Metaverse is the Internet of the Future – But it Comes with Risks
With advances in AI and metaverse technology, we are facing decisions about how to interact with and embrace technology. Whether you’re the first to experiment with a new feature or avoid upgrading to new tech as long as possible, we are all going to have to confront these emerging technologies and how they fit into our lives. It’s unavoidable – and it will likely happen sooner rather than later.
See The Impact of the Metaverse with Mark van Rijmenam for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Mark van Rijmenam is a strategic futurist. He thinks about emerging technologies and how they change organizations and society. Topics he considers include big data, blockchain, AI, metaverse, generative AI, and synthetic media – everything emerging that’s going to change our world. He is also a keynote speaker, helping Fortune 500 companies understand difficult tech and what it means for them. Mark has written five books – his fourth book, Step into the Metaverse, is all about the metaverse, and his fifth, Future Visions, was the first published book written with the help of ChatGPT.In addition, he is also the founder of Datafloq, a media platform about emerging technologies, and the Futurwise Institute, a research institute focused on elevating the world’s digital awareness to ensure a thriving digital future.
What is the Metaverse?
Trying to define the metaverse can be a bit difficult. Everyone has different perspectives. For his book, Mark asked two hundred and fifty people to define the metaverse, and he got two hundred and fifty different answers. That just shows how difficult and abstract the concept is.
It helps to define what the metaverse is not. There are lots of misconceptions about it. Some people think that it’s for gaming, or it’s just virtual reality, or even it’s that thing that Facebook was trying to create. It absolutely can be all of the above. But it doesn’t have to be.
The metaverse to me is where the physical and the digital worlds converge.Mark van Rijmenam
Mark defines the metaverse as the physical and digital worlds moving together to the point where we have an immersive internet experience. We had Web 1.0, then the social web, then the global web. The metaverse is just the next iteration of the internet. We’re moving from a two-dimensional internet to a three-dimensional internet. Going online will go from a conscious choice to get on your smartwatch or smartphone to something as pervasive as the air we breathe.
This will create “digital twins” – systems we interact with in the digital world that can make changes in both the digital and physical worlds. Right now, we can access digital twins with tablets, smartphones, computers, and VR devices. Eventually the digital will move fully into the physical. It will add a layer on top of physical reality, like current augmented reality (AR) technology. A digital dragon could fly over a city, or an overlay could tell a repair technician exactly how to fix a machine. In a nutshell, the metaverse is a conversion of the physical and the digital to create an immersive three-dimensional internet.
The Risks of the Metaverse
The biggest danger Mark sees in the future of the metaverse is based in human behavior. We don’t even understand how to behave in today’s world, let alone tomorrow’s. We can expect all the risks and problems of today’s internet expanded into the future, plus a few extra.
We used to think we can shout everything we want on social media without having any affect. When we bring that behavior into the metaverse, we think we can harass others in virtual reality because it doesn’t affect anything. But it does. If virtual reality is done correctly, our brain cannot tell the difference between the physical and the virtual. It all feels completely real. Being harassed in virtual reality feels exactly the same as being harassed in real life.
If virtual reality is done in the correct way … our brain can’t make a distinction between physical and digital.Mark van Rijmenam
This is a problem we see happening with the digital world even now. We humans think the physical and digital are two different things, and we are invisible or not accountable for our actions if they happen online. This is definitely false. The next generation already thinks there is no distinction between the digital world and “real” reality. It should change how we behave in the digital world, but at the moment we still behave pretty poorly online.
We Don’t Know How to Behave Online
A few years ago, Mark got a nasty review of one of his books on Amazon. The review had nothing at all to do with the book. Mark found the person online and sent them a nice email asking why he said those things. The person responded that they were very sorry and didn’t realize it was public, and they removed the review. Mark is glad the review got removed. But would this person have done the same thing if they were standing in front of him in the physical world? Almost certainly not.
People feel that because they’re online, there’s a mask in front of them. They feel they’re invisible or can’t face any consequences. Younger people, though, don’t feel that way. And this can be a good thing. If your digital identity is as important as your physical identity, you’ll probably pay more attention to your digital reputation. But at the same time, losing the distinction between physical and digital makes it difficult to disconnect from being online. And research has shown the consequences of constant connection, like cyberbullying and social media addiction.
Internet Addiction and the Metaverse
Studies about teenagers and time on social media has shown a direct correlation between more time online and incidence of depression, suicidal ideation, and other negative real-world consequences. These problems will be exponentially compounded in the metaverse. An immersive TikTok, for example, would truly be a disaster. So much of what’s happening affects children, who aren’t equipped to deal with it because their brains are still growing. It’s very easy for children to not notice warning signals online. We should protect children because they can’t protect themselves yet.
I see a pram with a phone stuck in front of their eyes … how do we expect that child to grow up and not be addicted to the phone?Mark van Rijmenam
Parents are also not helping their children learn to navigate the dangers of the internet. Mark can’t count how many times he’s seen a pram or stroller with a phone stuck in it, the baby or toddler inside unable to tear their eyes away from the screen. How can we expect that child to grow up and not be addicted to their phone? With the metaverse putting the internet everywhere, life will be very difficult for these children.
No One Has Told Us the Implications
We do this because we’re not fully aware of the implications and the dangers of children growing up addicted to the internet. No one has told us what those implications could be. To a certain extent, we can’t blame people because nobody has been taught. Humans are lazy – if we have easy and free tools available, we’re going to use them. But there is tremendous risk here, and we need more education on how to deal with it.
We’ve sort of been sleepwalking into the digital age, helped by big tech who created seamless entertainment and tools.Mark van Rijmenam
The transition to digital, and now to the metaverse, is moving so fast. We can’t ask our parents how they helped their kids not be addicted to iPhones. A generation ago, it just wasn’t a problem. Now we have tools like ChatGPT, an AI chatbot that got a hundred million users in just a few months. These technologies are still being developed – they’re not ready, they’re being tested by a hundred million people, many of whom are children.
