The Three Laws of AR

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Humanity is at the cusp of an era of pure wonderment. Our everyday lives are laced with incredible technological advancements that, not so long ago, were considered the stuff of science fiction.

When science fiction turns to science fact

Science fiction has always played a vital role in the construct of utopian, dystopian and alternative visions of humanity. It’s a conceptual design playground for future technologies and scientific advancements, allowing us to speculate on behavioral, moral and ethical consequences of alternative human – and transhuman – futures.

In 1942, Isaac Asimov, one of the most profound science fiction writers of our time introduced the Three Laws of Robotics. The genius of Asimov’s laws was rooted in the understanding that robotics will be an inevitable and integral part of our everyday lives and social system, thus requiring guiding principles and binding laws to frame its application. These laws established a lengthy debate about ethics and future tech that is still alive today as robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are becoming common practice in the commercial and private landscape.

Humanity has an odd habit of applying technological and scientific development first and evaluating their consequence later. We suck at preventing, observing and reacting to destructive patterns of technical applications and impact. From ignoring profound cultural and societal negative implications (like mental health, cultural divide and even social order1) to existential risks to humanity itself (say hello to nuclear arms, climate change and cyber terrorism). Technology shifts like the ones we see today should force us to think about how we as a society can avoid doomsday scenarios.

Algorithmic processes embed values and ethics just as much as any human process; they only seem cleaner because they’re better at hiding that fact.

Cathy O’Neil
Weapons of Math Destruction (p. 199). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

We are already facing some undesirable consequences with emerging tech and AI: overwhelming data breaches, manipulation and surveillance threats within the digital realm2, the hacking of connected technologies, objects and systems. Even without malicious intent, we are risking the embedding of significant social biases and shifts via unattentive application of AI. As Cathy O’Neil clearly states, “Algorithmic processes embed values and ethics just as much as any human process; they only seem cleaner because they’re better at hiding that fact3.”

Luckily, we are also witnessing widespread debate and action taken around the ethical code of conduct within AI practices – with initiatives from commercial, academic and political bodies. Most commendable are the 23 Asimolar AI principles.

How do we govern a technology that manipulates our core perception of the physical world?

Augmented Reality (AR) superimposes a digital layer over the physical space to add information, functions, interactions and experiences to our everyday lives. AR represents a next level interface – one that blends the digital and physical, creating a hybrid space and experience. The ultimate tool for limitless alteration of the world.

Augmenting our physical world represents an ability to alter our perception of it, to shape individual and even entire cultural narratives. To augment reality means to enhance, amplify and alter reality itself. And so, we must develop tools and practices to protect and control the abuse of augmented spaces and interaction.

Whether we anticipate a near future with partial integration of AR technology or a more distant future where we might be opted-into an augmented state as a primary state, we must form policies and frameworks that consider issues such as consent, privacy, ownership, dependency and decision-making4 within AR applications.

Augmenting Alice by Galit Ariel, Photo by Maarten Kadiks

I suggest the following Three Laws of AR, in anticipation of a future where technology will no longer be “something” that happens “elsewhere”:

1 Augmented Reality’s application must be consensual & honest.
Users need to be aware when they have opted into an AR experience and able to opt out easily from an augmented state. In other words, do not create an alternate reality/reality without explicit and ongoing conscious consent.

2 Augmented Reality needs to respect the physical.
Augmented assets might be digital by nature, but since they impact users in reality,  they carry the obligation to consider and respect the physical domain. People should not alter a physical asset or being that they don’t own or have the right to change.

3 Be accountable for the consequences of Augmented Reality
Creators/streamers of augmented content are responsible for any undesirable consequences derived from the application of AR. For example, people should not manipulate, detach users or hijack their physical world or create subversive behaviors to give an unfair advantage to individuals or entities.

Once immersive tech becomes more diffused, we will require more elaborate, nuanced and explicit measures and frameworks. But starting with a consensual, respectful and accountable practice, seems like a good starting point, or at least – common sense.

Want to see more? Watch the first episode of Futurithmic “AR and the Future of Identity” here.

Further Reading

  1. As Rousseau stated “…the social order is a sacred right, which provides the basis for all the others. Yet this right does not come from nature; it is therefore founded on conventions.” Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rousseau: ‘The Social Contract’ and Other Later Political Writings. (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) (Page 41). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Cambridge Analytica scandal unleashed a can of worms where ominous algorithms were applied within social media platforms. Aimed at changing political mindsets, and causing political turmoil and a deep mistrust towards individuals, social systems, institutions, mediums and the nature of truth.
  3. O’Neil, Cathy. Weapons of Math Destruction (p. 199). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
  4. In my book Augmenting Alice – The Future of Identity, Experience and Reality, I already suggested 12 steps for making great augmentation, but considering marketers wish to augment our world with branded content, we might need some constrictions as well.

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