I went to SXSW 2017 looking for a lot of things – ideas and opportunities for virtual reality, augmented reality – and I left with a lot of those things, but also a serious appreciation for the impact these technologies will have on privacy in the future. Suzanne Leibrick, a VR evangelist, presented a fascinating session entitled “Thought Police – How The End of Privacy is Near”. Leibrick argued that many of the elements needed to predict our behaviors, choices and actions are already in place, and the remaining components are close to implementation. At first it felt like a conspiracy theory, but the true purpose of this session was to get people’s attention and present a valid argument for dialogue around privacy, as technology rapidly outpaces both legislation and public awareness of what is at risk.
Compared to computers and cellphones, virtual reality headsets open up a whole new realm of ways to gather data on individuals. With that comes a whole realm of possibilities – and privacy and ethical challenges. Several recent Voices of VR podcasts also cover this topic, such as #516: Privacy in VR is Complicated, and #517: Biometric Data Streams & the Unknown Ethical Threshhold of Predicting & Controlling Behaviour. But today’s post will focus on the content shared by Leibrick during her SXSW 2017 session.
How to Build a Mind Reader
Leibrick posits that with a combination of technologies already incorporated into common VR experiences today, along with technologies that are already possible but just not widely implemented yet, future VR/AR headsets will be so effective at predicting our behaviors that they will be essentially reading our minds. Eye tracking will provide information on what we focus on and react to, revealing our interests and state of mind, as well as clues about our individual health. Full body tracking can reveal information about your age, gender, weight, height and health – even your mood. Heart rate monitors and EEG (brain monitors) reveal our emotional reactions and responses to different types of stimuli. Heat maps track were we look and our interests over time. As this data is collected over time, and use d in conjunction with machine learning and artificial intelligence, it becomes possible to predict our preferences, behaviors and actions over time.
Eye tracking is particularly revealing, as cameras and lights inside a VR headset not only provide high resolution insight into what your eyes are doing, but can also see inside the retina to potentially reveal your information about your health status (cancer, diabetes) or even sexuality (e.g. measuring eye responses to certain stimuli). Machine learning applied over time can reveal other trends, such as likely political affiliations (conservatives tend to make less eye contact than liberals).
With this combination of sensors, data and processing power, it becomes possible to predict an individual’s behavior with a growing rate of success.
Ingredients for a “Mind Reader”
|Already exists in VR or AR headsets||Already exists, but not implemented widely in VR or AR headsets (yet)|
|Full hand and head tracking for motion and gesture||Eye tracking|
|Positional and Location tracking||EEG monitoring|
|Collection of that data||Machine Learning/Deep Learning|
|Ability to tie that data to your real name||Artificial Intelligence|
|Heatmaps showing what you pay attention to in VR or AR||Full body tracking|
|Spatial Mapping and awareness||Other bio sensors such as heart rate monitors|
|External cameras||Privacy controls|
Why Should I Be Concerned?
There could be great benefits derived from this data – imagine receiving a health notification to check in with your doctor when your VR headset detects an abnormality, potentially averting crisis. On the flipside, imagine if your health data was available to insurance companies (who are already tentatively using social media to adjust premiums). Life and health insurance rates could sky rocket.
Imagine if your credit scores dropped, because eye tracking revealed certain behaviors and interests that machine learning has indicated correlates with a higher probability of financially delinquent behavior?
Fake news stories have been heavily discussed in the media over the last several months, following a proliferation during the presidential race between Trump and Clinton. With all of the additional data available about your interests, health and financial status, not only will marketing messages and advertising be heavily targeted to you, but fake news stories may be fed to you to influence your political and societal outlook.
These are just a few examples of how data may be utilized in the future. Without protections and controls on the data that can be collected, and how it can be stored and used, individuals lose the freedom to act anonymously. As technology outpaces the policies and an understanding of unintended consequences, it’s extremely important to begin exploring benefits….and the implications.