XR Pioneer Calls for Metaverse Regulation
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This article was contributed by Toni Witt, technology analyst at Acceleration Economy.
Louis Rosenberg, the XR pioneer who developed the first interactive augmented reality system in 1992 at the Air Force Research Laboratory, believes we will face the same concerns with the metaverse as we do today with social media (but potentially much, much worse†
“Twenty years ago, everyone was very excited about the potential of social media to bring people together, to democratize the world. We saw it as a utopia. But more than two decades later, we feel like social media is creating a dystopia,” he said.
In a recent talk at the MetaVersus 2022 conference, he argues that we need to learn from the mistakes we’ve made with social media developing the metaverse and now is the time to get started. First, he analyzes the problems we face with social media today to understand what to do in the future.
If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, you’re well aware of the problems social media causes in our society. A recent post on The Utopian takes a closer look at the matter if you’re curious.
In addition to being extremely addictive, social media use often goes hand in hand with political polarization, spreading misinformation and undermining trust in institutions, media, governments and experts. We have seen how Facebook, YouTube and other platforms have caused confusion and anger in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The documentary also delves into a discussion of teenage suicides as a result of social media pressure.
However, Rosenberg says the most destructive aspects of social media stem from three common practices: monitoring, manipulation, and monetization.
Social media platforms track user behavior by seeing what you click, where you move your cursor, what you buy and who you interact with. As we relegate more and more daily routines to the digital realm, this data paints a pretty good profile of you. That profile is used to target you with custom promotion, political messages and even misinformation, all paid for by advertisers – that’s monetization. Platforms also use that profile to manipulate what you see in order to keep you hooked on the site, giving you the next TikTok you want to watch or account to follow.
The catch is that Dr. Rosenberg expects these three social media-related issues to only get worse as we move into the metaverse.
Monitoring in the metaverse
Rather than just tracking what you click on, immersive headsets and metaverse platforms can track where you go, what you look at, how long you look at things, how your facial expressions give insight into your emotions, inflections, your posture, and even vital signs such as your heart rate.
While this may seem like science fiction, Dr. Rosenberg insists that even existing technology, such as smartwatches, can track such data. And as headsets become more popular, features like eye tracking and facial expression tracking will become commonplace.
Manipulating in the metaverse
“The whole point of VR and AR is to fool the senses,” Rosenberg says. Immersive technologies create ideal environments for deception, coercion and misinformation.
But unlike the traditional advertising of the 2D Internet, the metaverse could be filled with much more powerful and persuasive techniques. dr. Rosenberg gives the example of virtual product placements, when a company sponsors the appearance of a certain product in your field of view, using personal data to target exactly the right people at the right time.
He also mentions an even more dystopian idea: AI or simulated spokespersons who deal with you in a way that convinces you. Using data about your behavior and reactions to other content, such an agent can pitch a product better than any human salesperson, delivering the perfect line at the perfect time. It may not be limited to salespeople, but also political groups trying to convince you of an ideology.
In an immersive world, carefully constructed experiences may be indistinguishable from authentic, chance encounters. The things you see and the people you talk to may not be real, let alone come across them by chance. Algorithms and companies guide not only what we see, but also what we end up doing – and therefore what we know, what we believe and who we are.
Monetizing the Metaverse
As in social media, it’s foreseeable that in the metaverse, users will still be the product rather than the customer, especially if we continue with the same ad-based business model we have now.
The only difference is that immersive technology collects even more intimate data and the digital realm is even more closely intertwined with our non-digital lives. Fooling the senses can be great, but at what cost?
What’s the solution: Media and regulation in the metavers
Rosenberg cites a non-regulatory solution to this problem: Replacing the current ad-based business model with something like subscriptions could alleviate many of the concerns. The downside is that subscriptions will exclude many potential users from being part of the metaverse.
Instead, he believes that regulation is the best way forward. There should be laws that maximize transparency in what data is collected and how it is used. In addition, building a hyper-accurate user profile should be banned over time – biometric data such as eye movements should not be kept indefinitely. Having less data makes AI-based targeted ads a little less powerful. Ideally, most data flows should be tracked in strict real-time.
Louis also supports banning vital sign tracking such as heart rate, except for medical purposes, and notifying users when something is an advertisement, including information about the third party and their calendar. In addition, artificial agents must be distinguishable from real people and incapable of real-time emotional analysis to make their assignments dynamic and hyper-personalized.
“Now is the time to think about metaverse regulation,” he said.
If we want to build a more ethically compelling internet, we need to start before there are rigid systems. Organizations building the metaverse must maintain ethical practices, perhaps by adopting other business models, and regulators must hold those organizations accountable. If you’re an individual, think twice about the kind of world you and your kids want to live in before you help build it. If you want to stay informed about this emerging industry, check my blog/podcast The Utopian†
“It’s not the technology of the metavers that we should be concerned about,” Rosenberg said. “It’s the fact that metaverse platforms will give big companies more power and influence than any form of media in human history.”
Toni Witt is the technology analyst at Acceleration Economy.
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