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Is this the real life? Is this technology?

Is this the real life? Is this technology?

The lines between online and offline continue to blur as technology becomes increasingly integrated into real-world activities, augmenting all aspects of business and everyday life.

As a B2B technology PR agency, we’re seeing first-hand how the COVID-19 situation is accelerating digitalisation in an extremely positive way. Business is conducted online as meetings are held via video call, EdTech tools are being implemented to enable remote learning, ecommerce is booming as consumers get accustomed to shopping online, and FinTech tools are enabling contactless payments direct from smartphones.

But digitalisation inevitably raises questions around the ethical use of technology. Our clients often discuss, for instance, the ethical aspects of data collection and storage, as well as how that data is used to feed technologies such as artificial intelligence. The accelerated integration of technology due to COVID-19 is taking the debate around ethical use of technology in a new direction. It is moving the conversation towards the crossover of the real world and digital environments, including how users experience the online world and how offline rules are applied online. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals two-thirds of UK consumers are worried that advances in technology will make it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real – a concern that clearly needs to be addressed.

A case study in virtual sportsmanship

The world of sports simulation and esports provides an interesting and timely case study into the ethical implications of moving between offline and online. Esports is a rapidly growing industry but, as Nathan Lindberg of Twitch explained at a recent IAA webinar, sports simulations don’t usually attract mass viewership like the League of Legends Championship Series because it makes more sense for viewers to watch the real-life version of physical sports. This situation has changed during the COVID-19 lockdown as a lack of sporting events has boosted interest in sports simulation, particularly in motorsport.

Formula 1’s Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, is a storming success with the first five races attracting an estimated 20 million viewers. But the organisers are struggling to maintain their ‘strictly for entertainment purposes’ stance as the drivers become increasingly competitive. Despite the fun and informal set up, the initial light-hearted driver banter of the early races is being replaced by the silence of participants determined to prove themselves as they would on a physical track.

In IndyCar racing, drivers are used to the strict regulations of physical races and the innate need to avoid a collision due to the potentially catastrophic implications. But in the quarantine-inspired IndyCar iRacing Challenge, those same drivers are at loggerheads in an environment where deliberate crashing is permitted and has no real consequences. There is a real fear this aggression could ultimately be brought back to the track once physical races resume.

And the real-life implications of virtual racing are becoming more serious, with Audi sacking one of their racing drivers after he cheated in the Race at Home Challenge, a virtual Formula E racing event for charity. The driver asked a professional gamer to compete in his place, which he felt added to the entertainment factor of a fun event that bore little relation to real racing. But Audi disagreed and felt his actions went against its real-world values of integrity, transparency and consistent compliance with applicable rules.

Technology should enhance the offline world

The above is just a snapshot of the debates that currently surround motor sport simulations, and the questions that are being raised about how seriously the industry should take the virtual versions of its championships. Yet it provides a tangible example of the ethical complexities of integrating the online and offline worlds.

There are numerous other areas of controversy that could be explored, such as the use of artificial intelligence to generate media content. OpenAI recently released a system that can write news stories and works of fiction so human-like it was initially deemed too risky to release due to the potential to generate fake news. At the same time Microsoft plans to use automated systems rather than journalists to select the news stories displayed on its MSN website, potentially making it easier for questionable content to slip through.

Technological development is an overwhelmingly positive trend, addressing real-world challenges, increasing efficiency and pushing the boundaries of possibility. But just like the offline world it needs standards, rules and regulations. It should be used to add value and enhance real life, not to replace it altogether. Technology is not an abstract idea or a force of nature, it is created by people to work for people, and must be used responsibly in a way that will benefit all.

The accelerated shift from offline to online caused by COVID-19 will continue long after associated restrictions are lifted so – as the lines between real life and technology become ever more blurred – it is vital not to lose sight of what technology is intended to do. Today technology IS real life, but it must be deployed in an ethical, regulated manner that enhances and augments the offline world.

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