Author:
Ian Napthali

Virtual Reality offers unlimited potential for military training and application, but there are profound ethical, moral, psychological and legal challenges to overcome before it can be put to widespread use.

Military use of Virtual Reality (VR) is increasing. Uses range from individual training to the design of platforms (Lele 2011). The potential uses are almost limitless. However, there are ethical, moral, psychological and legal challenges to its widespread use. The military must meet these challenges if we are to maximise the advantages that VR brings. This article will provide a brief consideration of how some of these issues may manifest in two potential uses of VR.

This article will briefly examine potential ethical challenges for the military’s current use of VR, individual training, and a potential future use. The intent for this article is not to identify all potential issues, nor solutions for them, but rather act as a primer so that Defence can make use of the benefits of VR, while considering the potential challenges.

Background

VR and Augumented Reality (AR) are technologies that either replace or alter users’ perception of reality. VR seeks to replace physical reality with one generated by a computer, normally through head-mounted displays, audio headsets and hand controls. AR seeks to introduce digital objects into the user’s perception of the physical world. The technology used for AR includes smartphones, head-mounted displays and tablets (Carter and Egliston 2020).

VR is designed to be immersive for the user. The user is supposed to feel as though they are embodied in a virtual world that may, or may not, reflect reality. Such embodiment is normally achieved through visual and auditory stimulation. Technologies such as displays that are evermore compact and the Teslasuit, which can provide full body haptic feedback, mean that the person within the virtual environment now feels transported to another world and is physically interacting with objects and avatars within it (Purtill 2021). Flaim Trainer, developed at Deakin University, making use of consumer level VR headsets along with a firefighting topcoat incorporating heating elements, is highly effective at immersing a trainee into a firefighting scenario (FLAIM Systems n.d.). The most immersive systems, while currently very expensive, also include olfactory stimulation replicating the smells experienced by a user. Even consumer level VR equipment (eg the Valve Index VR Kit available for $999) can provide a highly immersive environment (Greenwald 2021). This very immersion is the genesis of the challenges faced.

VR as a Source of Injury

In 2017, I deployed to Afghanistan as an Air Advisor within Train Advise Assist Command – Air (TAAC-Air). The duties of an Air Advisor included interacting with Afghan Air Force (AAF) Officers in a challenging and culturally sensitive manner. The threat of an insider attack during an advising mission was real and persistent. In 2011, NACT-A, the forerunner to TAAC-Air, lost nine advisors in a single insider attack. Advisors train for such scenarios during the Individual Skills Enhancement Training (ISET). Access to suitable role players, who could act as an AAF officer, is low in Australia and thus there were only a small number of opportunities to train for advising missions. Due to the limited availability of suitably qualified and experienced role players and the requirement for both the trainer and trainee to wear PPE, the training scenario is not immersive. Participants know it is not real. VR could have provided a means to enhance and increase the training opportunities. Making use of an artificial intelligence (AI) driven avatar or by a role player whose virtual avatar was an AAF officer, the trainee would see the avatar, rather than someone dressed in protective equipment. Immersing trainees in the environment of sitting in an office on an Afghan Air Force base (a common advising scenario), would significantly enhance the training and experience; in particular, the soft skills used in advising missions and knowledge of cultural cues (Kenwright 2018). The script for such a scenario could include the trainee advisor causing a significant cultural offence or a failure to detect cues of an impending insider attack. While there may be a reduction in the realism (it is currently very difficult to simulate a physical hand-to-hand attack in VR, although the Teslasuit can simulate the pain felt by impact), it should be possible to immerse the trainee into a virtual environment that closely resembles the operational environment, including the use of firearms.

Is it acceptable for a scenario to play out all the way to an insider attack incident in which the avatar was to attack the trainee, who was, in a virtual sense, fatally or severely injured? Research indicates that when faced with fear-inducing stimuli in a virtual world, participants will experience psychological and physiological responses consistent with experiencing similar stimuli in real life (Kisker J 2021). Subjecting an individual to a traumatic event within a VR environment will likely be highly confronting. This would be particularly the case where the event involves a traumatic injury to themselves and the user cannot stop the scenario. Users of a working-at-heights VR training system have reported that falling to their “virtual” death was traumatising (Henno 2019).

The counter to this is that VR exposure to certain stressors and training in how to respond can be an inoculation against them. Such treatment is normally under the supervision of mental health professionals who in scripting the experience know what triggers the user is being inoculated for. Such a method has been trialled in a number of militaries as part of preparation for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan (Hourani, et al. 2011).

