This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series here: The metaverse - How close are we?
The metaverse isn’t a new concept. In fact, the term was coined in a 1992 novel, Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. As the novel defines it, the metaverse is essentially a virtual universe controlled and owned by a “global information monopoly that users can access via personal VR goggles.”
In 2022, as a new computing revolution brings about an, interactive, virtual world for us to collaborate, work and play in, industry watchers are calling this new world the metaverse.
And of course, we want this metaverse to be open.
Just as we benefited from internet, we want competition and open access in this evolving metaverse. Likewise for regulation. The metaverse needs close watching for safety, privacy and anti-trust reasons, just like the internet did.
“The metaverse is the natural evolution of the internet,” said Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner.
Nguyen and other experts from MIT, the EthicsNet for AI and machine learning, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, and the Open Source Initiative, agree that if the industry doesn’t pay attention now, professional and citizen developers, and users of the metaverse alike could be negatively impacted.
Opening the metaverse up for increased accessibility
With a technology as complex as something that may succeed the internet, contributions from citizen and professional developers alike may similarly shape much of the metaverse.
And, in some ways, the metaverse comes as an opportune time. The older days of a relatively open internet have been threatened of late, by increasingly powerful technology companies, including Google, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft. The U.S. government has only just started antitrust proceedings against these giants, and has a long way to go.
Now that the machinery has been set in motion, it’s a good time to make sure we get things right for the metaverse. Indeed, those same three companies – Google, Meta, and Facebook, all have the size and scale to tip the metaverse in their favor. Making sure they are regulated, and that there is free play, will be critical if a core principle of the metaverse – movement between virtual worlds – is to be upheld.
“As an ethicist, open source, [and open] access is always best because it facilitates more people creating, and doing so largely for the common good and social justice,” said Don Heider the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “Technology should generally be as widespread and accessible as humanly possible.”
“Ideally, even the governance of the metaverse would be open, such as a joint collective where you’d have governing bodies joining alongside industry groups and citizens to form a collective that would agree upon principles and standards,” Heider said.
As a parallel, or alternative reality, the metaverse may not be bound by the same laws of physics that our real world is. Because of that, in theory, the metaverse could provide meaningful improvements to accessibility and interactions for individuals who are differently abled, Elenor ‘Nell’ Watson, the chair of EthicsNet, told VentureBeat.
The open invitation to innovate aspects of the metaverse could prove to be “…fantastic for experimentation and wildly creative capabilities,” Watson said. As of now, 98% of websites on the internet are inaccessible to the disability community from a legal perspective, according to the 2020 Web Accessibility Annual Report. What would have made achieving internet accessibility from the beginning easier would have been developing it with accessibility in mind.
As Mitchell Park, the marketing manager at cielo24 wrote in a blog post: when eyeing “the introduction of the metaverse space, this [is a] technology [that] may very well be the successor to the internet. With that comes an immense responsibility to ensure accessibility for all users. However, this time around, all of the necessary technology and features already exist, for the most part. Thus, developers must continue to innovate in the metaverse while prioritizing its accessibility.”
Accessibility and open innovation within the metaverse could provide an escape for individuals who are impaired, but want to experience the world — allowing all to access different degrees of freedom to individuals regardless of their abilities or disabilities.
Opening the metaverse up to widespread innovation could also lead to technological upgrades for sectors like education, training prospective doctors how to perform surgeries in a metaverse environment before doing so on a real person, or teaching individuals to drive a car before they actually get behind the wheel.”hands-on” experience without the risk, until they have sharpened their skills enough to transition their practice from the metaverse into the real world.
However, there is a dark side.
Regulating a space we can’t fully access or predict
Many laws in modern society are in place because an incident caused a need for it. However, how can technical decision-makers anticipate regulations for the safety of the metaverse before there is a situation creating a need for them? (We are already behind. A week after opening, Meta’s Horizon Worlds already experienced its first case of a woman’s avatar being sexually harrassed.
It’s essentially impossible to prevent those intending to do harm from doing it in a space that is largely unknown and that brings new tools and opportunities along with it. However, protocols can be put in place when considering who can access the metaverse and what impact experiences in the metaverse could have.