OpenAI, the company that runs ChatGPT, is meant to be open-source. But that’s how it always starts. Most of the time, these projects start with good intentions. Often, there are unfortunate consequences. Then someone comes along offering a large paycheck, and people go along with the monsters they’ve built. Just because it starts with good intentions doesn’t mean it will always have good intentions.
The Importance of Building Digital Awareness
Building digital awareness is what Mark is trying to do with his research institute. He focuses on education to help people understand what’s happening. Nobody really knows what kind of impact the metaverse or ChatGPT or AI or anything else will have on society. We’re all just guinea pigs trying to understand what it means.
Nobody understand really how the metaverse will have an impact or what ChatGPT really does – we are all guinea pigs.Mark van Rijmenam
Just like you have to learn how to drive a car, you have to learn how to be online. But nobody is teaching our children. Mark never took a class about ethical behavior or how to behave in a digital world. Nobody’s getting those classes. But you can’t really blame anyone, because parents and teachers also don’t know. We need to teach people how to behave in a digital world, and it’s a problem that we don’t.
It may be like learning to drive a car, but you’re learning to drive while the engineers are trying to build the car and understand how it works. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and the metaverse are emerging products and concepts. No one has thought about rules yet because they’re still under construction. We should embrace innovation, but we should still think about what we’re doing here.
Regulation and the Metaverse
Mark is not a fan of too much government influence, but when it comes to the metaverse, there needs to be some. The market and big tech have zero incentive to let us own our own data and create technology that’s less addictive. Mark doesn’t think the government should force companies to take particular steps – after all, the government doesn’t know what’s happening in this space, either. But he thinks it would be a good idea to require technology companies to have ethics review boards. When Mark wants to do a research study with a university, he has to go through a rigorous approval process with an ethics board first. Why can’t corporations have something similar?
This is something the government can do. They can mandate that companies have to have an ethics committee and that committee has to have real power or the company gets a hefty fine. It would not stifle the free market, which is important. But it would also make sure there is some sort of review.
We also need to be aware that we can vote with our dollars. Even though it is difficult, we don’t have to use Google, TikTok, or any other technology we disagree with. Mark hopes people start insisting that companies have ethics boards. The use of animal testing didn’t change much until people agreed they wouldn’t purchase a product if it was tested on animals. We can do the same thing with technology and refuse to buy or use something unless there’s an ethicist on the board and the company listens to them. One of the things Mark would like to do with his institute is create a certification that companies can get to certify that their technology is ethical.
AI and the Metaverse in Schools
If you want to teach children how to manage the dangers of the metaverse and other technologies, you have to embrace the technology you’re educating about. The only way to educate about future tech is to use future tech. So many schools around the world ban ChatGPT, for example. Instead, they should embrace it and ask different questions. Children are going to use it, so educators have to teach them how to use it safely. Some schools use it well. They allow use of ChatGPT as long as the student says they did so and did the research to make sure the information was accurate. Or they have assignments where students have to use ChatGPT and analyze what it did well and what it did badly.
You cannot ban the future. You have to adapt and adopt the new technologies.Mark van Rijmenam
AI tools come up with complete nonsense sometimes. Mark once asked ChatGPT to tell him about himself. It said he’d written two books and three academic papers, which was correct, but the academic papers it said he’d written didn’t exist. Many people don’t see how wrong it can be. And that can be dangerous. Right now, if you type a search into Google, you’ll get the top ten results to look at and hopefully find the right information. But the metaverse will be a voice era. We won’t get ten options, just the top option read to us. Most people trust the one answer whether or not it’s true. If we’re solely trusting this one answer – which may be true, may be made up, and may even be something a company paid for the search to tell you – it will become a problem.
Three Things We Need for a Positive Future with the Metaverse
The metaverse is coming, whether we like it or not. In order to make it the best possible future, Mark thinks we need to do these three things now as a society. There is more we will need to do in the long run, but these are good steps to start.
We need to educate ourselves about new technology. Experiment with and explore new tech, and think about what we’re doing and why. We need to understand what’s happening. If you’ve never used a chainsaw before, you’ll probably read the manual before starting it up. We need to know what we’re getting into. At the absolute bare minimum, install the apps, poke around, and see what your kids are doing. It’s a lot of work, but it will benefit both you and them.
We are dealing with a lot of fake news, AI-generated content, and biased AIs, and it will only get worse in the metaverse. Verification is hugely important. Even now, being able to verify the person you’re talking to online is real is essential. In the metaverse, it will be even more important. We need to set up tools now to verify things. Do we need biometrics? Do we need document requirements? What do we need in order to trust who we’re dealing with?
Regulation that stifles innovation is not good. But we need regulation that encourages companies to have ethics boards and to have their AIs reviewed. Just like there are auditors to check finances, there should be auditors to check technology and AI. We don’t need to know how the AI works, just like we don’t need to know all the internal financial details to decide to invest in a company. But we do need to have an independent third party who can verify that the company is trustworthy.
The Bright Side of the Metaverse
Mark is an optimistic person, but he is very scared about the digital future. As the physical and digital worlds collide into the metaverse, the struggles we have with technology now will be exponentially increased. He can see the dangers in the converging and what is required to ensure a thriving digital future.
I’m a very optimistic person, but I’m also really scared about the digital future.Mark van Rijmenam
Looking back at history, when what was required was difficult to achieve, it required collective action. The powers that be don’t really like change. It requires a lot of work from you, me, and the general public. It is possible, but we need to start today and make it happen. A dystopian future is possible, but it’s not the only option. We have a chance. But we need to act now.
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