Virtual Reality and Unacceptable Behaviour

Another use of VR involves multiple users inhabiting avatars, along with AI generated characters, within a virtual world. Such a scenario is familiar to players of multiplayer online games. Rather than a physical assault, as mentioned above, it is possible that a user may choose to carry out an act of unacceptable behaviour on either an avatar or an AI generated character. Writing in a blog post, Jordon Belamire detailed an event of virtual groping by a fellow player within a multiplayer online VR game (Belamire 2016). The very immersion that makes VR so useful and entertaining caused Belamire to feel as if she had been assaulted in real life. Surveys of users playing VR games indicate that up to 49% of female and 38% of male users have experienced similar (Carter and Egliston 2020). This raises a significant issue for an increased adoption of VR for training. Do our current discipline and support frameworks regarding unacceptable behaviour account for incidents such as this? And how would a similar act against an AI generated character, rather than a user’s avatar, be managed? Can a human assault a computer generated character? It is vital that this be considered in developing the framework and governance in which the use of VR will be regulated. Input beyond training design, operators and system design is required. Legal professionals must be involved in this in order to ensure that appropriate action can be taken when such incidents occur.

Due to the immersive nature of VR, an individual may not fully leave emotional distress behind when ’returning’ to the real world. It has been established that young adults, a key training audience in the military, may have greater difficulty in this re-entry process (Kenwright 2018). It is possible that the very concept touted as the panacea of many training problems due to its ability to be highly realistic and immersive with little risk of physical injury, may for some individuals actually cause mental and moral injury.

VR and Embodiment

A study involving children who, in VR, went swimming with orcas, showed they believed weeks later they had actually swum with orcas. The sense of embodiment within their virtual body was such that it was difficult to separate the virtual from the real. (Kenwright 2018) This sense of embodiment could also pose potential issues for military training using VR.

There is a potential inability for the trainee to separate from a traumatic VR experience upon return to the real world. As described above, memory and emotions remain following the use of VR. This has been used as part of rehabilitation for PTSD, arguably a positive use. However, it is possible that the reverse could also occur. If a user’s sense of embodiment is sufficiently real, and they have insufficient ability to stop the VR scenario, there is potential that the experience may cause PTSD (Kenwright 2018). In order to avoid this there must be careful scenario design, incorporating input from mental health professionals and screening of trainees to ensure that exposure to VR is positive and achieves the training outcomes without causing harm.

Another issue relates to the user’s sense of embodiment within their avatar and in particular the physical characteristics (gender, strength, race, size) of the avatar. Due to embodiment, VR users can believe that the characteristics of their avatar are reflective of their own physical body. In certain situations this may be useful. If the purpose of the training is to develop empathy with someone of a different gender, then placing a trainee in an avatar of that gender may have that effect. The counter to this is that placing someone within an avatar that doesn’t reflect their physical attributes may lead to psychological issues or problematic behaviours in real life (Ananthaswamy 2016).

Interrogation, a potential use of VR

The potential uses of VR are limitless. However, are there uses that should remain in the imagination? In the dystopian cyberpunk Netflix series, Altered Carbon, the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is subject to torture within a VR environment. While physically unharmed, he believes that his limbs fracture and surgery is conducted without anaesthesia, with all the attendant pain. Is such a use of VR possible, or is it too disturbing to contemplate? Clearly Hollywood writers and sci-fi authors have considered it. Jose Mocando, in writing on use of VR as punishment, raises the potential of that very use (Moncada 2020). While the use of physical torture, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, hooding, sensory deprivation and physical mistreatment, within most Western militaries is forbidden, could the use of VR be viewed as a way of making a prisoner believe they are being subjected to one or more of these techniques, without it actually happening? The answer now is ‘possibly’. Developments in haptics, the stimulation of the sense of touch, are advancing and becoming lower in cost. Mocando raises the example of a prisoner with a fear of spiders being put into a VR ’cell’. The VR system introduces a spider into the cell each day. Eventually there may be hundreds of spiders within the cell, which the prisoner sees on the walls and feels crawling across their skin due to a haptic suit. On one hand, this a simulation: the spiders are not real and the prisoner is in no physical danger. On the other, this is very close to approaching mental torture (Moncada 2020). If the military was to consider using VR, either for conduct after capture training or for the questioning of detainees, it must consider effects beyond the potential for physical harm and that it could cause significant mental injury. It will be vital that mental health experts and legal professionals provide input in the design and use of any such system.

Conclusion

There is growing demand for military use of VR. At the 2019 Navy Industry & Academia Conference, nearly every presentation pitched VR or AR as the solution to many of the Navy’s training problems. None touched on potential issues. However, even the small subset presented in this article raises a number of possibly significant and harmful issues. VR has the potential to become an immensely powerful tool for the military. Like any tool, it must be fit for purpose. Due to the unique immersive nature of VR, it is essential that input beyond engineers, training specialists and system designers is gathered. Input from ethicists, psychologists, human factors specialists and legal practitioners will ensure that no harm occurs to personnel using VR and that the military can make the most of it.

Biography

Commander Ian Napthali is an Aerospace Engineering Officer in the Royal Australian Navy. A 2014 graduate of ACSC, Ian holds a Masters in Military & Defence Studies and Engineering Science (Aerospace) along with a BEng (Electrical). Ian has held diverse positions including Naval helicopter squadrons, Headquarters Joint Operations Command, Naval Command HQ Portsmouth and Defence Aviation Safety Authority. Ian has deployed to Afghanistan and is currently one of the Directing Staff for the Australian Command and Staff Course.

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