Researchers sound alarm over metaverse's potential to cause harm

Tech companies like Meta and Microsoft believe the metaverse – a virtual interactive environment that can be accessed with a VR headset – may one day replace our current internet. However it's also likely to adopt many of the problems of the current web, researchers believe. — Photo: Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa

BERLIN: People concerned about their data have for years had to think carefully about matters such as social media app settings and internet browser cookies, as well as increasingly sophisticated email-based phishing scams.

But the addition of so-called artificial intelligence platforms and the metaverse could make these worries seem trivial, if a new report by Queen’s University Belfast is anything to go by.

In the wake of mounting research confirming the mental health harm of social media, the university's researchers are now calling for investigations into the impact of the metaverse on society and how the companies behind these platforms operate.

"Privacy, data collection, especially of personal data and biometric data, and the harm online platforms can cause, are all issues of concern to the public," the university’s team warned.

Proponents believe the metaverse will ultimately replace the current internet with a 3D space accessed by headset, offering virtual concerts, meeting rooms and collective gaming. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Meta are all investing heavily.

"[T]he next generation of internet technologies will be highly immersive, compelling and largely driven by AI," said Jesus Martinez del Rincon, research director of security intelligence at the Belfast university's Centre for Secure Information Technologies.

However researchers say their focus groups showed many of the online harms experienced in current internet and social media environments will transfer to the metaverse and proliferate there.

The metaverse remains at least a decade away due to the massive amount of data it would require, which in turn would entail a vast increase in internet availability, bandwidth and speed – and matching investments in not only electricity-hungry data processing hubs but the power-generation needed to keep it all ticking over.

And the blend of AI and the virtual 3D-style internet worlds promised – if the metaverse ever gets going – will, del Rincon believes, "make it very difficult for us to discern between what is real and what is imaginary within these virtual worlds." – dpa

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