Is it still possible to prevent the metaverse from turning into a total dystopia?

You’ve suddenly heard a bit about the “meta-verse,” the virtual universe that, according to NFT enthusiasts and tech executives, would have a huge impact on our lives. This is probably due to the fact that most of the attention is currently focused on more urgent matters, such as the war in Ukraine, and perhaps also because the NFT market has collapsed. Nevertheless, various big and small players are constantly building on universes where one can socialize, work, dance and get rich.

This development is not only funny: fraud is the order of the day in the crypto and NFT world, an extreme amount of data can be stored, and the anonymity of an avatar allows people to shamelessly misbehave. Not to mention the danger that we will soon no longer be able to distinguish between virtual and real reality.

In the Netherlands, the WODC, the scientific center of the Ministry of Justice and Security, has therefore commissioned the consultancy firm Considerati to research the potential dangers of the meta-verse. We spoke with Professor of Privacy and Cybercrime Bart Schermer, who contributed to the advice on how to prevent a complete metavers dystopia. At least he does not think that the fantasy of the metaverse goes out like a candle. “These tech parties are investing so much money in it. I expect it to come in some form, left or right.”

Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his big Metaverse plans with a video. In it, his Horizon universe did not look exactly alluring or promising. The drinks he attended were of wood and unpleasant, in the office environment the avatars had no legs, and in his virtual house it was quite unsocial. Many people on the internet and myself laughed at it.

But I did not laugh when I recently put on VR glasses a couple of times, because with them, the latest virtual worlds feel real. The awkwardly dangling digital limbs that look silly on a screen suddenly seem like your own semi-paralyzed legs: a disturbing experience. In addition, I felt emotional connections with the beings that inhabit the virtual worlds I visited. The mischievous little robot in the Horizon game First Steps filled me with suspicion and disgust, a mysterious fellow dancer in a virtual club seemed to dance with me, and I was horrified when I was attacked by zombie dogs in a shooting game. Schermer calls this tendency to empathy the “Proteus effect,” after the Greek god who could change form.

‘That effect has long been a factor in discussions about whether violent games make you violent. And the little research that is, shows that the Proteus effect is stronger in virtual reality than in the traditional video game. “This affects not only the people who behave violently in virtual worlds, but also those who fall victim to it. That’s why there was a lot of trouble when a woman was attacked by four men in Horizon. “Such things happened already in Second Life in 2005, and even in the very early days of the Internet, where there were only text-driven applications. It was just messages or very rudimentary pictures. But as these glasses and other wearables become more authentic, the experience becomes more realistic and you can feel compromised in your integrity online. “

And where you can just take off your VR glasses in a gaming environment if it all gets too much, it’s harder if you work in the meta verse, for example. “As more and more experiences take place in a virtual world, you become more and more involved in the virtual world. And then it becomes harder to distinguish: what is the physical and what is the virtual world? They are all experiences, with the same kind of impact on your psyche. When you are in a virtual reality all day, your brain subconsciously begins to accept things that happen there as real. That’s also what Morpheus says in The matrix: Reality consists of electronic impulses that are interpreted by your brain. “According to Schermer, this is exactly how it has turned out.” And there are also soldiers who learn actions in VR that they can use in the real world. ”

Augmented reality, augmented reality with your phone or google glasses, can also lead to unsettling situations. This became apparent during the Pokémon Go hype as people began looking for Pokémon in random backyards. Even simple messages on social media already ensure that some people are in a completely different reality. According to Schermer, AR can amplify this. “It becomes difficult to have a normal discussion with each other when you see a fruit bowl with your AR glasses, and I see a lot of flowers. We cited extreme examples in the report, such as the hypothetical situation where a tech millionaire in San Francisco filters homeless people from the streets. And if you’re looking at me with AR glasses, are you not looking secretly? Or put a nude filter over me? Technology already enables us to do that. ” He says this can also be used by technology giants to collect data about you. “It’s possible to scan an entire house within a millisecond and then recognize and see objects using AI: it’s a five year old TV, this person is likely to have an advertisement for a new one. These are privacy issues that we need to address. resolve together. ”

The report, which Schermer and his colleagues sent to the House of Representatives last year, sounds like a dystopian science-fiction book in some places. Still, according to Schermer, it will take some time before legislation is actually introduced. “You will see that it only gets regulated when those glasses really make an impact and there are a lot of applications.” He also believes that it must first go wrong before politicians realize the importance of such laws. “It works reasonably event-driven.”

Banning technologies that could potentially lead to catastrophic results is not an option, he says. “It is also one of the dilemmas that we describe in the report. One does not want to set the laws of the world now, so no company dares to renew itself anymore, because it is completely tightly regulated. But if you arrive late, it will be very difficult and expensive to get the spirit back in the bottle. ” Schermer stresses that more research needs to be done into the impact of VR and AR before one can say anything meaningful about it. Yet he has a strange feeling of it. “I’m not easily worried about technologies, but I find these exciting.”

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