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MDE#09 How to Speak Up in XR
Interview with XR pioneer Avi Bar-Zeev 💡
⏳ 5 min read
“You have to make a choice, and you have to work hard at making it positive. It doesn’t just happen”—Avi Bar-Zeev.
In this edition of MDE, I had the great pleasure of interviewing XR pioneer Avi Bar-Zeev. For those who don’t know him, he has been at the forefront of XR and the metaverse for over 30 years: from launching Disney’s Aladdin VR ride in the early 90s, to co-founding Keyhole (Google Earth) around 2000, co-inventing Microsoft HoloLens in 2010, helping define Amazon Echo Frames in 2015, and even contributing to Apple in 2016. More recently, he co-founded the XR Guild. Wow!
Check the video below just to get a taste of the early VR times Avi was part of (it’s Disney’s Aladdin VR ride). A vintage piece! ✨
Today, we are focusing on some of the lessons he learned over the years, especially why ethics should be an intrinsic part of XR.
Pay attention to the next lines. Let’s dive in!
How ethics gets intertwined with XR
Avi started in the XR field in the early nineties. These were early times for XR. In my opinion, these were times for advancing XR tech (i.e., computers running 3D graphics) and starting to experiment with the possibilities of XR, rather than times for ethics—which require more technological maturity.
What caught my attention in the discussion with Avi is that even when technologies in early stages are unleashed into the world and users start to play with them, ethics are at the core of the game.
Now, let’s look at some snippets of the stories Avi shared and how ethics played a central role.
🌍 Earth data and terrorism
“How do you put a world inside of a computer? And you make it three-dimensional so as to be able to experience it in real life?”—Avi Bar-Zeev.
As the co-founder of Keyhole, Avi told us that the initial feedback for the platform was excellent, except for a few bad actors that included terrorists. They were reportedly using Google Earth to plan attacks.
In a large pool of users, you can imagine that the majority will use tech in a righteous way. However, a small percentage will use it for destructive purposes, harming the rest.
In the end, technology is a tool. Users have the power to use it for good or evil.
It’s a choice, after all.
👤 Account impersonation
In 2008, Avi joined Microsoft. Within a week of joining, somebody opened a false Facebook account taking his name and a picture from a press release stating that he was joining Microsoft. “Clearly trying to impersonate me.”—Avi Bar-Zeev.
Avi wrote to every Facebook email address he could find without receiving any reply. The only solution he could see was to claim the copyright on the photo.
Under copyright infringement, Facebook finally took the claim seriously.
However, at the time, Facebook had not provided tools for verifying the legitimacy of a user’s account, leaving impersonation as an option for bad actors.
Again, technology is a tool. When deploying it to a large pool of users, ethics should be addressed to prevent situations that can become harmful, especially to sensitive populations such as teenagers.
Since then, Avi opened a Facebook account just to claim that it was the verified one! But he deleted it some years ago…
💥 Getting fired for speaking up
In 2012, while working as a co-founder in a startup that collected personal data from mobile phones, one of the board members at the startup proposed to sell their users’ data. Avi stood up to defend users: “We have to be trustworthy. And it’s not just ethics. It’s a good business decision.” This was before Apple took such a public stand for privacy, so Avi couldn’t point to them as an example.
In the short-term, the company wanted to find a way to sell their users’ data; however, in the long run, being unethical would turn against them: “If our customers don’t trust us, then what kind of business do we have?”
He held true to his principles, soon got fired, and settled the matter via lawyers—a settlement he can’t discuss.
But that’s not all. ☝️
While at Microsoft, he almost got fired for publicly defending WebGL. A VP from another division who disliked WebGL wanted him fired over it. In this case, Avi had the support of his bosses, so he survived.
So what can we do?
These three short stories summarize unaddressed ethical issues in tech. I presented just a taste of Avi’s 30 years of experience.
Here are some of Avi’s recommendations to speak up wisely: 😎
Build a culture that is human-centered. This means putting people and their needs first in the early stages of the design and development process. This can be achieved by answering the following questions: What are we doing for people? How are we helping people? What do they need? How do we make sure they are safe? How do we make sure they are not harmed? These are some of the key questions Avi learned while working at Apple.
Put privacy first. Having a privacy team involved at every stage of the development process is critical to prevent any potential harm to users.
Raise concerns together. It usually takes more than one person to get to a common understanding. Therefore, sharing an ethical matter is better when backed up by several colleagues so that the discussion is not a balance of power between one employee and his/her manager.
Give nine compliments for one criticism to have credibility so that people trust you. Create a space open for constructive criticism.
In the end, these are just some basic principles to raise ethical issues in tech.
Joining a group of like-minded professionals is the best way to go: to share experiences, raise concerns, and back each other up.
👉 Check the XR Guild for more tools and a community of XR professionals speaking about issues and raising ethical concerns.
After all, we do have a choice.
Bye for today!
News of the past month: I spoke at Twin Global gathering at the Royal Institution in London. A conference for innovators “who build trusted relationships across sectors to manifest purpose and impact” founded by the great Rob Wolcott.
Thanks for reading until the end! I am looking forward to having you as part of this expanding community. Just click below 👇 to keep updated on the next ones.