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Uncategorized Virtual Reality

Human vs. Ethics vs. Machine

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Cardboard Crash is a virtual reality experiment crafted by NFB Digital Studios. In this experiment, individuals are placed in a self-driven car within a virtual reality, cardboard environment. The main purpose is designed to challenge the ethical decisions made by self-automated vehicles as compared to decisions made by humans in situations where a collision is unavoidable. In a time when technology is continually evolving, the implementation of self-automated vehicles is seemingly inevitable. Looking deeper into how decisions of these vehicles are made as compared to that of human beings could be the difference between life and death in potentially fatal circumstances.

A little background on the founding father of the project is important to consider when examining the experiments purpose. With over 15 years of experience, Vincent McCurley first got invested in interactive work during the dot com boom. During this time, he created a small web studio, helping him see the potential effects interactive mediums can play on medium-rich stories. McCurley then moved to NFB, where he was hired as a Flash developer for stories. Presently, and when Cardboard Crash was being constructed, McCurley’s position is that of a creative technologist. In this role he works with different artists so that they are aware of the different effects mediums of storytelling can have.

Vincent McCurley, NFB Digital Studio Creative Technologist and head founder of Cardboard Crash

The basic premise of this project is simple: to explore whether humanity is ready to hand over ethically problematic decisions to artificial intelligence (AI). Technology is more advanced than ever, and the car industry is no exception. It saw its first implementation in 1885, when German Engineer Karl Benz created the first gasoline engine. The car industry has expanded substantially since then. Now, in a 21st century society, self-driving cars are not only a topic of conversation, but also a seemingly real possibility. Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “The Library of Babel”, makes a connection to this idea. Similar to the vast, unending hallways, books, and inhabitants of the library, there seems to be no limit to what the car industry can accomplish. This is important to compare because, as society draws deeper into change, more responsibility is transferred from human beings to technology created. With human safety at risk, we must take into consideration who is creating self-automated vehicles and ask just how they are being developed. As this industry continues to expand, companies such as NFB Digital Studios are working to challenge the ethical decisions of these machines and the impact it can have on human safety.

From the moment you put on the goggles, the purpose of this experiment is to make you feel as if you are in a self-driving car. This should be clear to most users, as small details like having no steering wheel help hint at it. However, at the conclusion of your VR adventure, it is revealed that the vehicle is actually run by an algorithm, not a car. The important thing to think about here is, what exactly makes that car move? What guides the decisions of this car that I am sitting in? In Cardboard Crash, the algorithm titled artificial intelligence is the answer to these questions.

Seeking a defined answer to the ethical decisions of artificial intelligence and all self-automated algorithms in general is what this experiment is designed to obtain. By giving users control in this virtual reality scenario, Cardboard Crash is able to compare ethical humane decisions against that of artificial intelligence. For instance, in moments just prior to the accident, you are given the ability to choose which course of action to take: go left and run into a family, go straight and run into a toxic truck, or go right and fall off of a cliff. However, in the future, it will not be humans making this decision, but algorithms. The experiment forces society to think about the system and how it is designed. If manufacturers are forced to take into account ethical decision making now, they may incorporate it in a safer manner when manufacturing their cars. For this reason, Cardboard Crash is meant to be an educational tool for society, getting people to think about the ways in which these vehicles will be designed to make decisions.

In the moments just prior to an accident, the user chooses which course of action to take: go left and run into a family, go straight and run into a toxic truck, or go right and fall off of a cliff.

An important aspect of Cardboard Crash is its ability to be portrayed through virtual reality (VR). Using Google Cardboard, all one must do is place a mobile phone inside of a cardboard headset and then place it in front of their eyes. This gives users quick and easy access to the application, so long as they have access to Google Cardboard. The idea of virtual reality is an important one because it places users in a realistic setting of a self-driving car. Although it is clearly not reality, the ability of VR to depict a real world setting is essential to users when determining their ultimate course of action. Without the easing effect of a cardboard environment, the negative effects of a realistic car accident experience may take users back, ultimately giving a negative connotation to Cardboard Crash and limiting the number of users.

A cardboard world is both an interesting and crucial aspect of the environment that founder Vincent McCurley wanted to incorporate into his virtual experiment. McCurley states there are two primary reasons behind the decision to formulate a cardboard world: art and performance optimization. He states that he wanted the virtual reality feel to be friendly, not frightening. Our creator felt that a world too realistic could be unsettling to viewers, especially when put in a situation that deals with a potentially fatal car accident. In addition, in the words of McCurley: “I also appreciate the friendly feel. The characters are cute, so you form a bit of an attachment to them.” These words add to the importance of creating a comfortable environment for each user. The second reason for a cardboard world is to ensure performance optimization. Two of the main target platforms for this project include Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, which are both able to run off of mobile phones. Mobile phones, however, are roughly 150 times less powerful than computers. For this reason, McCurley wanted to create a low-quality world that would limit the number of lags and glitches.

Just like the collision in Cardboard Crash, self-automated vehicles are inevitable and may very well be a societal norm. In the coming years, looking deeper into the algorithms that run these vehicles may be the key difference between life and death. By highlighting the importance of ethical decision making in an era of evolving technology, experiments such as Cardboard Crash can help increase passenger safety when developing self-automated vehicles.


Human vs. Ethics vs. Machine was originally published in DST 3880W — Fall 2017 on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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