There’s a world around us few can see. It exists alongside our physical reality. It can enhance our understanding beyond the five senses, and it even manipulates our perceptions.
It is a realm in which those who tap into it can find great power, and those who embrace it can have their lives changed in nearly unimaginable ways. This is the world of augmented reality.
The Humble Beginnings of the Revolution
The week of July 6, 2016, marked an unexpected turning point in the history of technology and humankind. In the days that followed, millions of people around the world began wandering the streets, phones in hand, looking for stuff that didn’t really exist.
They were playing a revolutionary game called “Pokemon Go.”
For decades, sci-fi movies like Minority Report created fantastic pictures of what a world powered by augmented reality could look like, but it was the simple smartphone game that provided the initial firsthand introduction to the concept of augmented reality for millions.
The game itself is simple: Using GPS maps on their phones, players look for Pokemon hiding nearby. When their phone’s camera is pointed in the direction where the Pokemon is, players see it on the phone screen, floating on top of the actual ground in front of the player. From there, the objective is to “catch” them all.
But “Pokemon Go” isn’t simply revolutionary for its unique game play, but because of what it represents. For the first time on a large scale, millions of people broke down the barrier separating the digital and natural worlds.
Devices like Google Glass—which projects images and data onto the lens of actual glasses like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terminator eye—had long been released, but nothing caught on like the phenomenon of “Pokemon Go,” which became one of the most successful apps of all time.
The game is based on a harmless—and pretty ridiculous—concept, but the technology that it uses has some of the world’s foremost researchers, futurists and ethicists deeply concerned about what lies ahead.
The Bigger Issues
“As soon as you start talking about technology in the future, you’re talking about ethics—whether you use the term or whether you don’t,” says ethicist Nigel Cameron, the president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies and the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Science and Society at the University of Ottawa, Canada. “Partly because there are, of course, such profound ethical questions bound up in all of these technologies, because they are all ways of leveraging power of people ultimately. And partly, because ultimately, values drive value.”
The bottom line, Cameron says, is these powerful technologies are driven by the personal values of consumers.
“It’s going to be investors and capital markets that mainly determine what happens with these technologies,” he explains. “And the way to get the attention of those people is to point out that people’s values actually drive the value that they give to products.”
The implication is this: Though the idea for any emerging technology may be based on purely utilitarian or altruistic motivations—digitally connecting people with the world around them and furthering the enabling of their own personal values—the people and commercial entities funding innovation ultimately have a financial stake.
At the end of the day, how can this new technology be used to sell consumers products or provide corporations with valuable data about buying habits? Can the physical world around us be even more programmed to gear our thinking into constant consumption?
Jolene Creighton thinks a lot about these kinds of questions. She’s the editor-in-chief at Futurism magazine and is a well-known speaker, researcher and university professor who specializes in emerging technologies.
“If we’re looking at specifically brain hacking, down the road the idea would be to kind of have these Minority Report-like implants: Basically you would have implants in the brain that would augment your vision,” she explains. “So instead of seeing a white wall, say there’s a building that you’re walking past, it’s just a plain white building, it could have individualized projections based on who you are.”
She thinks it’s basically an extension of how e-commerce already works.
“So, much the same way Facebook has targeted ads on their site … a building could have ads that as you walk by, they are catered toward you,” she explains.
However Creighton doesn’t think these predictions should overshadow the benefits of augmented reality, and the promise that a digitized vision of the world could hold.
She points to an example of a plumber, years into the future, helping a homeowner utilizing augmented reality glasses: “You put on these glasses; you connect with them via Skype or some other messaging service and they can literally draw on the wall in front of you in order to show you what you need to do to sort of fix the plumbing issue.”
She also points to the revolutionary educational possibilities: “Other applications involve things in the classroom, where students are able to not just see a picture of Niagara Falls or some alien world like Venus—we have maps from our various spacecrafts of Mars and Venus that would allow students not just to hear about far-off places, but will allow them to scroll around the world at will.”
Still, there are also growing concerns about how augmented reality-equipped devices and infrastructure will infringe on individuals’ privacy. After all, augmented reality is predicated on the ability to detect and triangulate precise locations, utilize facial-recognition technology and to put tiny cameras literally everywhere.
Creighton says this will force new legislation and mobilize activists concerned about privacy to ask big questions.
“Is the company in control of that technology allowed to keep what you record as you’re walking around? Are they allowed to sell what you record as you’re walking around?” she asks. “There’s a lot of concern that governments starting from the state level all the way up to the federal level and even local governments will have to determine. But, of course, a lot of these conversations are driven by individuals, and I think throughout history we have seen that when people truly mobilize and form movements behind issues that they truly care about, we can drive conversation and also political action.”
This kind of action will be necessary. At least according to Jon Fisher, the CEO and co-founder of the company CrowdOptic, known for its cutting-edge augmented reality products—some of which have sparked major breakthroughs. Their technology is currently the single patented solution utilized in wearable devices like Google Glass.
