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If you ask most people to name the key technologies of the metaverse, they’ll usually focus on the eyewear and graphics engines. If they’re sophisticated, they’ll also bring up 5G and blockchain. But those are the nuts and bolts of our immersive future. The technology that will pull the strings, creating and manipulating our experience, is AI.  

Artificial intelligence will soon become one of the most important, and likely most dangerous, aspects of the metaverse. I’m talking about agenda-driven artificial agents that look and act like any other users but are virtual simulations that will engage us in “conversational manipulation,” targeting us on behalf of paying advertisers. 

This is especially dangerous when the AI algorithms have access to data about our personal interests, beliefs, habits and temperament, while also reading our facial expressions and vocal inflections. Such agents will be able to pitch us more skillfully than any salesman. And it won’t just be to sell us products and services – they could easily push political propaganda and targeted misinformation on behalf of the highest bidder.  

And because these AI agents will look and sound like anyone else in the metaverse, our natural skepticism to advertising will not protect us. For these reasons, we need to regulate some aspects of the coming metaverse, especially AI-driven agents. If we don’t, promotional AI-avatars will fill our lives, sensing our emotions in real time and quickly adjusting their tactics for a level of micro-targeting never before experienced.

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But of all the technologies headed our way, it’s the Elf that could be the most subtle form of coercion. These “Electronic Life Facilitators” will be the next generation of digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. But they won’t be disembodied voices; they’ll be anthropomorphized personas customized for each user. And because the metaverse will ultimately be an augmentation layer on the real world, these digital elves will follow us everywhere, whether we’re shopping, working, or just hanging out.  

And like the marketing agents described above, these elves could have an agenda, nudging us towards actions and activities, products and services, even views and beliefs on behalf of a paying advertiser. And they won’t be like the crude chatbots of today, but embodied characters we’ll come to think of as trusted figures in our life – a mix between a familiar friend, a helpful advisor, and a caring therapist. But your elf will know you in ways no friend ever could, for it could monitor your daily life down to your blood pressure and respiration rate (via your smart watch). 

Yes, this sounds creepy and invasive, which is why platform providers will likely make them cute and non-threatening, with innocent features that seem more like a magical character than a human-sized assistant following you around. This is why I prefer the word elf to describe them, as they might appear to you as a fairy or gremlin, hovering over your shoulder – a small character that can whisper in your ear or fly out in front of you to draw attention to things in your augmented world it wants you to focus on. 

There are many positive uses of such technology, but when controlled by for-profit corporations, AI agents can too easily coerce us, steering us towards products and services without us even realizing. After all, the metaverse itself is designed to fool our senses – when combined with the power of AI the dangers are very real. I raise these issues in hope the industry pushes for meaningful regulation before the problems become so ingrained that we accept them as inevitable. After all, we deserve a magical metaverse, free of excessive monitoring and hidden manipulation.  

Louis B. Rosenberg is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and prolific inventor. Thirty years ago while working as a researcher at Stanford and Air Force Research Laboratory, Rosenberg developed the first functional augmented reality system. He then founded one of the early virtual reality companies (Immersion Corp) and one of the early augmented reality companies (Outland Research). He’s currently founder and CEO of swarm intelligence company Unanimous AI.

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