The tech world is brimming with optimism for our augmented-reality future. But what will happen when flawed, prejudiced people get their hands on these tools?
Racism is ugly to confront, and, like most people, I've got plenty of personal stories. My grandmother, bless her heart, was a wonderful grandmother, but like many Jewish people of her generation, she was incredibly racist, afraid of black people she didn't know. This fear caused her anxiety when she got the urge to go to a favorite restaurant. She loved the food, but, as she would derisively say, so did the schvartze (Yiddish slur for a black person).
What if she didn't have to see the black people at all? This possibility is what worries me about our augmented-reality future, which is (mostly) anticipated with optimism. If grandma had lived to see ubiquitous augmented reality, I suspect she'd put it to dehumanizing use, leaving for the restaurant with her goggles on (a less obtrusive artifact than the Coke bottle glasses she actually wore), programming them to make all dark skinned people look like variations of Larry David and Rhea Pearlman. As Brian Wassom -- who regularly writes on augmented reality -- notes, if apps can "recognize a particular shade of melanin, and replace it with another," racists could one day "live in their own version of...utopia."
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Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and MAGIC Center Head of Research Communications, Community & Ethics, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. Evan publishes extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, privacy, and ethics/policy of science and technology. To enhance public debate about ethics, Evan regularly supplements his peer-reviewed scholarship with outreach articles in places like The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Forbes,The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation.
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