Mark Sagar, Andy Serkis Prompt Questions About Ethics Of Virtual Reality

“I’m just going to step over here, where she can’t see me,” says Mark Sagar, walking off to the side of the stage. “Now it’s like I’ve abandoned her.” On the big screen, the baby starts to look around, worry growing on her chubby face. After a few moments, her eyes fill with tears. 700 people emit a spontaneous, “Awww!” Mark jumps back into frame. “Don’t worry, darling! I’m here. Everything’s OK.” The baby calms down.

Mark, who has won two Scientific and Technical Academy Awards, addresses the crowd. “We can measure all kinds of interactions. Like, I can check what happens if I dial up her dopamine levels. This is like giving the baby cocaine.” She begins to blink rapidly. Her pupils dilate. There’s an uneasy murmur in the crowd.

You’ve probably guessed that this is no ordinary baby. It is, instead, an artificially intelligent virtual baby, one driven by dynamic models of neurobehavior, emotion, motivation, attention, learning, and social interaction. Mark was presenting her at our TEDxChristchurch event two weeks ago. Her name is BabyX -- and she is uncannily real.



So much so, in fact, that many attendees became uncomfortable with Mark’s treatment of her. Is it OK to abandon a baby or give her cocaine just because she isn’t real? Potentially making matters more confusing, BabyX is modeled on Mark’s real-life daughter, Francesca. So where does “realness” begin and end?

Mark isn’t the only one whose work generates questions like these. Last week, The Independent pondered whether an Oscar for the role of Caesar in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" should go to Andy Serkis or the computer that turned him into an ape.

If you think the answer is obvious -- that Andy is the one doing the acting -- the half-hour documentary "Life After Pi" is well worth a watch. It’s a surprisingly heartbreaking look into the broken structure of the visual effects industry from which I learned that “of the 50 highest grossing films of all time, 49 rely on visual effects or animated characters to tell the story.”

And, contrary to The Independent’s headline, it isn’t just a computer by itself that turns Andy into an ape. As Scott Squires, visual effects supervisor for "Star Wars" and "Transformers," says in the film, “It’s not done by the computer. It’s done by a lot of people. There’s a lot of people in the background, working night and day to get the projects done.”

At a certain level, it’s not all that different to wondering whether credit for the Mona Lisa should go to Lisa Gherardini, to da Vinci, or to the brushes and paints he used to do the job.

Back to Mark and his dynamically generated, hyper-realistic humanoid that laughs, cries and learns. The implications and applications are many and varied: from movies and video games to therapeutic interventions for stroke, autism, and more. It will almost certainly be used for porn. And it could be used to realize a fear voiced by actor Jeff Bridges, quoted in that same Independent article: “We’ll be turned into combinations. A director will be able to say: ‘I want 60 per cent Clooney; give me 10 per cent Bridges and throw some Charles Bronson in there.’ ”

And then we’ll get questions even more serious than the issue of who gets the award. Who gets paid? Who agrees to do the porn? What is the age of consent for a virtual porn star? What is it OK and not OK to do with virtual people?

These are more than philosophical musings. As Caesar and BabyX clearly demonstrate, these questions are already confronting us. They have no simple answers, but we have to start tackling them. Our moral compasses depend on it.

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