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’ll face the same concerns with the metaverse that we face now with social media (but potentially much, much worse).

“Twenty years ago, everybody was very excited about the possibilities of social media to bring people together, to democratize the world. We saw it as a utopia. But over two decades later, we now feel like social media is creating a dystopia,” he said.

In a recent talk in the MetaVersus 2022 conference, he argues that we should learn from the mistakes we made with social media when developing the metaverse and that now is the time to get started. First, he breaks down the issues we’re facing with social media now to understand what we have to do in the future.

Dystopia in a nutshell: Social media and the metaverse

If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, you’ll be well aware of the issues that social media is causing in our society. A recent post on The Utopian goes into more depth if you’re curious. 

Besides being extremely addicting, social media usage often goes hand-in-hand with political polarization, the spreading of misinformation and the undermining of trust in institutions, media, governments and experts. We’ve seen how Facebook, YouTube and other platforms have driven confusion and anger in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The documentary also dives into a discussion about teen suicides stemming from the pressures of social media.

However, Rosenberg says that the most destructive aspects of social media stem from three common practices: monitoring, manipulation and monetization.

Social media platforms monitor user behavior by seeing what you click, where you hover your cursor, what you buy, and who you communicate with. As we relegate more and more daily routines to the digital realm, this data paints a fairly good profile of you. That profile is used to target you with custom promotion, political messaging, and even misinformation, all paid for by advertisers – that’s the monetizing part. Platforms also use that profile to manipulate what you see to keep you hooked on the site, spoon-feeding you the next TikTok to watch or account to follow.

The catch is, Dr. Rosenberg anticipates these three social media-related issues will only become worse as we move into the metaverse. 

Monitoring in the metaverse

Instead of just tracking what you click, immersive headsets and metaverse platforms will be able to track where you go, what you look at, how long you look at things, how your facial expressions reveal insight about your emotions, vocal inflections, your posture and even vital signs like your heart rate.

While this seems like science fiction, Dr. Rosenberg points out that even existing technology, like smartwatches, is capable of tracking 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 advertisements of the 2D internet, the metaverse could be filled with far more powerful and convincing 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, leveraging personal data to target exactly the right people at the right time. 

He also mentions an even more dystopian idea: AI or simulated spokespeople who interact with you in a way that persuades you. Using data on your behaviors and responses to other content, such an agent could pitch a product better than any human salesperson, delivering the perfect line at the perfect time. It might not be limited to salespeople, either, but also political groups trying to convince you of an ideology.

In an immersive world, carefully constructed experiences may be indistinguishable from authentic, serendipitous encounters. The things you see and people you speak to might not be real, let alone did you bump into them by chance. Algorithms and corporations guide not only what we see, but what we end up doing — and thereby what we know what we believe, and who we are.

Monetizing in the metaverse

Just like in social media, it’s foreseeable that users in the metaverse will still be the product rather than the customer, especially if we continue with the same ads-based business model we have now. 

The only difference is that immersive technology gathers even more intimate data and the digital realm is weaved together even more tightly with our non-digital lives. Fooling the senses can be a great thing, but at what cost?

What’s the solution: Media and regulation in the metaverse

Rosenberg mentions a non-regulatory solution to this problem — replacing the current ads-based business model with something like subscriptions could alleviate many concerns. The downside is that subscriptions will exclude many potential users from being part of the metaverse.

Instead, he believes the best way forward is regulation. Laws must be instated that maximize transparency in what data is being collected and how it’s being used. Furthermore, building a hyper-accurate user profile over time should be banned — biometric data like eye movements should not be stored indefinitely. Having less data makes AI-based targeted advertisements a little less potent. Ideally, most data streams should be kept strictly real time. 

Louis also supports banning the tracking of vital signs like heart rate, except for medical purposes, and notifying users when something is an advertisement, including information on the third party and their agenda. In addition, artificial agents must be distinguishable from real humans and not capable of real-time emotional analysis to make their engagements dynamic and hyper-personalized.

“Now is the time to think about metaverse regulation,” he said.

If we’re going to build a more ethical immersive Internet, we have to start before rigid systems are in place. Organizations building the metaverse must maintain ethical practices, perhaps by adopting other business models, and regulators must keep those organizations accountable. If you’re an individual, think twice about the kind of world you and your children want to live in before you help build it. If you want to stay on top of this emerging industry, check out my blog/podcast The Utopian. 

“It’s not the technology of the metaverse we should worry about,” said Rosenberg. “It’s the fact that metaverse platforms will give large corporations 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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