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Immersive technology and ethics: Ethical dilemmas in vistas not yet fully explored

By Dr. Raman Unnikrishnan

Jun 30, 2021

In February, the BRDG bridge to connect organization sponsored a presentation by Dr. Mike Wesolowski, the CEO of Luxonic Technologies to explore innovative ideas in AR and VR technologies applied to primarily medical education (click here to View the 1 hr.- 20 min Tele-health & Education webinar ). The seminar and panel discussion on June 10, 2021 focused on how the adoption of these transformative ideas might cause ethical challenges.

Caecilia Gotama, the CEO and Founder of BRDG, opened the meeting by asking the rhetorical question:

  1. “How might we accelerate the adoption of immersive technology content in the education system to promote empathy, equity and excellence for the coming generation?”

A companion question was also posed,

  1. “How can Bridge to Connect community be involved in identifying and creating immersive technology content that will have a positive effect on the lives of students and communities?”

Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, Chief Academic Officer for Orange County Department of Education, who moderated the session attended by some 40 participants. Opening remarks came from Melissa Martinez who works as an Expert Lead with Accenture Los Angeles. She explained how the mentoring, stipend and encouragement she received from BRDG led to an Internship position as an IT specialist at an architectural firm. The experience and maturity she gained from that position led to a fulltime job even during the challenging job market of the chaotic days during the Covid pandemic.

Dr. Hittenberger acknowledged the success of Melissa Martinez  as a ‘mission accomplished’ example for BRDG-Bridge to Connect. The attendees and members of the organization are dedicated to the success of budding professional like Melissa.

Lizzy Curran, the first panelist to speak is the Social Impact Program Manager, Safety and Accessibility with Unity Technologies. She presented the connection with the topic on hand by narrating the early fears that electronic games presented to society in the 1980’s. While some of those issues continue to be present, the 160 or so gaming companies around the globe are addressing the societal issues at the design stage of product development. Social responsibility has now become an integrated attribute of the gaming design. While acknowledging the power of immersive technology in education, she expressed the need to ensure that the deployment of such cutting-edge technology will not cause inequities among those who do not have access or familiarity with such an environment. She stressed the need to develop such technologies in an inclusive, socially responsible and ethical manner.

Curran’s conversations blended empathy and expertise in equal measures. As a leader of strategies in technology, she brought firsthand knowledge of how socially responsible practices were conceived and implemented in gaming to education. The audience was impressed by her public persona as “a razor-sharp strategic thinker, a powerful creative spark a relentless brand-builder and a true technology ninja.” Yet she was respectful of the struggles of many first-generation students in Southern California and pointed out that she herself was a first-generation graduate.

“Unity,” Lizzy Curran said, “focuses not only on the immersive technology but on the people creating the content. Two of Unity’s social impact areas are increasing educational equality and creating new skills.” She outlined that Unity works with schools and universities to create content in a responsible manner with respect and empathy behind it. She also discussed the disconnect that sometimes exists between ethical standards present in the physical world and the lack or modification of such ethical norms in the digital world. Lizzy also stressed the importance of the involvement of not just the educators, digital content creators and students but the community at large also in making immersive technology successful.

Dr. Shawna Pandya was the second panelist to speak. She is a physician and a scientist-astronaut candidate. As the VP of Immersive Education at Luzsonic, Dr. Pandya works with the creation and deployment of AR, VR, MR technology in education with particular emphasis to medical education. She said that as a child she wanted to be an astronaut as kids often do but she did not quite know how to achieve that dream.

Role models helped frame Dr. Pandya’s strategic plan her career path. She was inspired by Dr. Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian astronaut who was also a physician, scientific researcher, photographer, author, environment interpreter, and team leader. So, Dr. Pandya got degrees in Neuroscience from the University of Alberta, an MS degree in Space Studies from International Space University and an MD degree from the University of Alberta. She is licensed to practice medicine. Her vast interest in technology led her current position in industry. Thus, Pandya has followed Bondar’s footsteps remarkably well.

Dr. Pandya explained her interest in practicing medicine an austere environment, environment that is isolated, confined and remote. Underwater or outer space qualify as austere environments. She also practiced medicine in a simulated Mars environment in a Utah desert. The Covid pandemic has in effect created an austere environment where VR technologies can deliver anatomy classes or radiology labs digitally using virtual technology. In a way, technology has helped bridge the gap between the haves and have nots.

The next panelist, Dr. Raman Unnikrishnan, is a professor of electrical engineering and the former dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at California State University, Fullerton. He pointed out that the universities are not necessarily early adopters of new technology. However, universities have recognized the ethical challenges that exists in technology. In his opinion, the characterization the engineering ethics is an oxymoron is not without merit. In the past, ethical lapses in engineering have led to major tragedies. Engineering education got its first wake-up call with the much discussed and analyzed explosion of space shuttle Challenger. An investigative committee composed of prominent scientists and astronauts linked the explosion to the failure of the “O” rings manufactured by Morton Thiokol, a Utah-based company. The company was found at fault for the destruction of Challenger and deaths of the astronauts, as a direct causality from pressure from NASA to launch, based on inconclusive evidence of O-ring failure, while under freezing temperatures. A Morton Thiokol mechanical engineer, Roger Boisjoly, had warned the company of the potential danger of the product but the managers apparently ignored his warnings.

The Challenger incident triggered the engineering community in the US to introduce teaching of engineering ethics in all undergraduate engineering degree programs, a concept now adopted by engineering educators worldwide. However, Dr. Unnikrishnan pointed out that ethics is an elusive concept. A famous sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked businesspeople, “What does ethics mean to you?” The following were among the answers he received:

"Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong."
"Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs."
"Being ethical is doing what the law requires."
"Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts."
"I don't know what the word means."

These answers show the lack of unity about the meaning of ethical practice in technology. When confronted with profits and faith, what is ethical in one country may not be universally applicable. This is a growing challenge in an interconnected borderless world.

The next panelist was Shane Tsosie, Machine Lab Coordinator at Navajo Technical University. Tsosie identified lack of funding as the major difficulty in adopting new technologies in institutions like NTU. Lack of skilled technical help also has been a challenge. Some faculty members are reluctant to readily adopt technology.

Tsoie described the vision of NTU as connecting students with cutting-edge technology so that the graduates are employable. He thinks that new technologies like VR can help the institution achieve its goal.

The breakout rooms continued the conversations outlined by the panelists. Dr. Hittenberger concluded the meeting with a call to action by forming a Task Force with the charge “What are the criteria or standards educators, and other leaders can use to determine the quality of that content, especially in seeking to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility?”

The forum adjourned with concluding remarks from BRDG Board Member John Misselwitz who discussed the links between the mission of BRDG Bridge to Connect and the conversations that took place during the session.

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