Monday, 13 May, 2024

Metaverse — the world not prepared for dangers it poses

The metaverse will be the most god-like technology we have ever seen and our “medieval institutions” are already struggling to understand the elements of it.

In the final days of October, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was changing its name to Meta. "In our DNA," declared the 37-year-old, "we are a company that builds technology to connect people, and the metaverse is the next frontier, just like social networking was when we got started.” Now, one can debate whether or not Meta is qualified to guide us into the unknown. Judging by the company’s track record, the answer appears to be no. But, fear not, a Meta-controlled metaverse is not necessarily a given.

As Professor Marko Suvajdzic, an expert in all things metaverse-related, told TRT World, only one central metaverse does not exist. On the contrary, it’s “a label that refers to any digital universe that allows for interactions in cyberspace. It is certainly an extension of the Internet, or better said, it is a collection of software applications built on the Internet.” He continued, “anyone can create their own digital universe, just as anyone can make their own website. There is no gatekeeper.”

Professor Suvajdzic then provided examples: “A game publisher (e.g. Valve) may choose to create a way for all of their games to interact with each other, so items or characters purchased in one game can be easily moved to another game. Different publishers will have their own mini-ecosystems like this.” However, he stressed, “there will be tools that would allow for these separate game universes to interact with each other, but of course the game-makers would need to agree to participate in this ‘multiverse’ by making their games compatible with whatever technology is used to bridge different systems.”

In other words, to discuss the metaverse and solely focus on Meta is like discussing movies and solely focusing on Keanu Reeves. Sure, he is a famous actor. But, other big actors exist. Likewise, other companies are exploring the metaverse; moreover, they may very well beat Meta to the metaphysical punch, crossing the finish line before Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues. Although many questions concerning the metaverse exist, almost all of them unanswered, one certainty is this: a Big Tech company, either in the US or elsewhere, will become the Christopher Columbus of the unknown. What will this mean for us, the mere mortals of this world? Before answering this question, we must ask the following: what is the metaverse? Actually, we don’t need to ask that. It has been asked countless times. You’re no doubt familiar with what the metaverse may or may not entail. Countless articles – some of themvery good – have been written about the core ingredients of the metaverse. Instead of discussing the fusing of AR and VR, AI and IoT, how about asking a better question: what dangers await us?

Sure, the metaverse will provide us with opportunities for growth, both personally and professionally. It will allow us to ‘travel’ anywhere in the world, meet interesting people, and, in many ways, expand our horizons. With such expansive possibilities, however, come great risks.

Deepfake Deceit and Mass Disillusionment

In 2019, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the following: “At its best, the digital revolution will empower, connect, inform and save lives. At its worst, it will disempower, disconnect, misinform and cost lives.” I am more concerned with the revolution “at its worst.” The metaverse may prove to be the defining moment of this particular revolution. Will this revolutionary road be paved with hope and love, connection and valuable information. Or will it be paved with innumerable potholes? The latter, I fear.

Earlier this, Forbes published a rather explosive piece concerning a group of cybercriminals based in the UAE. These wily souls used deepfake technology to pull off a bank heist of epic proportions. In short, by employing deepfake software, the felons successfully recreated the voice of an executive at a highly successful company. After fooling the executive’s bank manager with the deepfake voice, they then requested the transfer of $35 million out of the Emirates and into a number of bank accounts scattered around the world.

What’s my point? Deepfakes come in many forms – fake faces, fake voices, etc. Web 2.0, or the second iteration of the Internet, “gifted” us with deepfakes. Will the metaverse, a product of Web 3.0, result in more or less of them? The answer should be obvious. According to a report published by Deeptrace, in 2019 there were less than 8,000 deepfake; by early 2020, that figure had almost doubled. As technology increases in both sophistication and power, deepfakes are likely to plague society, including inhabitants of the metaverse. The term ‘deepfake’, it’s important to note, is a combination of three words: ‘deep learning’ and ‘fake’. Deep learning, a subset of machine learning, uses copious amounts of data to improve the “minds'' of machines. Alas, the metaverse, it seems, will be intimately linked with machine learning. Moreover, it will be inextricably linked with advanced algorithms (already the bane of our existence) as well as data harvesting. Machines are getting smarter. Are we? That is a question very much up for debate.

