By Dr John Sydenham.
Facebook has changed its name to "Meta" with the bold claim that "3D spaces in the metaverse will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine."
The claim may become reality. Meta hopes that in the near future people will meet each other in Virtual Reality (VR), companies will use VR as the workplace and home entertainment will reside within the VR experience.
Virtual Reality has been used in video games and in mental health treatments for decades but Meta is promising us something else entirely: a product that will be used on a daily basis for ordinary human interactions. This really is a new departure and if legislators ignore it, hoping to pick up the pieces if it goes wrong, they may be making a serious mistake.
The proposed Metaverse will take five to ten years to complete. There is an urgent need for legislators to assess the desirability of metaverse technology both for the safety of individuals and of society as a whole.
Virtual Reality involves placing the individual in an immersive 3D environment where they can interact with computer generated constructs and other people in an artificial space. To do this the participant wears virtual reality goggles that monitor head and eye positions. The interaction is two way because headsets and VR Sets are available that track physiological processes such as pupil dilation and heart rate as well as limb position and movement.The Metaverse uses VR but takes it much further by immersing a large fraction of society in the environment. This is totally new and assessments of VR technology in games and clinical settings have little relevance to this new challenge for society.
There are numerous issues for a society confronted by a Metaverse. If a workplace becomes based in VR it will force employees into using VR even if they become ill through using it (Cybersickness) or do not wish to use it. If people start to spend a large part of their day in a Metaverse they will inevitably cease attending to the real world, this entails health risks in the home and the possible dereliction of the environment. The low cost monitoring of the physiology of participants gives advertisers and bad actors the capability to design a Metaverse experience that is far too closely linked to participants' thoughts and emotions. It is already well known that social media is associated with a higher risk of mental illness and early studies are showing that the risks of VR are even higher because of greater "presence" (Lavoie et al 2021). The use of AIs operating in the Metaverse as Virtual Humans will eventually de-skill and demotivate real people. The model below, "Candy", is not real but she would probably appear as real as any avatar in an early version of the Metaverse.
A broader concern is that the owners of Meta will acquire too much power. If Meta were to capture a threshold amount of banking, education, the workplace and marketplace the population would be forced into participation.
These issues and risks can be summarised as:
The idea that a couple of American billionaires might be allowed to set the parameters for interactions between businesses and between people without any meaningful intervention or resistance from our governments is shocking.
What should be done? In the first instance there should be a moratorium on VR social media such as the Metaverse until any damage it causes becomes clear in other countries. Under no circumstances should the population of the UK be used as guinea pigs.
The UK should also implement a national Internet Firewall to ensure that the population is kept safe from developments like the Metaverse, to protect the Internet of Things and to give our government the possibility of an independent Internet policy.
It should not really be necessary to detail the future risks of a metaverse. Many fictional works from the Matrix to episodes of Stargate have featured humans being rescued from the dystopia of life in a metaverse. Given such repeated warnings it is almost unbelievable that humanity might sleep walk into such a disaster.
Let us suppose that Meta achieves its goals and the marketplace, banking, schools and workplace are controlled by Mr Zuckerberg.
In twenty years it will be impossible to tell who is a real human being. Political debate will be dominated by AIs controlled by wealthy corporations.
The police will adopt the Metaverse and be susceptible to, at first, using drones for policing the real world and then using robotic technology for walking the beat, all controlled by police in the Metaverse. The military and other services will follow this example. People who oppose the Metaverse or die of starvation after being forced offline could just disappear to be replaced by duplicate AIs online that have the "correct" attitudes.
Meta will control all online transactions within its Metaverse. All countries that have submitted to Meta will lose sovereignty. It will be the controllers of the Metaverse who will have all of the real power.
Most of these risks will occur whether there is one Metaverse or a Metaverse, Googleverse, Amazonverse etc.
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