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Addressing Prejudice and Bias with VR and AI

Researchers in the United States are promoting better understanding across cultures using artificial intelligence (AI) in a virtual reality (VR) game that addresses prejudice.

In the game, players were pushed to put themselves in another person’s perspective to understand their point of view. Recognising flaws and biases is critical to creating understanding across cultures.

The researchers use the programme to challenge participants’ prejudices, such as racism and xenophobia and potentially produce a more inclusive approach to others.

“On the Plane” is a VR RPG (role-playing game) that allows players to take on new roles in the first person that may be outside of their personal experiences, allowing them to combat in-group/out-group bias by adding new perspectives into their understanding of diverse cultures.

Players can take on the role of persons from diverse backgrounds while flying on an aeroplane, interacting in dialogue with others and responding to a series of prompts in-game. In turn, the outcomes of a tense conversation between the characters regarding cultural differences are controlled by the player’s choices. In one scenario, the game depicts xenophobia directed at a Malaysian American woman, but the technique can be extended.

Players can interact with one of three characters: Sarah, a first-generation Muslim American of Malaysian descent who wears a headscarf; Marianne, a white woman from the Midwest with minimal exposure to other cultures and customs; or a flight attendant. Sarah symbolises the out-group, Marianne is an in-group member, and the flight attendant is a bystander seeing an exchange between the two passengers.

“This project is part of our attempts to use virtual reality and artificial intelligence to solve social problems like bigotry and xenophobia,” Caglar Yildirim, an MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) research scientist and co-game designer on the project explained.

The interaction between the two passengers will provide players with first-hand knowledge of how one passenger’s xenophobia presents itself and how it impacts the other passenger. The simulation encourages critical thinking and fosters empathy for the traveller who was ”othered” since her dress was not so ”typical” of how an American should look.

D. Fox Harrell, MIT Professor of Digital Media and AI at CSAIL, the Programme in Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS), and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and Founding Director of the MIT Centre for Advanced Virtuality, collaborated with Yildirim on the project.

“While a simulation cannot offer someone another person’s actual experiences, a system like this can help individuals observe and understand patterns at work when it comes to issues like bias,” opined Harrell, a Co-author and Designer on this project.

The engaging, immersive, interactive tale aspired to emotionally influence people, allowing users’ perspectives to be modified and widened. This simulation also uses an interactive narrative engine, which generates a variety of answers to in-game encounters based on a model of how people are classified socially.

The tool allows participants to change their position in the simulation by responding to each prompt with the appropriate response. Their feelings for the other two characters will be influenced by their decisions.

“On the Plane” uses artificial intelligence knowledge representation techniques managed by probabilistic finite state machines, a tool often used in machine learning systems for pattern recognition, to animate each avatar. The AI can customise the characters’ body language and gestures.

Harrell and Co-author Sercan Sengün called for virtual system designers to be more inclusive of Middle Eastern identities and cultures in a 2018 study based on work done in partnership between MIT CSAIL and the Qatar Computing Research Institute. They argued that allowing users to personalise virtual avatars that indicate their background will enable players to engage in a more supportive experience. “On the Plane” four years later achieves a similar goal, bringing a Muslim’s perspective into an immersive experience.

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