The year is 2038. Someone’s hacked into your FutureBook account, and they’re impersonating you, but it’s not just words on a screen. Your digital avatar trolling other users on this social virtual reality platform, trolling and poking and harassing. It’s terrible.

And when social VR inevitably expands beyond the walled gardens of social media platforms, the odds of someone hacking your account to commit more serious crimes — while posing as your digital avatar with your actual face all the while — go higher. It’s a likelihood, as recent identity theft cases have shown.

Social virtual reality has the potential to be a nightmare when it comes to fraud, which is why the world’s largest technical professional organization is working to stop that from happening.

Enter the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which this month released the second draft of its “Ethically Aligned Design” guide. The guide is aimed at getting developers to consider those far-flung scenarios as they develop increasingly advanced artificial intelligence. The document is the work of 13 expert committees from the “Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.” Each group looked at a different aspect of A.I. development to make recommendations. For this year’s document, the team added five new committees: wellbeing, mixed reality, policy, classical ethics and affective computing.

Right now, your social media profile is just flat words and images on a screen. In the future, with a digital avatar like the one you see below, it could become something more. If you’re always wearing your augmented reality goggles, interacting with your friend’s FutureBook avatar will invariably feel less removed than reading a status update. With this change, our ideas of time, space and identity could shift dramatically. Oculus, the virtual reality company owned by Facebook, has been developing social virtual reality for some time, which means those scenarios might not be so far-flung after all.

A look at social virtual reality being developed by Facebook-owned Oculus.

Jay Iorio, director of innovation for the IEEE Standards Association, tells Inverse augmented reality is the technology that will enable a blossoming of social VR:

I think that once you move into a visor-type tech, like a HoloLens or the next step with contact lenses, whatever it turns out to be, something that gives you full field of view, then you actually have the display for this new sort of distributed computer if you will, this intelligent sense that permeates and follows you around has to be displayed in some way, and AR is really the current technology to do that.

Iorio’s colleague, Monique Morrow, another member of the IEEE Standards Association, tells Inverse that AR could be used for crime and impersonation. She referenced Minority Report, the Phillip K. Dick sci-fi book about a “pre-crime” police squad that convicts people for crimes they haven’t yet committed. It was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Tom Cruise that adds the element of virtual reality.

“Could I be profiling you for a future crime? Think about the movie Minority Report.” “In a mixed reality scenario, a user may see a photo-realistic avatar committing a crime, and it may be a real crime or a simulation.”

If anyone understands the crucial role of identity in ethics, it’s Morrow. Formerly Cisco’s chief technology officer of services, she co-founded Humanized Internet earlier this year to provide refugees and stateless people with digital identity. Business Worldwide named her 2016 visionary of the year for technology, social change and ethics. In July, she gave a TEDx talk in Geneva on the role of identity and dignity.

It’s not unreasonable to think about these digital realms developing social cues, as people work inside the technological boundaries of their digital avatars. The committee recommends widespread educational classes to highlight the importance of human connection.

“I think we like to think we’re more in control of our lives than we really are.”

“I think we like to think we’re more in control of our lives than we really are, and a lot of significant things that happen to us are, for lack of a better word, random,” Iorio says. This could cover something as small as missing your train, or forcing yourself to go to a party you didn’t feel like. “This randomness is sort of the fabric of life, but as soon as you decide to go into the digital realm, you really have to define every aspect of it.”

Developers will need to consider a wide range of social implications before it’s too late. Randomness can make life exciting, but a loss of agency in virtual worlds could distress people. A well-designed world could have the potential to improve people’s well-being, and even transform education. It could lead to a flourishing of creative projects, sparking new questions around the ownership of works. The notion of consistent, ubiquitous recording could lead to new privacy issues. Philosophical questions, blurred between virtual and real worlds, could surface.

“What is death?” Morrow says. “If you have decided to say that your consciousness is now in some form of software, and you wanna say farewell to the people who have graduated to another dimension, death…you may have this creation of an avatar that is a copy of yourself or of the person that you love. Now we have to define what death is, and what is alive. That becomes somewhat of a legal definition, but also a cultural definition.”

It’s hard to imagine getting that attached to virtual avatars, mostly because they still look like weird toy people. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was widely criticized for his “virtual visit” to Puerto Rico in October, as the cartoonish grins felt out-of-place in the Hurricane Maria-struck surroundings:

Zuckerberg in Puerto Rico.
Zuckerberg "in" Puerto Rico.

While Zuckerberg’s visit was widely condemned as inappropriate in the context of current social norms, Iorio doesn’t see photorealism as a major hurdle to a shift in cultural perceptions.

“It’s kind of easy to fool the brain,” Iorio says, thinking of his experiences with the online virtual world Second Life. “That’s very clunky and cartoonish, yet still you end up with a much more emotional attachment with the avatars I was dealing with over time than in a text-based environment.”

If getting that engrossed in a virtual world confined to a headset sounds farfetched, it’s maybe worth considering the role of the smartphone in everyday lives. It’s an object separate from us, but one that we use to navigate the digital realm. Similar to how it’s hard to imagine getting around without a smartphone, it could become an irritating inconvenience to leave the house without your HoloGoggles.

Just make sure you choose a secure FutureBook password.

The Global Initiative has released the document for public consumption, and it’s now asking for user feedback to shape future releases. The deadline to send comments is March 12, 2018.