Does the Metaverse Have Rights? Permissionless Innovation Bias and Artificial Intelligence

As Susan Crawford told us in 2010:

I was brought up and trained in the Internet Age by people who really believed that nation states were on the verge of crumbling…and we could geek around it.  We could avoid it.  These people [and their nation states] were irrelevant.

Ms. Crawford had a key tech role in the Obama Administration and is now a law professor. She crystalized the wistful disappointment of technocrats when the Internet is confronted with generational expectations of non-technocrats (i.e., you and me). The disappointment that ownership means something, privacy means something and that permission defines a self-identity boundary that is not something to “geek around” in a quest for “permissionless innovation.” 

Seeking permission recognizes humanity. Failing to do so takes these rights away from the humans and gives them to the people who own the machines–at least until the arrival of general artificial intelligence which may find us working for the machines. 

These core concepts of civil society are not “irrelevant”. They define humanity. What assurance do we have that empowered AI machines won’t capture these rights?

All these concepts are at issue in the “metaverse” plan announced by Mark Zuckerberg, who has a supermajority of Facebook voting shares and has decided to devote an initial investment of $10 billion (that we know of) to expanding the metaverse. Given the addictive properties of social media and the scoring potential of social credit it is increasingly important that we acknowledge that the AI behind the metaverse (and soon almost everything else) is itself a hyper efficient implementation of the biases of those who program that AI. 

AI bias and the ethics of AI are all the rage. Harvard Business Review tells us that “AI can help identify and reduce the impact of human biases, but it can also make the problem worse by baking in and deploying biases at scale in sensitive application areas.” Cathy O’Neill’s 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction is a deep dive into how databases discriminate and exhibit the biases of those who create them.

We can all agree that insurance redlining, gender stereotyping and comparable social biases need to be dealt with. But concerns about bias don’t end there. An even deeper dive needs to be done into the more abstract biases required to geek around the nation state and fundamental human rights corrupted by the “permissionless innovation” bias that is built into major platforms like Facebook and from which its employees and kingpin enjoy unparalleled riches.

That bias will be incorporated into the Zuckerberg version of the metaverse and the AI that will power it. 

Here’s an example. We know that Facebook’s architecture never contemplated a music or movie licensing process. Zuckerberg built it that way on purpose–the architecture reflected his bias against respecting copyright, user data and really any private property rights not his own. Not only does Zuckerberg take copyright and data for his own purposes, he has convinced billions of people to create free content for him and then to pay him to advertise that content to Facebook users and elsewhere. He takes great care to be sure that there is extraordinarily complex programming to maximize his profit from selling other people’s property, but he refuses to do the same when it comes to paying the people who create the content, and by extension the data he then repackages and sells.

He does this for a reason–he was allowed to get away with it. The music and movie industries failed to stop him and let him get away with it year after year until he finally agreed to make a token payment to a handful of large companies. That cash arrives with no really accurate reporting because reporting would require reversing the bias against licensing and reporting that was built into the Facebook systems to begin with.

A bias that is almost certainly going to be extended into the Facebook metaverse. 

The metaverse is likely going to be a place where everything is for sale and product placements abound. The level of data collection on individuals will likely increase exponentially. Consider this Techcrunch description of “Project Cambria” the Metaverse replacement for the standard VR headset:

Cambria will include capabilities that currently aren’t possible on other VR headsets. New sensors in the device will allow your virtual avatar to maintain eye contact and reflect your facial expressions. The company says that’s something that will allow people you’re interacting with virtually to get a better sense of how you’re feeling. Another focus of the headset will be mixed-reality experiences. With the help of new sensors and reconstruction algorithms, Facebook claims Cambria will have the capability to represent objects in the physical world with a sense of depth and perspective. 

If past is prologue, the Metaverse will exhibit an even greater disregard for human rights and the laws that protect us than Facebook. That anti-human bias will be baked into the architecture and the AI that supports it. The machines don’t look kindly on those pesky humans and all their petty little rights that stand in the way of the AI getting what it wants.

If you don’t think that’s true, try reading the terms of service for these platforms. Or considering why the technocrats are so interested in safe harbors where their machines can run free of liability for collateral damage. The terms of service should make clear that AI has greater rights than you. We are way beyond pronouns now.

If the only concern of AI ethics is protection against stereotypes or insurance redlining (a version of the social credit score), we will be missing huge fundamental parts of the bias problem. Should we be content if AI is allowing its owner (for so long as it has an owner) to otherwise rob you blind by taking your property or selling your data while using the right pronoun as it geeks around the nation state?

[This post first appeared on MusicTech.Solutions]