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AI and the Metaverse: The Imperative for Rules and Regulations

Brookings Advocacy | Jul 19, 2023

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This AI-driven world is not just a game but a space where personally identifiable avatars interact under the control of advanced AI systems. As we immerse ourselves more into this new online world, it is crucial that we collectively decide where we want to be going.

The metaverse is a creature of AI, with much of what happens in it determined by AI algorithms. While the term may have disappeared from public consciousness, it should not disappear from public concern. The company formerly known as Facebook, now Meta Platforms, continues its multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to shape a good image for the metaverse.

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The metaverse brings the promise of new tools for education, entertainment, medicine, and commerce. However, it also imports the problems associated with the current digital platforms, while creating a host of new issues. Since we have yet to successfully deal with the problems created by the current digital platforms, it is even more pressing to rectify the new genre of potential abuses that are arising.

The online challenges with which we wrestle today, such as privacy, competition, and misinformation, will be supercharged by the intrusive, immersive, individually identifiable nature of the metaverse. On top of this, the metaverse expands the problems inherent in unsupervised online communities such as harassment, bias, manipulation, and threats to personal safety and the safety of children.

Policy Makers Need to Step Up

The experience with social media is a warning about what happens when public interest expectations are not part of digital innovation, when “build it and be damned” is the rule. Policymakers need to come to grips with—and preferably get ahead of—the new technology with focus equal to those who are creating the new challenges.  Today’s online activity began as an observational experience that gradually expanded through social media and online games to become more participatory. The metaverse accelerates that expansion utilizing virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence to create an immersive 3-D first person experience that puts the user “inside” a new pseudo-world.

We are moving from social media to social virtual reality without a plan for mitigating its ills.

Thus far in the internet age, the dominant companies have privatized governance and made their own behavioral rules free of much effective governmental oversight. Too often, public policymakers’ lack of technological understanding has been exploited to promote a fear that regulation will break the magic of the tech innovators.  Now is the moment to decide about the kind of digital world in which we want to live.

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The metaverse will—like the digital platforms that preceded it—deliver wonderous new capabilities. The development of such capabilities must be encouraged and expedited but not at the cost of trampling the rights of individuals and the public interest. The coming metaverse gives us the opportunity to both rectify the abuses of the early internet era while getting in front of the changes to come.

Where to from here?

In conclusion, the metaverse is a world of expanded surveillance by those offering the service. That this new surveillance is being developed by the same companies that have already trampled personal privacy should be of concern. Now, while the metaverse is relatively rudimentary, is the time to get in front of the new issues it raises and, in the process, tackle the platform problems that have long bedeviled us. We are being told, however, to chill, that the time necessary for the development of the metaverse will give us the opportunity to resolve the problems it creates. History, however, teaches us the opposite is true. The establishment of digital norms is a matter of getting there first.

Once new digital patterns are established, they are difficult to correct.

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