Fisher says it’s not inconceivable that in the future, more products—meant to safeguard your privacy in a world constantly being scanned by tiny sensors or cameras—would also be prevalent.
“You have to realize our privacy and security is out the window with stuff like this—not my stuff in particular—but with AR and VR to identify people’s faces and to identify all kind of characteristics,” he explains. “My wife and I have a 7-year-old, and maybe the next invention will be a type of sunblock to protect her from all these types of crazy technology. And I think that’s the downside with all the great improvements; we are going to have defend her against all the crazy types of technology as far as security goes.”
The concerns on a consumer level are multifaceted—with both commercial and socially beneficial implications. But, for the Christian who is concerned with the ethical and the biblical, what are the spiritual ramifications of modifying the design of God’s creation?
There’s a major difference between virtual reality and augmented reality.
Virtual reality is based on the ability to overtake an individual’s primary senses. Nothing you experience with a VR headset is actually “real.” You are virtually taken somewhere else entirely.
Augmented reality, however, isn’t concerned with supplanting reality; it instead attempts to enhance it.
Either through projections—via a smartphone screen, car windshield or glasses, like ones currently being developed by companies like Google and Snapchat—or, in the future, some sort of neurological or optical implant, augmented reality works with the world around you.
The technology overlays what people see with digital images associated with real-world landmarks.
Unlike virtual reality, AR messes with how you see the world. In a sense, it augments the way God designed people to perceive the world. But what does that mean in relationship to our Creator?
“My criteria that I bring to these things, within the Christian context specifically, is the image of God,” Cameron says. “Within a public context I’m talking about human dignity and humans flourishing, and my question, ‘Is this basically good or bad for the human? … Is it making us more or less human? Is it enabling our human capacities to be more fully unfolded or is it diminishing them, by turning us into something more like a machine?’”
When it comes to the biblical ethic behind the coming advancements into the AR revolution, Cameron sees two competing philosophies—each with different spiritual implications.
Are these technologies enhancing God’s design, or are they concerned with ultimately replacing it with a less “inferior” technology?
To people on Cameron’s side of the debate, the truly exciting part of “brain-hacking” technologies like augmented reality isn’t its ability to replace parts of our brains and thinking with software—it’s to better understand the brain God has already given us.
Cameron references an ongoing debate with “transhumanist” philosophers, who are proponents of the possible benefits of a future humanity merged with technology.
“I would always say to them, ‘Why are you not more interested with this human thing and what we could do with this human thing before you want to leave it behind?’” he says. “It seems to me if we can see these technology developments essentially as ways to hack into humanness, and discover more about our humanness and our human abilities … If the intent of this is to enable us to be more fully human and develop our human characteristics, then I think that will be all well and good. But I think the answer does not lie in distinguishing between the digital and the analog, or the real world and the unreal world.”
Having to decide where the line is in the merger of the human brain and augmented reality devices may seem like a far-off concern. But these realities may be closer than you think.
The Coming Reality
Experts across the spectrum agree that there are very real considerations to be made when embracing, developing and legislating how augmented reality will be incorporated into lives. But they also agree on another point—augmented reality is the future.
And, for Nigel Cameron, that’s a reason not to be fearful; but to be hopeful.
“We have to have non-naive optimism in these discussions,” he says. “I think we need to have an optimism and look to the future as a human future, and have this fundamental criteria: What is good for humans? What makes us more human rather than less human? And how can technology ultimately serve the purposes which Scripture tells us, as Christians, that God has had—that we might indeed flourish as a human community and serve Him.”
The message of the Gospel requires that Christians seek the merger of two worlds: On earth as it is in heaven.
Augmented reality is based on the idea that the digital can merge with the organic, and the world of the unseen can be projected before us.
On the surface, these are two completely independent concepts, but with the optimistic approach Cameron encourages, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Augmented reality holds untapped promises to heal the sick, help the poor and connect communities around the world.
Creighton says that this technology could give people the ability to do things “like make brain-computer interfaces that will allow you to connect to computers, making things like mobile storage devices so you can store memories externally and doing those really remarkable, moonshot things.”
What if doctors could operate on patients at long distances? What if we could see virtual projections of a brain tumor to better understand ways to treat cancer? What if augmented reality interfaces could help humanitarians better assist victims of disasters?
“This is not all taking God by surprise, you know,” Cameron says. “I think we have to work on the assumption—[that whatever you believe about] creation and evolution—humans have not been around for that long at all, and we have to make the assumption that we are likely to be around in a thousand years time, and possibly in a million years time, and possibly a billion years time. What will it mean to be human in those technological contexts? We have to be open to having that conversation.”
This is a big conversation that can’t be ignored, but it’s about more than technology. It’s about bringing together the world of the unseen with the one in front of our eyes.