Imagine being an 82-year-old grandmother confined to a wheelchair and being able to experience climbing to the summit of Mont Blanc. Or picture sitting in a meeting with people you’ve never met before but remembering all of their names and backgrounds because you can read a summary of their CV, visible just above their heads through the glasses you are wearing – then walking to yet another meeting using visual navigational directions projected within those same glasses. While walking over, you read the news and check your email, complete with advertisements and social media inputs – all this within the same wearable device.
Around the same time, the stock price of a major leading European technology company crashes to record lows, which was later discovered to have been caused by a sophisticated large scale disinformation campaign disguised as tens of thousands of ‘angry customer’ commenters who seem as real as your own neighbours.
All of these scenarios are possible in the near future as new technologies are changing not only the information landscape, but our cognitive one as well.
Futurists often describe eight essential technologies when discussing the future: robots, drones, additive manufacturing (3D printing), blockchain, internet of things, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI). But it is the last three – AR, VR and AI – which may have the greatest impact on the future information landscape and challenge our ability to discern reality from unreality.
In the coming years, we are expected to witness the emergence of improved affordable wearable devices
Augmented reality is described as a live direct or indirect view of the physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by a computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. This technology functions by enhancing our current perception of reality to enable us to access information, complete tasks, and navigate more quickly and effectively.
In the coming years, we are expected to witness the emergence of improved affordable wearable devices, such as AR glasses, starting in 2023 which will begin to replace mobile phones. This will begin the shift from our current interactive relationship with devices to a more immersive one.
These devices will not only deliver a high volume of information quickly but become a more potent delivery vehicle for disinformation given their immersive nature. These same AR devices will also be able to gather much more precise microtargeting data on users since many of them will be able to read and measure the movement patterns of the human eye.
Virtual reality is an even more immersive simulated experience which can be similar to – or completely different from – the real world. VR technology is currently in widespread use within the gaming community and it offers numerous positive applications for education, mental health and recreation, as well as enabling persons with disabilities and the elderly to have experiences they cannot currently access.
VR also provides a unique and highly potent platform for the delivery of disinformation
VR could even replace physical travel, enabling vacations and realistic ‘in-person’ business meetings to take place without leaving one’s home. Some project that widespread use of VR may also replace many consumer goods, as possessions within the metaverse could replace physical possessions in the real world. Who needs a new dress when you have a closet full of the latest fashions within the VR world? Such developments could prove to be highly effective in the green transition to reduce the human carbon footprint globally.
But VR also provides a unique and highly potent platform for the delivery of disinformation and other forms of information manipulation since virtually every image, message and signal inside of the VR metaverse can not only be used by marketers to influence users, but can also be manipulated or hacked by malign actors.
Projected developments in both AR and VR, collectively known as extended reality (XR), include not only wearable devices but the ability to plug directly into the human nervous system. Future advancements are also making XR devices more scalable, fast and portable, especially with the arrival of 6G technology.
As consumer access increases with projected price drops and quality improvements, the potential increases for the VR metaverse to be a new avenue for mass escapism. How many citizens will choose to spend their free time in an alternate reality where they feel more empowered, wealthier and capable? And what impact will it have on society when an increasing percentage of the population chooses to live much of its life immersed in an alternate reality?
We have seen disinformation and information manipulations not only lead to societal division but also disinformation-driven violence
All of these developments point to new challenges for civic and political leaders to connect with the people, as well as greater ability for malign actors to impact elections, financial markets and societies. One small example of the kind of chaos that can happen is the potential to hack AR systems to spoof navigational use by large numbers of public and private actors.
Given the current disinformation challenges that democracies are facing in a world of interactive media, how much greater will the challenge be in a world of immersive experiences? Will they lead to even deeper societal divisions due to an emerging split based on competing forms of reality?
In recent years, we have seen disinformation and information manipulations not only lead to societal division but also disinformation-driven violence with conspiracy theorists attacking over 200 mobile towers in Europe, attacks on vaccine centres, the attempted attack on the Bundestag in Berlin in August 2020, the sacking of the US Capitol on 6 January, or the more recent armed violence planned in Rome by an anti-vaxx group calling itself I Guerrieri, which was thwarted by Italian authorities.
All of these events were inspired within an interactive media environment in which the average person spends 11 hours per day using their smart phone, tablet or laptop. So, how much greater is the challenge when new immersive technologies mean that screen time goes from 11 hours to nearly continuous throughout the day? And how much more challenging will it be with the even later arrival of brain-machine interface (BMI) technology?
In this new information landscape, ‘reality’ may no longer be a single objectively verifiable perspective
This upcoming transition from interactive to immersive is so critical because it radically changes our relationship with the information we are exposed to, making it even more difficult to discern reality from unreality or a manipulated reality.
The same power of immersion that can enable someone to more quickly learn a new skill or cultivate greater empathy for others can also be used to influence not only their buying habits but their political beliefs and understanding of their own society. Immersion feels real because it sends our nervous system many of the emotional and cognitive signals that tell us something is real – and science tells us that disinformation primarily targets emotions.
Another parallel development is the emergence of AI-driven bots as a potential disinformation tool. Current experimental AI platforms such as the GPT-3, created by OpenAI, can write convincing public comments and letters that appear to be written by humans and not an AI robot. When used at scale, such new capabilities will be able to engage in ‘reality jamming’ – targeting populations on a mass scale to shape behaviour and create social division.
The combination of these developments, if exploited by malign actors, could divide society even further into different camps based on varying degrees of belief in reality or unreality. In this new information landscape, ‘reality’ may no longer be a single objectively verifiable perspective – and the impact on democracy and social cohesion could be significantly more severe than what we see today. This is a matter requiring urgent attention. Democracy requires the ability to separate truth from falsehoods, since without truth there is no accountability.
The European Union must strengthen its regulation of tech and social media firms and constantly update its approach
As the recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen have illustrated, social media companies won’t police themselves, even when they are well aware of the harm their platforms are causing.
So, how can Europe be prepared for this new information landscape that is simultaneously full of great potential but also risks to democracy and society?
Firstly, the European Union must strengthen its regulation of tech and social media firms and constantly update its approach to ensure that safeguards are built into AR and VR systems to protect people and societies from malign actors. These same evolving regulations must also ensure these new devices are not being used for microtargeting.
As part of this evolving regulatory approach, we will need more stringent transparency of technology companies to protect citizens and their privacy. In the case of social media giants, like Facebook, perhaps we should stop seeing them as just another media company and start treating them more like a powerful nonstate actor – and regulate them accordingly.
At the same time, while these new technologies can greatly reduce our carbon footprint, they will also lead to greater demand for electricity. Figuring out how to address this new demand without burning more coal will be a challenge for the energy sector and EU leaders in the coming years.
We’ll need to develop and agree on a new governance framework in which we define and balance rights and responsibilities within the immersive digital world
Secondly, very few studies are being conducted on the impact of AR and VR on individuals and almost no studies are being conducted on their impacts on groups and societies. So, the EU should earmark funding to support these studies in order to better inform the public and enable better foresight and decisions by political leaders and technology regulators.
Finally, one outcome of these studies may indicate the need for the active defence of citizens and societies within the XR metaverse, especially as parallel economies and societies (which already exist) begin to grow within them. In any case, we’ll need to develop and agree on a new governance framework in which we define and balance rights and responsibilities within the immersive digital world.
If democracy and societal cohesion are to be protected in the future, we’ll continue to need more public awareness and debate in advance of these tech developments to ensure greater accountability once they arrive. This will be especially important since the triple pressures of economic competitiveness, green transition and the digital transition will accelerate their adoption.
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