© Eugenio Marongiu

Addiction, crime and data breaches: The metaverse could become a wild west if we’re not careful

David Reid, a professor of AI and spatial computing at Liverpool Hope University, explains the future of the metaverse and its risks.

Once a sci-fi dream filling the pages of Ready Player One, the idea of a virtual world that we can all interact with is rapidly becoming more likely – it’s called the metaverse. You will have likely heard the term thrown around. Whether that’s because of Facebook’s rebranding to Meta, a company focused on virtual worlds and interaction, or simply because more and more companies are exploring the possibility of virtual world advertisements, games and a future in the virtual world.

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But with such a rapid expansion into this new virtual world, will it be safe, regulated and, is it something we should fear or accept with open arms?

We talk to David Reid, a Professor of AI and spatial computing at Liverpool Hope University to see what to expect from the future of the metaverse.

Can you explain what the metaverse is?

There’s a few definitions. You can think of it from a technological viewpoint, where it’s simply the successor of the internet. Computers once took up big rooms, but they’ve shrunk until we got things like pocket-sized smartphones that you constantly interact with. The metaverse takes this a step further, making the actual environment you interact with virtual, removing the interface of computers completely.

Most people define the metaverse as an embodied internet. This means it allows you to interact and have visceral experiences in a surrounding that’s almost like real life but isn’t. The third common definition is where it’s a tipping point. It’s a moment in time where everything goes digital. Your friends, your job, your identity, and your currencies.

How far off do you think the metaverse is from our daily lives?

It’s already here. In the city of Seoul, they’re investing about €3 billion into creating the infrastructure for a virtual space that reflects the Seoul cityscape itself. They’ll be able to interact with people and create a virtual communications ecosystem where the municipal administration will take place. It’ll include things like cultural interaction, tourism, education, civil services and more.

Then, there’s Decentraland. They’re already creating real estate markets for the metaverse. The problem is that there’s lots of different metaverses out there. Meta have theirs, Microsoft has their version but they don’t interact. At the moment a lot of companies are building their own walled garden versions of the metaverse for their very specific needs and niches. The metaverse will take off when you’re able to interact between them.

How much importance do you think the metaverse will play in our daily lives?

It will dwarf what the World Wide Web (WWW) achieved. I was involved at the first part of the World Wide Web and it strikes me that the metaverse is at the same stage right now. In those days, I had to persuade companies to go on a shopping mall I’d invented. They couldn’t see the benefits of selling something online.

The metaverse provides far more flexibility, data, interactivity, and a far more visceral experience than the internet ever did. Anything you can do with the internet you can do in the metaverse, but much better.

If you think about how you actually move around the environment, you’re basically moving around a virtual environment and you’re providing vast amounts of data for a system to actually process. I fully envisage a strong link up between the metaverse and AI as well. The metaverse is the perfect platform for AI to learn from and develop.

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Virtual reality pixels moving past VR headset © wildpixel

For those who aren’t familiar with the metaverse, what do you think the risks and potential crimes are here?

There’s all of the same issues as the internet, it’s just massively magnified in the metaverse. You could be interacting with avatars that look like people you know but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re talking to that person. Social engineering to get passwords and money out of people all becomes a bit more realistic.

The metaverse is probably going to be funded on NFTs (non-fungible tokens) which again is going to perhaps attract the criminal fraternity as well. They’ll be able to launder money a lot easier or commit fraud, moving the contents to another part of the metaverse.

Criminal gangs could hold people, their avatars and their assets hostage, and those will have real value. The way you’re interacting with the environment is more immediate. That means everything you see or interact with produces biometric information that you provide to the metaverse and that’s a valuable resource that can be mimicked. That’s all before you even start considering the advances in AI systems and the computational bias metaverse users could face.

Viewing porn or being involved with violence acts and online bullying, all of this becomes far more visceral and has a greater mental toll. All of those things protecting where kids can go, it becomes far more difficult to police and that’s part of the problem. In the metaverse, there are no rules currently.

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On the internet itself, a lot of issues go unchecked. How do you see the metaverse being policed?

Some internet restrictions worked to a certain extent, but most haven’t. Police forces themselves are going to have to become far more involved with the type of technology used and have to be in the metaverse themselves.

Proper organisations will need to get involved with the metaverse from a relatively early stage if they’re going to police it better than the internet was. When the internet came around, there was little interest in it or in crime on the internet. But if we’re going to do it properly this time, we need to get in from almost ground zero to get big organisations to get involved. Police forces and government organisations need to see what’s going on there and be aware of the potential of some of these problems.

if it ever becomes mainstream, it won’t have any one person controlling it, like the World Wide Web doesn’t have one person controlling it. What we need is something like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which manages the standards for the World Wide Web.

Facebook and a lot of other internet giants don’t have a great track record for safeguarding data. How will the metaverse be different?

It’s got the potential to be far worse than what’s happening at the moment. The amount of data that you generate as you move through the metaverse will be far greater than the amount of data that you give from the internet.

Think about how you interact with the internet, essentially it’s using the keyboard and using the mouse click. It generates far less data than if you are actually physically moving through a particular environment or if you’ve got a tracking system, all that biometric information is suddenly captured. All of that biometric information about what you touch, what you interact with and what you look at in a particular environment, all of that could be captured as well.

The potential for things like biometric theft or loss of information through biometrics is far greater, and that will have much more severe ramifications than just losing your password on the internet. The big companies do realise this, but they haven’t really addressed it.

© Oscar Wong
Augmented reality map on phone © Oscar Wong

What are you most worried about the metaverse personally?

There’s the psychological aspects of it because people get addicted to the internet. The metaverse will be even more seductive than the internet ever will. People will be able to spend days in the metaverse and that’s going to have psychological implications. I can see metaverse addiction becoming a real thing very rapidly.

The potential for loss of biometric data and personal information that you give away is another big risk purely by existing in it. The fact that if you move through a particular environment, you’re giving lots of information away about who you are, what your preferences are and how you interact with people. There are people who could easily use this for nefarious purposes.

How do you protect people in the metaverse? Young or vulnerable people who are vulnerable to coercion or things they don’t understand. You go into this new and potentially hostile environment, but will there be any warnings? The metaverse is shaping up a bit like the Wild West. Essentially, there are no rules. Some of the these factors could be thought of right from the start so we don’t make the same mistakes as we did with the internet.

Do you think people will adopt the metaverse despite its issues?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m tremendously excited for the metaverse. It’ll create new jobs that we haven’t even considered yet. Nobody would have ever thought about the concept of an influencer when the internet first came around.

You can imagine a situation in education where you could transport a classroom to loads of remote locations. If you wanted to show somebody how the body works or how an engine works, that becomes far more nuanced. Through the use of haptic gloves, surgeons could practice lifelike surgery in the metaverse.

The metaverse could bring people together like no other platform. People are selling digital artwork now for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the virtual world that don’t exist in the real world, that’s a huge new business. There are places where you can buy virtual houses and pieces of land, you can have whole industries geared towards the metaverse.

Virtuality could really help a lot of older people too or those who are housebound. It gives them the opportunity to mentally get out of their own environments. I can imagine somebody whose bedbound or in hospital would be able to distract themselves from the problems of the real world. The key problem is that if people become too addicted to doing that, they could just prefer this new virtual world.

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