Nuclear weapons dangers are increasing across the globe, with growing arsenals, new weapon systems, plans for using nuclear weapons even earlier in a crisis, and a collapse of long-standing arms control treaties.
To address these concerns, researchers at Princeton University are using virtual reality (VR) in an effort to better understand and explain nuclear risks and to foster the development of the next generation of arms control measures.
Working on three different VR projects, the team — based at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security (SGS) in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — hopes to change the way scholars and the public think about nuclear crises as well as develop new forms of collaboration to improve future nuclear treaty inspections.
The first project uses VR in an experimental psychological study of decision-making in a nuclear crisis. Participants experience being a decision-maker briefed on a threat involving nuclear weapons and must make a decision about how to respond within a matter of minutes “where things are very uncertain, but the consequences are really high,” said Sharon Weiner, associate professor of international relations at American University and a visiting researcher at SGS. “With this technology, you can help people feel like they are really present in a crisis situation and use that to understand their behavior in that situation in reality,” Weiner said.
The project hopes to reveal what people’s motivations are when making crucial decisions about using nuclear weapons and what it might take to avoid a strike that can kill large numbers of people. “The goal is to give people a hands-on experience to understand the problem with nuclear weapons and the danger we face, but also the opportunities we have to control the situation,” said Moritz Kütt, a former SGS postdoctoral researcher who now is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg in Germany.
The second virtual reality project is a documentary titled “38 Minutes” on the 2018 missile crisis in Hawaii where the state received a false alert that a nuclear strike was going to occur. Created with Games for Change, a nonprofit organization, and two VR production companies, Archer’s Mark and Atlas V, this VR experience “places” users in the Hawaii crisis. Using emotionally compelling personal narratives from the actual crisis in Hawaii, the team shows viewers the dangers of current nuclear policies.
“We hope that viewers will connect with the issue and carry that feeling with them going forward so that when they see things in the news, they will feel more compelled to weigh in on those questions,” said Tamara Patton, a Ph.D. in Public Affairs candidate in the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy cluster at the Wilson School and member of SGS. Patton, a native of Hawaii, said, “We hope through this experience to trigger empathy, so that people see that weapons are not only an issue of national security but also one of human security.”
The third project uses VR as a research tool to advance inspection protocols for nuclear weapons and create new collaborations with international partners. The virtual space creates visual representations of nuclear weapons, facilities, and technologies used in verifying the way nuclear weapons are dismantled.
“With VR becoming a much more easily available and more powerful technology, we saw this as an opportunity to use it to enable a new form of collaboration. It is a safe space where we can try out things that we haven’t done before. There is no risk involved,” said Alexander Glaser, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and international affairs and co-director of SGS.
When conducting an arms control inspection, it is often difficult to create the procedures and orders that inspectors and the hosts must strictly follow, Kütt said. “We realized VR can be used to allow people to negotiate, test, and develop these protocols and use VR as a collaborative space across borders.”
The project brings together governments, researchers, and even students to learn and try out new approaches in nuclear treaties to advance nuclear arms control. “We’re at a time in our field where cooperating in a government-to-government way has been very difficult. We see VR as a bridge-building space to maintain important connections in technical collaboration in the field of arms control,” Patton said.
With each project, the team continues to adapt and expand its work as virtual reality rapidly changes. “It is our hope that these projects eventually result in real change — change in the real world,” Glaser said. “I think we are very much at the forefront of this movement.”
SGS awaits the upcoming establishment of a VR lab in the Wilson School as many faculty and researchers across departments are interested in exploring and working with this new technology.