“Emerging technologies” like extended reality, 5G internet, and blockchain are currently emerging faster than policy on them is developing. While this may allow increased experimentation with these technologies, we’ve seen what happened with the last round of emerging technologies like social media when policy lagged behind reality.
Right now, legislation and protections around emerging technologies remain thin, but many, including many within the tech space, think that this needs to change.
The Role of Ethicists and Organizations
In the absence of legislation and policy regarding emerging technologies, in particular, people and agencies interacting with these technologies have the choice of existing in a vacuum of order, or trying to create that order for themselves. Those who take the latter route often do so by connecting novel concerns with less-specific and more familiar issues.
“The process of XR ethics is asking what are these principles informed by human rights concerns,” XR ethics expert Kent Bye explained in a session during last month’s WebXR Business Summit. “Technology companies, and individuals in general, are starting to look at human rights principles.”
For example, there might not be explicit laws governing data collected from an eye-tracking headset, but those who treat this information in the way that we treat sensitive personal or medical information at least have a starting point. For many, it is a matter of companies communicating with their customers and clients through transparent documentation.
But, for some, development and competition are necessary for emerging technologies to develop to the point that they can and should be regulated in meaningful and productive ways. These conversations often take place within or are hosted by standards organizations that promote the adoption of responsible development guidelines by the companies themselves.
The Pace of Emerging Technologies
“The development and deployment of 5G infrastructure will be like a highway with no cars on it if we don’t see the development and deployment of killer apps,” Booz Allen Hamilton’s Gary Barnabo said in a panel on 5G and national policy sponsored by that organization earlier this year.
A recurring theme throughout that panel was that looking at emerging technologies as siloed topics rather than as integrated platforms and solutions limits our understanding of those technologies. Each is more than the sum of its parts and any attempt to legislate, control, or even promote any one of them in isolation will be naturally limited.
“The role the government needs to play is to look at these as so much more than just telecommunications,” said national security and technology expert Joshua Marcuse. “I’m talking about the future of IoT, the future of automation and autonomy, the future of telemedicine, all of these things that we dream about when we think of this sort of the Jetsons future of America.”
Of course, it isn’t just a problem with the pace of policy – it’s a problem with the pace of innovation. While some advocate for laxity in the name of creative development, creative development is already happening faster than ever – particularly when we think of emerging technologies as a network rather than as a basket of assorted industries.
“Even a few years ago these seemed like very niche topics… but the landscape is changing at an amazing pace,” Ellysse Dick, a Policy Analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Forum said in a conference on AR/VR Policy held earlier this month. “The window of opportunity for impactful and effective policy is closing.”
The Pace of Policy
“There is this tug-of-war between the process of innovation and the reactiveness of these laws,” Cyber XR Coalition president Noble Ackerson said during the AR/VR Policy conference. “Lawmakers need to keep the pulse of the pace of these technologies and move from being reactive to being proactive.”
As far as that tug-of-war is concerned, this article has looked at the side of innovation. However, there are complications on the side of laws as well. In the US in particular, this is largely because of the very localized regional nature of even the most sweeping national policies.
“A patchwork of state policies won’t work in a virtual world,” Representative Suzan DelBene said during her keynote at the conference. “To address these problems, we’re going to have to work together to find solutions.”
What’s a Consumer to Do?
Hopefully, this article has done some good by focusing on the heroes. There are some scary agents in the XR world – and they probably seem a lot scarier a lot of the time because there’s so much uncertainty right now. It’s easy to be afraid because, just like policymakers, and just like technologists, each and every one of us is faced daily with explosive changes in tech.
But you’re doing the right thing: reading and learning about emerging technologies. A resounding theme through all of these events and conferences was that the biggest single point where these issues come up is in end-user agreements. Let manufacturers do what they will, let policymakers do what they will, and if all you can do is be informed, then that’s enough.