Metaverse moves

I have just finished reading Matthew Ball’s  “The metaverse and how it will revolutionise everything.”  If 352 pages are likely to defeat you there is a great summary/review in The Economist of 27th July.

Here is Ball’s definition of the metaverse

“A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments”.  

What could possibly go wrong?

A little bit of history

Contrary to popular belief the term “metaverse” was not the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg. It was first coined 30 years ago by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. However, the idea of the metaverse, or something like it, is considerably older. Ball references a 1935 novel entitled “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”. In an excellent article in Forbes magazine we find ourselves taken even further back in time, to 1838 and one Sir Charles Wheatstone’s “binocular vision” which led to the creation of “stereoscopes”.

To revert to the modern era, in one of the several You Tube interviews he gave to promote his book, at one point Ball refers to the metaverse as the “3D internet” being built iteratively on the existing infrastructure. This rather chimes with my own idea of it.

Yet as someone who bought a 3D TV set pretty much as soon as they first came out (thinking it would enhance watching football matches – it didn’t) and has still only ever used the 3D function two or three times, and that was ages ago (with DVDs), I am slightly sceptical about much of the hype. But equally I realise a huge amount of money is getting behind the metaverse so who knows how this latest adventure might turn out? There is no doubt if it does take off, all too easily some very familiar child protection issues could be put on steroids. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Limitations of the technology

In relation to engineering projects, scientific research, medical applications and probably a whole host of other things, the ability to render and work on 3D images remotely and collaboratively in real time is already proving invaluable. B2B type applications of this sort are still quite niche but they will continue to grow in importance and we should all benefit from that.

To gain traction in mass consumer-facing markets, which will be a key objective of companies like Meta and Apple, the characters or avatars in the metaverse will have to start looking and sounding a lot like actual humans, rather than robotic cartoon versions of humans persistently suffering from dropped frames and missed words caused by latency or lags on the network. There will therefore need to be concomitant,  substantial improvements in both hardware and available bandwidth. This will lead to another digital divide but eventually the gap will close.

Immersive gaming environments provide clues 

Will the technology get there? We have to assume it will although it’s anybody’s guess when. However, if we think of the current online gaming environment as a primitive form or proto-metaverse we already have quite enough clues about the dangers ahead for children.  Below are a few stories I dug out.

They involve rape and murder, enticement, aggravated rape, gang rape and addictiveness. The UK’s NSPCC has also issued a more broadly based set of warnings, anchored in their direct experience of actual cases.

Then we need to add into the mix the further development of “Haptic VR” and other aspects of “sextech”.  Will such devices be accommodated in some of the emerging metaverse applications? If so how will those providing the virtual spaces concerned ensure only adults or individuals above the age of consent to sex are engaging with them?  What will a safe and respectful  metaverse be able to guarantee in terms of children’s safety and privacy? What will it not be able to guarantee?

No more s. 230 moments

If the history of tech has taught us anything it is that any new application or system is unlikely to come out of the traps in a perfect or finished form. In the early days of the internet Silicon Valley managed to persuade governments and legislatures around the world that it needed special exemptions and protection from legal liability. They were given s.230, CDA, 1995 and similar. Now we are having to unpick the worst of the consequences of such decisions. But the good news is the laws making it possible to do the unpicking should also help avoid catastrophes in the metaverse.

The raft of new laws  to which I refer address AI transparency, transparency and reporting requirements more generally, and in particular risk assessments. Legal obligations are being put in place requiring companies to act to mitigate discovered or likely risks, particularly where they impact children and other vulnerable groups.

The eerie silence

In the context of his expansive discussion of the emergence of the metaverse, why didn’t Matthew Ball discuss its implications for children or other vulnerable groups? Why are so few other  leading people in tech doing so?

Because they almost never do. Children have almost always been an afterthought in the boardrooms and minds of Big Tech as they charge onwards to the next profitable horizon.

As I already said, a lot of money is going to be spent developing the metaverse. Lots of people will have a stake in its future or hope for one.  They saw the goldmine the internet created back in the 1990s and early noughties and believe the metaverse is going to do something similar. Many new jobs are going to be created. Fortunes are going to be made.  But this isn’t 1995.  We are no longer wet behind the ears.

Some governments are already on it. Every government should be.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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