Meta, the name of Facebook’s recent rebrand, is investing billions of dollars into a project that hopes to see the creation of the “Metaverse,” an immersive virtual reality environment in which people can interact with users and the artificial world around them. If you think that this sounds like an idea straight out of the Black Mirror writers' room, you’re not alone — a number of prominent voices have expressed their concerns with the idea.
One of these voices is Dr David Reid, a Professor of AI and Spatial Computing at Liverpool Hope University. While he believes the metaverse may potentially bring some exciting possibilities to humankind, it runs the risk of drastically deepening the existing problems with social media and the internet, such as data privacy concerns and cyberbullying.
“The metaverse has huge implications - it comes with fantastic advantages and terrifying dangers. And we need a highly robust system in place to police the metaverse,“ Dr Reid said in a statement.
“People are worried about the influence that Twitter can have on politics right now,“ adds Reid. “But in a completely immersive environment, how much more influence can you have on someone, when you can transport someone to a war zone and show them precisely what’s going on?”
“Likewise, how much more dangerous might social media pile-ons, or online bullying, become in the metaverse? I’d argue it has the potential to be far, far more extreme. The visceral experience of immersion can be exceptionally emotive," he explains.
More worryingly still, he argues that this technology development will blur the lines between the virtual and reality. Whoever becomes the master of this reality will have access to an unprecedented amount of data — and an inordinate amount of power.
“The market for that is gigantic. Whoever controls it, will basically have control over your entire reality,” Dr Reid continues.
“Many current MR [mixed-reality] prototype systems have face, eye, body, and hand tracking tech. Most have sophisticated cameras. Some even incorporate Electroencephalogram (EEG) technology in order to pick up brainwave patterns. In other words, everything you say, manipulate, look at, or even think about can be monitored in MR. The data this will generate will be vast…. and extremely valuable,” he stressed.
“And that’s why we need a system in place to police it. No single company should ever exert control - it’s simply too important for that to happen.”
Reid is not alone in his concerns. Another prominent critic of the metaverse is Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who has since become scathing of the company’s direction in recent years. Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon this week, McNamee reportedly said that he believes the metaverse project was rushed out by Facebook in an attempt to deflect from the bad press being generated by whistleblower Frances Haugen's testimony.
"Facebook should not be allowed to create a dystopian metaverse," McNamee told the BBC
"Facebook should have lost the right to make its own choices. A regulator should be there giving pre-approval for everything they do. The amount of harm they've done is incalculable,” he added.