering under-represented races, inspiring curiosity and building courage — all of these values and initiatives can be supported through combining AI and VR (and the extended family of AR, MR or xR).

Is VR the ultimate empathy machine? No… the real world is… we are.

How can we keep the 4th Transformation from making massive blunders like what we’ve seen in the past? Here are 4 categories worth examining.

1) Engineering for Physical and Mental Health

The historic problem:

It’s no secret that many food manufacturers, especially in America, have engineered the tastiest and most addictive foods for profit instead of making human health a priority. Our families and our healthcare system will suffer the consequences for decades.

In the same way, our devices and applications are often designed to trigger addictive behaviors — exploiting our natural biology and contributing to record-setting levels of stress hormones like cortisol in our bodies.

Our future risk:

In this inspiring Voices of VR podcast, Mikey Seagul, the founder of Consciousness Hacking, makes the case that today’s software designers and entrepreneurs are tomorrow’s therapists of society. “We are what we build and we build what we are” he reminds us. Startups are the ones who will contribute to much of our psychological health and thought lives. If nothing else, they could be metaphorical bartenders listening to our dumbest ideas and deepest desires.

As a tech community, we have to be equipped for this responsibility by first recognizing that we have tremendous influence over the lifestyle and wellbeing of others. If we allow immersive tech to take the engineered addiction approach and we ignore our own behaviors as consumers, the consequences could be forrest-fire-like.

A proactive response:

As a creator or conscious consumer, lets ask ourselves, “when this company makes more money, is the world better off?” It’s actually possible that xR could help rescue us from our tech addictions and brings us back into the real world. That’s the true promise of AR — integrating our digital information and work into our real lives. From the experience to the business model, we have opportunities to intentionally build businesses with wellness in mind.

2) Fostering Community, Not Fantasy and FOMO

The historic problem:

Since the dawn of time we’ve needed to be loved and feel connected and included — we will do almost anything to avoid loneliness and be a part of a tribe. Meaningful relationships are hard and never low maintenance – so we’ve created solutions for making these feelings of connectedness easier and more convenient to experience.

Most of these solutions are awesome (think parties) and some are artificial dreams of connectedness that potentially move us further from the real thing (think porn, or less obvious, Instagram).

By extension, our own internal conflict is elevated. Depression by FOMO has plagued my generation since our adolescence. These are not concerns of baby boomer parents and grandparents, while every millennial has had to learn to treat their daily social tech as augmentation, not replacement.

Our future risk:

The combination of AI and VR is often picked on for this topic.

When we treat VR like that magic mirror in Harry Potter we risk wasting away starring at our dreams instead of chasing them. If we create things like artificial relationships with AI characters or spend hours of our day virtually traveling, we’re not building real skillsets that help us achieve real goals.

If we tailor our virtual lives to our interests, skills like interpersonal communication could deteriorate or never be learned in the first place. Without this sort of foundation there’s little chance we’ll have mature adult relationships… much less good sex.

A proactive response:

VR could be the most social thing we’ve ever done. In fact, I believe social VR is the “killer app” of the medium — because we want to be where our friends and family are. Facebook seems to believe this too. Interacting with real humans will always be different than interacting with AI bots, even as the singularity approaches.

Lets ask ourselves, “is this bringing people closer together or isolating them?” Creating completely alternate virtual lifestyles that remove us from the real world… that just seems dangerous.

3) Better Future Worlds, Not Worse

The historic problem:

We are not a product of our circumstances – we’re a product of our decisions. Today we’ve designed for ourselves a world where we neglect our environment, passively consume more than we produce, and hold on to gender, family, and sexual stereotypes that are outdated and were often misplaced from the beginning. Socially, in many countries, it could be said that we’ve created a world that we didn’t intend.

Our future risk:

Our visions of the future are often dark and apocalyptic, without greenery or laughter, which is just not true to human nature. Even in the darkest circumstances, we choose to laugh.

Frankly, making narrative or experiential stories about the apocalypse is extremely unimaginative. They move us further away from reality and from the future we want actually to create. Combining spatial computing and AI with these robotic and cold worlds could truly lead to some sad people — and worse, further deterioration of this world.

A proactive response:

Monika Bielskyte of All Future Everything is a designer of future worlds of all types, from movies and games to urban plans for the real world. In her recent interview on Voices of VR (can you tell I’ve gone on a podcasting binge?), Monika makes a compelling case for designing future worlds inspired by the best things in our own world.

She envisions a future culture that is post-race, post-gender and post-nationalities. How can we imbed values into our stories that are more transcendent across cultures? As creatives, we are the metaphorical ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – showing people what has been and what could be. We don’t truly value passive consumption — we love participatory experiences. Let’s open our imaginations to create futures we actually want to live in.

4) Carefully Choose Our New Norms

The historic problem:

In a similar vein to designing better future worlds, we should ask ourselves what new norms we’re creating for society. Today, we no longer need to debate whether or not virtual feelings and actions lead to real world feelings and actions — there’s an endless supply of data telling us they do.

In the same way we transition from our thought life to our physical life, when we empathize with stories in media, they will effect our in-world behavior. Exposure to violence in entertainment media is undoubtably associated with an increase in aggression and violent behavior, both immediately and in the long-term.

“Participating in a violent VR game produced more aggressive thoughts than either watching this game or acting out the physical movements (Calvert & Tan, 1994); indeed, playing violent video games seems to lead people to think of themselves as more aggressive people overall (Uhlmann & Swanson, 2004).”

The Potential Societal Impact of Virtual Reality

Our future risk:

One of the promises of VR + AI is more instant virtual gratification, from buying things with a glance to having relationships with people who are designed to your preferences. VR and AI will change some of the fundamental rules of the game of life, with no immediate social or legal consequences. VR has a more serious impact on our psyche than the media before it.

A proactive response:

The creative community has a surprising amount of influence over our cultural norms. Will we create a future where increased violence and sexual abuse become more or less normal? When we start new projects or create new features, lets get in the habit of asking ourselves, “what is this saying about what normal is?”.

Let’s make the best things first

Let’s flood the medium with amazing, good apps that empower us to make change in our real world. Products like Bravemind and Project Empathy are an inspiring start. We can use VR + AI to…

  • teach social skills
  • overcome our greatest fears
  • build the courage to make dramatic changes in our lives
  • teach people to give more than they take
  • combat the increasing income gap
  • exercise our decision making muscles
  • break out of our destructive relationship patterns
  • teach at-risk teens to see themselves as powerful
  • bring rest to our overactive minds
  • train ourselves to get in a flow-state more often
  • [insert good thing here]

If we create products by starting with the values of ourselves and our brands, we can create, augment and support our world for better outcomes. Every product is worth designing responsibly and it’s worth spending significant time studying the social and psychological issues and impact around the products we’re working on. Only curious minds can inspire more curiosity.

Harrison Lloyd
Harrison Lloyd
Harrison is an independent digital leader, thinker and maker on a mission to change markets through digital products and xR technologies. Through his consulting practice he helps enterprises, agencies and startups validate their digital product id...
Harrison is an independent digital leader, thinker and maker on a mission to change markets through digital products and xR technologies. Through his consulting practice he helps enterprises, agencies and startups validate their digital product id...