Editor’s note: Jane Thomason is a Dubai-based author on advanced technologies and social transformation, whose books include “Applied Ethics in a Digital World”. She is a member of the editorial board of peer-reviewed journals “Frontiers in Blockchain”, “Global Health Journal” and “Journal of Metaverse” and President of Kasei Holdings, a Web 3.0 investment company. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The metaverse is here, it’s big and it’s not going away. The Collins Dictionary listed Metaverse as one of its top 10 words of 2021 and a recent survey found that 74% of the public had heard of Metaverse in March 2022, up from 32% in July 2021.
An immersive and permanent experience, the metaverse is an amalgamation of blockchain, virtual reality, augmented reality, mobile and computer technologies. Large sums of money are invested and more than 160 companies are competing to build the most popular metaverse in fields as diverse as games, commerce, real estate, entertainment, socializing, health, education and government.
Governments are exploring how they can use it to deliver better services more easily – for example, South Korea’s capital, Seoul, plans to create a metaverse for its city government. In healthcare, Apollo Hospitals Group, for example, plans to engage users in virtual reality-mediated activities to enable them to regulate their emotions. Metaverse education will revolutionize the way people learn. Astronomy students will ride in a Star Trek-style transporter and take a spacewalk, while history students could travel in a time machine.
It’s both appealing and scary to imagine visiting different metaverses in the form of an avatar, which could be a replica of yourself. You can submit your avatar clothing purchases; he might try on outfits to find the perfect fit, which can then be ordered and delivered to your doorstep. For vulnerable people, people with disabilities and older people, who may not be able to leave their homes, the appeal of being able to go to a virtual space, receive services, meet people, travel and be entertained is convincing.
But what about the downsides? Internet problems will be magnified in a metaverse environment. Here are some of the biggest challenges.
The accelerated growth of immersive technologies will amplify biases, produce alternate realities, and affect human emotions. Monika Manolova, an expert in digital ecosystems in Bulgaria, warned against the addictive nature of immersive environments as forms of escape. The boundaries between the real world and the digital world are blurring with the convergence between social networks and geolocations.
The European Parliament reports that, if used in excess, Metaverse can cause mental health problems and reduce physical activity. Emotional vulnerability could lead to a situation where perceptions of an immersive experience could alter or completely transform a person’s life. People who use immersive technologies, such as VR headsets, can become disoriented and unaware of real-world dangers, which could lead to injury.
Determining jurisdiction in the metaverse will be tricky. Does it apply to user location, avatar location, or IT infrastructure location? Intellectual property will be a challenge in the metaverse, as content is distributed and replicated over decentralized networks.
The multi-layered structure of the virtual environment could allow malicious actors to hide behind encryption and untraceable NFTs (non-fungible tokens – which are unique digital assets), making it difficult to identify and take action.
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NFTs will be the backbone of the metaverse economy, enabling the authentication of possessions, goods, and identity. Yet the European Parliament points to regulatory risks for NFTs – for example, the difference between owning an NFT and holding the right to exploit a copy of a copyrighted digital work.
An NFT cannot exist without an underlying digital asset (e.g., a work of art), and copyright protection only exists for the asset to which the NFT relates, not the NFT himself. There is often a loose connection between an NFT and the asset it refers to.
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Counterfeiting is an emerging problem; there are currently no standards and regulatory oversight of NFTs is lagging behind.
The metaverse offers the possibility of unintended or deliberate automation of unethical conduct on a large scale, and a plethora of ethical questions arise.
Ideally, consent should be informed, but the immersion experience in the metaverse will require the integration of access points – for example mobile devices connected to other devices, such as wearables, wallets and glasses , which may share metadata about user profile, device type, and geolocation without consent. This could include tracking body movements, brain waves and physiological responses via wearable devices.
Data collection will be involuntary and continuous, making informed consent nearly impossible. How to avoid a scenario where people can be monitored, manipulated and monetized?
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Some scholars suggest that people in virtual worlds have rights to freedom and well-being and have moral rights and obligations similar to those of their real-world counterparts. This premise could raise some intriguing questions – for example, if you kill people in a virtual world, are you a murderer?
Avatars could amplify negative aspects of social media engineering, such as groupthink, silos, and hate chambers. Research has shown that self-representing avatars remain an anchor in the real world. At the same time, more abstract representations allow users to be completely disconnected from reality and to experience potentially harmful new experiences.
The metaverse promises children a unique and rich experience. However, in a hyperrealistic and immersive environment, the difference between what is real and what is augmented can be difficult to recognize, as the technologies involve sense-making experiences that affect the brain, memory, and cognition. This could lead to harmful side effects for vulnerable children if they face abuse, harassment, bullying, racism and pornographic content. How do we know which users are children? How do we protect them?
Can we ask the creators of the metaverse to consider appropriate safeguards? A possible solution could be to connect developers more closely to the ethical outcomes of their decisions and algorithms, and to encourage the community to take a more active and demanding stance on ethics.
As we move into this engaging, unique and immersive world of the future, we need to build purposefully to accommodate the ethical questions that are already emerging. The metaverse will transform humanity on a depth and scale rarely seen.
Life in the metaverse could be fulfilling and rewarding, create social purpose, and provide new means of economic activity. But will we be able to influence the digital lords, gaming titans and Web 3.0 innovators who are rushing to create metaverses, so that we have the right ethics?