To quote American sociobiologist Edward O Wilson, the real problem of humanity is quite simple: “We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” The metaverse will be the most god-like technology we have ever seen. Our “medieval institutions” are already struggling to get their heads around cryptocurrencies, which will form just one branch on the metaversal tree. Imagine the same people trying to get their heads around the idea of a metaversal smoothie consisting of AI, quantum computing, biometrics, Big (or Bigger) data, AR, VR, XR, as well as blockchain technology.

Where some see the world becoming a big global village, others, like myself, view it as a place where autonomy and privacy are vanishing into the ether. The metaverse may very well prove to be a Utopian place, full of brilliant adventures and digital delights. Then again, it may very well prove to be the final nail in the coffin known as civilised society, with billions of people strapped into something totally untethered from the actual world. Call me a pessimist, but thoughts of the metaverse do not fill me with hope.

Besides all of these possible problems, we haven’t even touched on human rights in the metaverse. What will they look like? Initially, will they even exist? Remember, we have medieval institutions, scrambling to come to terms with the technologically-driven paradigm shift occurring at this very moment. New data protection laws are desperately required.

'A playground for hackers and fraudsters'

Melanie Subin, Director of Consulting for the Future Today Institute, told TRT World that risk in the metaverse “will look unlike anything we’ve seen today. Certainly, current concerns such as identity theft will be greater due to the amount and type of personal data that will be connected. Anything will be hackable—your home, your health, your face—and such hacks could result in not only loss of value but also loss of access to personal identity, or misuse of personal assets or attributes”.

Then, of course, she added, there are the threats that “we haven’t even begun to contemplate. For example, when people are hurt today it’s usually physical harm. I worry about the potential for psychological harm in the metaverse, both intentional and unintentional. This could be as straightforward as the unintended side effects of people being so highly and persistently connected, or as sinister as a bad actor breaking into someone’s mixed reality to create a fear-inducing experience”.

Some legal experts have argued that the metaverse requires universal jurisdiction, or meta jurisdiction. I asked Richard Jones, a professor at Edinburgh Law School, how he imagines the metaverse being regulated. “The metaverse (or metaverses, if it comprises a number of smaller, distinct metaverses) would be regulated in much the same way that the Internet is regulated today,” he said. “So metaverses would have to comply with the legal and regulatory requirements of each country in which they operated.”

However, “insofar as an individual metaverse was run by a particular tech company,” added Joes, “that company would be able to make users’ participation in its metaverse subject to whatever conditions it wanted to specify in the terms and conditions of its use (just as is typical today for all sorts of different online platforms and services)."

Melanie Subin added more context: “The metaverse will leverage technologies we feel familiar with—social interactions, virtual reality—which could lull us into a false sense of security that existing Internet-focused regulation will be broadly applicable to the metaverse.” Data will be collected, she warned. Lots of it. Subin believes that “the type of data collected and its use will be exponentially more invasive than what we see today. For example, biometrics such as vocal tone and inflection, breathing rate and body temperature will be, in the future, used to gauge emotional reaction at an individual level, and can be leveraged by companies to customise their interactions with you in a way that elicits a desired emotional response.” Today’s regulations, according to the well-respected futurist, “are scarcely sufficient to protect personal data and information—and they certainly aren't equipped to cover the metaverse environment.”

What will this mean for the millions, if not billions, of people in the metaverse, I asked. Will participation be somewhat mandatory? Will the metaverse prove to be inescapable?

In a nutshell, yes. According to Subin, the metaverse is simply “the next generation of connectivity—an embodied, immersive, persistent connected experience. Over the next decade, we will see one metaverse take shape, where companies and individuals alike can participate, experience, build, contribute and interact. You've probably heard the famous William Gibson quote that "The future is already here—it's just not evenly distributed." This is the case with the metaverse—it's not some sci-fi future state that we'll ultimately wake up to one morning in 2032. It's a reality now, it's just very, very early days. Once established, participation in the metaverse will be as commonplace and as nuanced as participation on the Internet today.”

Every aspect of society will be affected by this transition to the futuristic unknown. Without proper regulation, the metaverse could prove to be a very dangerous place, a playground for hackers and fraudsters, a place where people are quite literally robbed of their identities. The world, it seems, is ill-prepared for the future that awaits us.

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