Haptic Ethics: Part 2

Part 2: Why should we care about haptic ethics?

Data privacy, security, digital citizenship, safety of our children online, and concerns about influence by sneaky algorithms are sources of anxiety that now routinely come up in mainstream discourse. Lucky for us, haptics is still in a stage where these concerns are not urgent. But eventually, when technology that could be characterized as “fully immersive VR with haptics” becomes widespread, we risk losing control not just of our data or privacy, but of our bodies themselves. The stakes will be higher than ever before.

Working Out Tye Sheridan GIF by Ready Player One - Find & Share on GIPHY
Full-body VR haptics as depicted in Ready Player One (2018)

Fortunately, we have the time and the awareness to get it right. So, let’s start thinking about how we will answer these questions when we’re asked. If our answers are good ones, then when people express cynicism or anxiety about how haptics will impact the future, we can present a vision of convenience, empowerment, wellness, and what I believe is ultimately the potential for haptics to be a positive force for good.

Design frameworks aren’t enough

There’s a common design exercise where you ask yourself “how might we…” It’s an effective way to generate many new ideas without the baggage of an implied commitment to create whatever you think of. Here’s the haptic design framework that I use at Immersion to generate and categorize use cases. The idea behind the framework is that everything haptic technology can do for people falls under one or more of these categories. If we understand the categories, we can use them as prompts to create new use cases.

Taking a technical perspective, here’s a look at the haptic stack from Immersion’s perspective. (The first in a series of articles that break down this down in detail can be found here.) This depiction isn’t intended to be prescriptive, but it clearly shows that the stack is quite tall when you include every layer, starting with the creative community designing haptic experiences and going all the way down to the material of the interface and the surrounding environment of the user. An end-user experience is the sum total of all of these.

Many haptics companies, including Immersion, are currently working to figure out how we might standardize components of the stack to allow haptics to interoperate across many systems and devices. This is work that is absolutely critical to ensuring haptics reaches scale.

But both the design framework and the stack are simply ontologies. They can’t help us to know how we should use them, or even how we might begin to answer that question for ourselves.

Technology development is inherently creative. The ‘might’ in “How might we…” is the creative spark. Ethics, on the other hand, is concerned with should. What should we do? Why?

Ethical frameworks facilitate innovation

Far from limiting progress, ethical frameworks open up a world of innovation. While they constrain action, they are in fact liberating constructs. They remove the need to second guess our actions or continuously burn resources on considering ethical consequences, because the boundaries of action are pre-defined. A framework creates an area where innovators are free to experiment and create new things.

Ethical frameworks pre-define boundaries of action, reducing the need for innovators to burn resources on ethical deliberation.

Technology development is just another forum for action

Ethical behavior can be defined as action motivated by expression of value. When we take any action at all, we are expressing our values, because we’re choosing one action over another.

I like this quote from Richard Yonck, author of Heart of the Machine, a fascinating primer on emotional AI. He writes,

The printing press, electricity, automobiles, computers, and smartphones… It’s extremely difficult to think of a single general technology that hasn’t been put to uses that range across the moral and ethical spectrums.

Richard Yonck, Heart of the Machine

It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating that new technologies don’t come with ethics built in. In fact, Plato had serious ethical concerns about a technology that was new in his time:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness into their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks… and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

It may be hard to believe, but Plato was referring to the dangers of… the written word. I highlight this quote not just because it’s an example of a fear that we can no longer relate to, but also to give us hope. It’s easy to get involved with the doom and gloom of a dystopian vision of the future. But visions like that have always haunted us. It’s safe to say that fear of the unknown is responsible for some significant part of our anxiety about the future. Nobody can say for sure how much; time will tell. But we can learn from history that, while a revolutionary technology like writing has certainly brought difficult change to human societies, most of us wouldn’t prefer to live life without it.

Where can we turn?

If we understand how ethics works in related fields, we may find overlap with haptics. This exercise can also help lead us to identify the unique challenges that haptic technologies present. In Part 3, we’ll take a brief tour of high level ethical frameworks and recent research in medicine, AI, robotics, and human enhancement.

This is the second article in a series. You can read the first one here.

These articles are adapted from a keynote delivered at Smart Haptics 2019. They are also posted to LinkedIn.

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