New technologies have always demanded societal conversations and the metaverse is no different, with its ethical implications being put into question now more than ever
While promising to be a virtual utopia that will foster equality and allow for self-expression, the metaverse – as it stands – remains riddled with ethical issues that need to be addressed.
New technologies have always demanded societal conversations, and the metaverse is no different, with its ethical implications being put into question now more than ever – Meta, formerly Facebook, has recently pledged $50 million for research into practical and ethical issues around its metaverse.
With Microsoft’s $70 billion deal to acquire Activision Blizzard, Meta investing $10bn into acquiring and developing both hardware and software VR capabilities, and Google creating a $39.5m private equity fund for all metaverse projects, the metaverse has garnered the support of tech giants who are creating an irresistible, immersive digital world that we will all want to partake in.
As more people immerse themselves in this virtual world of endless possibilities, a report by analyst firm Gartner revealed that by 2026, 25 percent of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse.
Understandably so, the appeal is there, in which Shujat Mirza, UAE chapter president of the VRAR Association said: “Reality is us living, doing our mundane daily tasks, getting stuck in traffic, or dropping our kids to school etc. Metaverse or let me say virtual reality is like an escape realm, it might let anyone escape into more of an augmented environment which he or she aspires to be in or wants to make one.”
As the physical and digital worlds continue to converge, a host of ethical issues, such as bias in AI, inequality in the tech industry, and a lack of regulatory frameworks, need to be tackled first in order for the metaverse to be a safe virtual space that transcends today’s communication and equity barriers.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) – an enabler and core component of the metaverse – while key to solving some large and complex problems, remains flawed.
Bias in AI emerges as a direct result of prejudice data being fed into AI systems, and with that a dilemma arises – are we bound to carry with us these flaws, prejudices and biases into the metaverse?
“Science concluded that traditional algorithms were biased. The tech industry needs to at minimum be approaching or aspiring to equality,” said Briar Prestidge, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Prestidge Group.
“We will need to see evidence of this new algorithm in motion, and we will need to support and encourage our female and racially diverse peers in the industry in an attempt to ensure that representation is met,” she added.
In a nod towards transparency, Meta recently announced that it would expand free education initiatives aimed at bringing more racial minorities into tech, which researchers say is critical to create AI systems free of bias.
For ethical structures in AI to be effective, transparency and accountability are key. Being bias-free in usage is also integral.
“New biases will be formed, prejudices will make an appearance, and monetisation of the realm will bring its own set of norms. The saving grace is: This an editable, depletable, and recreational platform,” said Mirza.
“When it comes to existing data sets, we know algorithms are smart only to a degree. Human cognitive understanding and reasoning has no parallel. All it means is, algorithms can be rewritten once we become aware of it,” he added.
Tackling inequality in the tech industry
For the metaverse to be truly inclusive, it is imperative for the digital divide to be bridged by reducing existing inequalities and creating digital environments where everyone can belong.
Around 80 percent of data analytics and AI executives identify as men and 65 percent are white, according to a recent survey across the US and Europe by recruiter Heidrick & Struggles.
“When we’re underrepresented and systems and industries are built without our input, they are also built without us in mind. Our safety, needs, and preferences are not catered to,” said Prestidge.
“As of 2021, in the US, just 19 percent of tech jobs were held by POC and under 25 percent of tech jobs globally belong to women. Closing these gaps requires a shift in collective thinking and behaviour. It requires that those who are underrepresented are incentivised to show up, and are made to feel welcome so that we are able to build spaces that appeal to all of our needs,” she added.
Decentralisation is necessary
The past decade has witnessed the emergence of blockchain technology and digital assets – all of which aim to decentralise communities, democratise access to investment, and enable people to invest in the future.
With that, the metaverse has entered with the promise of facilitating accessibility from the comfort of the home, breaking down boundaries and democratising access to key goods, services and experiences.
“If the metaverse is governed, owned, and operated in majority share by tech giants then the same old problems will come to rise, such as data privacy, thefts, manipulations, and conditioning to favor some and not to favor some. If a Meta, or an Amazon controls what and how things happen in a metaverse, it is only natural that their business interests will take over,” shared Mirza.
“We need to first democratise the platform, by all and for all. Have a decentralised environment which is not governed by one mega entity but is transparent, run by safe algorithms,” he added.
Regulatory frameworks and awareness are key
While still in its infancy, the metaverse is slowly becoming an inevitable reality and is projected to be an $800 billion market by 2024, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
“Technology itself is neutral – it’s the application that can be used to benefit us or to our detriment. It’s up to us to ensure that metaverse technologies are used to benefit us,” said Alex Azzi, founder of VR Workout.
“Awareness is key, but awareness doesn’t equal action. Legally, I hope that regulation exists that places a burden on big-tech to build a socially conscious, diverse VR experience. In terms of what we can do on the ground? We need to participate,” said Prestidge.
Spurred by the industry’s failure to sufficiently self-regulate the existing two-dimensional iterations of social media, the urgency for regulation in the metaverse is growing.
“Like with all disruptive tech, we will have to identify challenges, have regulations and mechanisms in place as we realise the anomalies of the new ecosystem,” said Mirza.
“We need options as those we see in traditional internet (privacy controls, blocking, etc.), with the addition of more magical ideas like “personal space” bubbles if you feel uncomfortable with someone invading your personal space,” added Azzi.