Institute for Digital Business

Ethics in the Metaverse – Why we can’t wait.

Von Adrian Bär, Oktober 19, 2022

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The Metaverse is currently a very hot topic. The fact that millions of players spending time in Roblox and, marketing gag or not, Facebook renaming itself to Meta are pretty clear signs that something is happening in this space. The Metaverse was also mentioned numerous times by lecturers in the CAS Digital Ethics.

The most interesting aspects of the Metaverse are that it is actually a quite old concept and that there are currently vastly differing opinions how it will look in the end. However, there seems to be some consensus that it gives way to a wide range of ethical considerations that must be addressed as early as possible.

There seems to be a risk that the same issues the plagued the World Wide Web up until today will also plague the Metaverse in the future. Based on the current understanding of different ethical questions concerning the Metaverse, this blog suggests what we could do about them.

Origins

The term “Metaverse” likely first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash in 1992. Large-scale, immersive virtual worlds, primarily in the form of computer games, have been around since the early 2000s. World of Warcraft and Second Life have captivated the lives of millions of people for decades.

One key point why the Metaverse is buzzing right now, is the emergence of Web3. In its core, Web3 is imagined to be not much different to Web1, where static webpages dominated the internet, or the current Web2, where online content is created by users and social media rules the day.

Devices enabling virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming more widely available. Through these devices, the Metaverse promises to further remove the boundaries between our physical and digital world. Furthermore, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are providing digital foundation for the Metaverse to prosper.

In short,

the Metaverse and AR are revolutionizing the concept of how we communicate, live, work and play around the world.

Already in 2024, Bloomberg Intelligence expects the Metaverse to be an $800 billion market. However, despite all the hype, Meta expects the Metaverse as envisioned today is still 5 – 15 years away.

Early signs that there will be trouble…

There are early signs that indicate that Web3 will struggle with the same dangers as its previous instalments. For example, already during beta testing of Meta’s Horizon Worlds VR social media platform, a beta tester reported that she was groped. Other users noted similar disconcerting experiences while exploring VR online spaces, such as sexual harassment, racism and rape jokes.

It is important to learn from mistakes made in the first two instalments of the World Wide Web and not to repeat them.

.. and what we could do about them.

It is likely that a significant part of our future lives will take place in the Metaverse. However, not everyone has access to the internet or can afford an AR/VR device necessary to immerse themselves in this virtual world. To provide everyone the same opportunities, there should be equal and affordable access to this technology.

Having entered the virtual world, the role of AI is at the core of everything. Today, white men dominate technology firms. To foster a more diverse, inclusive and less biased foundation of future virtual worlds, designers need to include individuals who were marginalised previously.

To ensure trust in the virtual world, the AI should function reliably. This requires close attention to AI and data management. Furthermore, there should be transparency to the user whether the interaction happens with a real or with a digital agent.

Every second spent online leaves a personal data footprint. Considering the current development for brain-computer interfaces (BCI) to access the Metaverse, this footprint may at some point even include highly sensitive data such as our thoughts. Therefore, data collection should be as limited as possible and user consent and transparency built in so that everyone’s privacy is respected.

And when something goes wrong during a virtual experience, there needs to be clear accountability, governance and strong procedures in place to ensure user safety, with similar enforcement possibilities as in the real world. It is especially important to focus on the protection and safety of children.

Even with the Metaverse being in its infancy, now is the time to proactively address these topics and start setting best practices. Two examples are LEGO Group & Epic Games working together towards a safer Metaverse experience for children and the XR Safety Initiative focusing on building guidelines around safety, ethics and privacy.

 

This blog post was written as part of the CAS Digital Ethics and has been edited by the Institute for Digital Business.

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