If the metaverse is accessible to children, and perhaps individuals with mental health issues, experts point out that there will need to be guardrails in place for protection.
“If we are to prevent somebody from being ‘cyber sexually molested’, for example, which may cause genuine trauma to certain individuals — or if people are exposed to content and experiences that are perhaps designed to be traumatic purposefully — in a metaverse setting, our minds may find it quite difficult to step out of that kind of stimulus and just pinch ourselves and tell us that it isn’t real,” Watson said.
“I think it will be important that we embed safety and ethical standards into these experiences, particularly when we are immersed in something that can affect us on such a deeper and more vicarious level than has ever been possible before,” she said.
Another concern about the metaverse is how society can prevent such traumatic things, or if regulation of potential harm within the metaverse is ultimately left up to the companies that have thrown their hats in the ring.
“The metaverse calls us to rethink how to regulate things in a new environment for society as a whole,” said Stefano Maffulli, executive director of the Open Source Initiative. “Right now we’re still in an early stage trying to figure that out, but the one thing we cannot allow as a society is [for] one to three corporations owning the space and introducing new products and concepts, which could introduce implications in the long run.”
It isn’t a dystopian novel quite yet, and likely could be far off from happening soon. After all, there are businesses that still use pen and paper to track expenses and fax machines to send memos.
There are professionals thinking about these “what if” scenarios already, and who feel our world is capable of handling the technology and regulating it appropriately.
“A lot of organizations are technically capable of regulating the metaverse. I know some are working on something similar already and have been for a while,” said Maffulli. “For what it’s worth, it would be a good idea for a working group of individuals to come together and discuss implications and standards.”
“Something like that could be a space that nonprofits like the Open Source Initiative could be part of to talk about research, implications, and how principles apply to openness and sharing of information. I know other organizations like the Oasis Consortium and others have task forces focused on this and are working and looking at the metaverse, AI and related technologies from an ethical lens,” he said.
Meta and other companies pushing to stake their claim in the metaverse have released information about how they plan to approach the development responsibly.
A blog post by Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, and Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs, addresses how Meta plans to prioritize collaboration with the other companies that are working to develop the metaverse as well.
And when Facebook launched its supercomputer for the metaverse this week, it took pains to explain how explain how secure it was making the data that it was using to power it.
Still, other metaverse thinkers, like Matthew Ball, have pointed out that tech giants like Apple can slow things down considerably by using their control over the internet (through its significant smartphone market share and 30 percent app store tax), and by default, the coming metaverse. He has called Apple the “de facto regulator of the Internet.”
Using the internet as a compass to the metaverse
No one can predict what will come as more companies begin to implement their versions of a “metaverse.” But the evolution of the internet can be used as a guide predict what can take place with the rise of the metaverse.
“The next five years will still be the emergent metaverse and pre-metaverse stage,” said Gartner’s Nguyen. “In this stage, there’s no metaverse, therefore no metaverse companies, solutions, applications. This may sound anti-climactic, but it’s the reality. It is disingenuous to say that during this time frame we’ll see ‘the year of the metaverse.’ We’ll certainly see exciting developments, [though].”
Maffulli of the Open Source Initiative said widespread accessibility for the metaverse and the technologies that develop it is vital for the metaverse to reach its full potential, and will likely follow a similar path of innovation and regulation as the internet did.
Maffulli adds that it is “most important is for society to work toward the metaverse in a way that allows it to become a space where we can keep our democratic functioning tools, our rights, and a check and balance of the delegation of powers in place.”
Read more from this VB Special Report:
- The metaverse: Where we are and where we’re headed
- Why the metaverse must be open but regulated
- How the metaverse will let you simulate everything
- 7 ways the metaverse will change the enterprise
- Identity and authentication in the metaverse
- Understanding the 7 layers of the metaverse
- Can this triple-A game usher in the promise of the metaverse? (sponsored by Star Atlas)
- How the metaverse could transform upskilling in the enterprise
- Why the fate of the metaverse could hang on its security
- Gaming will lead us to the metaverse
- The potential environmental harms of the growing metaverse
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