Image: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media
A VR experience shows the cruelty of animal testing. Future technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence could soon end the torment.
Animal testing is cruel, regardless of its benefits. The unnatural conditions in the laboratory alone cause enormous suffering, not to mention the agony involved in the experiments. Everyone should be aware of this. But words rarely penetrate the consciousness as deeply as moving images or experiences.
That’s why Abduction uses the heightened immersion of virtual reality. The VR experience puts us in the shoes of helpless laboratory animals and once again raises the question: Is this really necessary?
In addition to common sense, perhaps virtual reality and artificial intelligence can help provide the answer. Future technologies could even eliminate the requirement to use animals in medical research.
Abduction: Become a lab animal yourself
The VR experience of Abduction involves a change of perspective and starts from an interesting thought construct. Humans see themselves as a superior species and therefore dominate flora and fauna at will. But what happens when a man loses his status as the crowning glory of creation and suddenly has to subordinate himself?
In Abduction, a highly developed alien species uses its intellectual and technological superiority to carry out cruel experiments on humans, placing you right in the middle of it.
You experience abduction from your natural habitat and existence as an experimental animal. On a spaceship, you’ll be mercilessly placed in lab cages, subdued by force, and forced to watch as your fellow prisoners are subjected to cruel experiments before your turn comes.
The VR experience is meant to be eye-opening
Abduction was developed by VR studio Prosper XR in collaboration with the animal rights group PETA. The VR experience is based on real-life events at Tulane and Loyola Universities, where laboratory animals were cruelly tortured and mutilated.
The animal welfare organization is traveling to these two very universities in the US with Abduction to raise awareness among students. “Many students don’t know that on their own college campuses, frightened and confused animals are being tormented, mutilated, and killed in cold, barren laboratories, with no way to escape or even understand what’s happening to them,” says PETA Senior Director Rachelle Owen.
The goal, she says, is to “open young people’s eyes to this cruelty, help them understand what it feels like, and motivate them to join our call for a switch to superior, non-animal research.” One way to do this could be through the advancement of new technologies.
Animal testing is considered inefficient
Dr. Gaby Neumann of the Doctors Against Animal Experiments association describes how inefficient animal testing is, especially in drug development. Fewer than one in ten drugs that are successful in animal testing actually receive market approval — a shockingly low rate.
According to Neumann, this is mainly due to the lack of transferability of animal test results to sick humans. Artificial intelligence could work much more efficiently here and make animal testing obsolete in the near future.
AI system replaces animal testing in drug development
Since the beginning of last year, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Debiopharm has been focusing on human-based drug development, driven by machine learning.
VeriSIM Life, founded in 2017, developed the AI system “BIOiSIM” for this purpose. A digital twin of the human demonstrates how drugs behave in the body when taken via the skin, orally, or as an injection.
At the same time, the AI system simulates drug interactions throughout the body every hundredth of a second, generating critical drug information such as organ toxicity or drug metabolism. The system delivers predictions within seconds without any animal testing.
“A pharmaceutical company’s investment in artificial intelligence is definitely forward-looking,” says Dr. Gaby Neumann. “Because this supports a method that uses human data instead of relying on unsafe animal testing.” Pharmaceutical companies have recognized – albeit for economic reasons – that there are more efficient methods than animal testing for drug development, she said.
VR with huge potential in medicine
Back in 2016, the University of Chicago Hospital replaced animal testing with virtual reality. By implementing VR training, for example, surgical training operations were performed in VR headsets instead of on real pigs.
The benefit to humans is that students can practice standard procedures in virtual reality on human anatomy as often as they like and develop routines. The amount of supervision required is reduced, and students gain self-confidence and feel more confident about performing real operations. It is not without reason that market researchers predict that there’s potential for virtual reality in medicine to become a billion-dollar market.
In addition to training apps for surgeons, VR can also be used as an anesthetic. In the UK, hospitals are already performing the first VR surgeries, and therapists are relieving chronic pain with VR headsets.