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Beaming, of a kind, is no longer pure science fiction. It is the name of an international project funded by the European Commission to investigate how a person can visit a remote location via the internet and feel fully immersed in the new environment.
The visitor may be embodied as an avatar or a robot, interacting with real people.
Motion capture technology – such as the Microsoft Kinect games console – robots, 3D glasses and special haptic suits with body sensors can all be used to create a rich, realistic experience, that reproduces that holy grail – “presence”.
Project leader Mel Slater, professor of virtual environments at University College London (UCL), calls beaming augmented reality, rather than virtual reality. In beaming – unlike the virtual worlds of computer games and the Second Life website – the robot or avatar interacts with real people in a real place.
He and his team have beamed people from Barcelona to London, embodying them either as a robot, or as an avatar in a specially equipped “cave”. One avatar was able to rehearse a play with a real actor, the stage being represented by the cave’s walls – screens projecting 3D images.
…this also raises the possibility of new types of crime.
Could beaming increase the risk of sexual harassment or even virtual rape? That is one of many ethical questions that the beaming project is considering, along with the technical challenges.
Law researcher Ray Purdy says you might get a new type of cyber crime, where lovers have consensual sexual contact via beaming and a hacker hijacks the man’s avatar to have virtual sex with the woman.
It raises all sorts of problems that courts and lawmakers may need to resolve. How could a court prove that that amounted to molestation or rape? The human who hacks into an avatar could easily live in another country, under different laws.
The electronic evidence might be insufficient for prosecution. Crimes taking place remotely might sometimes leave digital trails, but they do not leave forensic evidence, which is often vital to secure rape convictions, Purdy says.
“Clearly, laws might have to adapt to the fact that certain crimes can be committed at a distance, via the use of beamed technologies,” he says.
Sexual penetration by a robot part is another possibility. Current law may not go far enough to cover that, Purdy says. And what if a robot injured you with an over-zealous handshake? Or if an avatar made a sexually explicit gesture amounting to sexual harassment?
He argues that using a robot maliciously would be similar in law to using a gun – responsibility lies with the controller. “While it is the gun that fires the bullet, it is the person in control of the gun that commits the act – not the gun itself.”
The Kinect technology, capturing an individual’s gestures, is potentially a powerful tool in the hands of an identity thief, argues Prof Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, California.
“A hacker can steal my very essence, really capture all of my nuances, then build a competing avatar, a copy of me,” he told the BBC. “The courts haven’t even begun to think about that.”
Prof Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at UCL who has been examining ethical issues thrown up by beaming, says there is a risk that such a virtual culture could reinforce body image prejudices.
But equally an avatar could form part of a therapy, he says, for example to show an obese person how he or she might look after losing weight.
As beaming develops, one of the biggest questions for philosophers may be defining where a person actually is – just as it is key for lawyers to determine in which jurisdiction an avatar’s crime is committed.
Even now people are often physically in one place but immersed in a virtual world online.
Avatars challenge the human bond between identity and a physical body.
“My body may be here in London but my life may be in a virtual apartment in New York,” says Haggard. “So where am I really?”