Virtual reality expert talks building safer digital worlds

Sunday, February 23, 2020 - 6:46pm

Kavya Pearlman, founder of the non-profit Extended Reality Safety Initiative, discusses the importance of developing standards and guidelines for extended reality at the AIM Extended Reality event series in Palmer Commons Friday morning.

Kavya Pearlman, founder of the non-profit Extended Reality Safety Initiative, discusses the importance of developing standards and guidelines for extended reality at the AIM Extended Reality event series in Palmer Commons Friday morning. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

The School of Information and the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan co-sponsored a discussion on how to maintain safety in extended reality technological worlds. UMSI assistant professor Florian Schuab hosted the discussion and featured the expertise of Kavya Pearlman, founder and CEO of XR Safety Initiatives.

Pearlman was a cybersecurity strategist at Wallarm, a former information security director at Linden Lab and a former Facebook third-party security risk advisor. She said her professional experience corroborates with her personal interests in emerging technologies, gaming and virtual worlds. 

Pearlman said because it is abnormal for her to go more than a few days without using virtual reality, it is important to have a governing set of rules for those who go into virtual worlds. She discussed how being a woman as well as a person who wears a hijab has put her at risk of harassment multiple times, including a specific instance of sexual harassment.

“Once when somebody yelled ‘eff’ this, ‘eff’ that at me,” Pearlman said, “I did not step into VR for three days; three days is quite a long time for me to not go into VR … Talking about assaulting a child avatar is awful but these are things that have happened … We have to set standards for ethics code of conduct.”

Pearlman later discussed how these technologies can expose people to more vulnerable scenarios. She shared a video of a virtual reality program that allows a person to interact with a deceased relative, which in this case was a woman’s young daughter.

“Somebody is going to exploit our emotions to create this type of technology, to create addictive technology,” Pearlman said, “and when you combine that with robotics, artificially-intelligent personas, I mean, you really could just bring the dead back and then we have to answer our own humanity, our own ethical question. Do we want to live forever?”

The video was very compelling to some audience members such as Evan Straub, an employee with the Center for Academic Innovation, who said as a mother, she would be very emotionally affected by this experience if she was in the mother's place. 

“The video of the mom interacting with her deceased child was so powerful,” Straub said. “As a mother myself, it was actually gut-wrenching to me and something I hadn't thought of before.”

Pearlman says virtual experiences may release the same hormones an analogous real-life experience would release. Thus, Pearlman said addiction might be an issue.

“Addiction is a huge risk that is coming for us,” Pearlman said, “... All of this data is going to be put into advertisements, the very root of it is where we gaze and this ‘gaze data’ is going to be used to sell stuff to you that you just can’t even deny. So, we really have to think about building a spectator culture; reinventing the culture is what is necessary.”

Pearlman said these issues must be solved in order to maintain users’ well-being and to keep them safe. She spoke about how these issues are inescapable.

“You probably would not be able to get away from the internet because the companies that make these goods (that they’re advertising), they’re making it so compelling,” Pearlman said. “They’re using your own behavior to sell it back to you; they're making it addictive.”

Marcus Ong, web applications developer for the University, said he was shocked at how complex the intersection between the law and new technologies is. 

“There is so much legal struggle against technology that is going on right now,” Ong said.

Daily Staff Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at jsiteman@umich.edu