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Metaverse: Pervasive or Invasive?

Bringing technology to life carries with it privacy and societal implications

By Elizabeth Lepro

Here are some of the technologies AUC students have contributed to in just the last several years: a self-navigating wheelchair, applications that route traffic more intelligently and a smart mirror capable of determining a person’s vitals.

Sherif Aly ’96, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, pointed out that this is only the beginning when it comes to pervasive computing systems enabled by artificial intelligence. “Years of innovation could be happening in days by virtue of how fast those kinds of systems are thinking and innovating,” Aly said. “It’s very likely that you start seeing stuff that showed up in science fiction movies turning yet again into science facts. You could be literally wearing your VR headset and say, ‘Hey Meta, can you replay memories of my fifth birthday with my friends?’”

AUC students will continue to have a hand in these innovations — many graduates are already working at tech companies like Google, Apple and Meta. In some classes, students are actively imagining their roles in the metaverse. (See “Enter the CAVE,” p. 28). They will not only be responsible for creating new pervasive technologies and designing virtual worlds but also considering their implications. 

There are cognitive considerations: How will people be affected by the ability to escape fully into fantasy worlds? 

And there are privacy considerations: Machine learning — the algorithms that make it possible for cars to drive themselves and online shopping platforms to curate specific recommendations — requires input. Engineers have to train computer systems in human behavior in order for machines to interact “intelligently” with humans. That requires collecting a lot of data about how humans behave. “There is a very dark side to technology,” said Aly, who is the editor of the Association for Computing Machinery’s flagship magazine, Communications of the ACM. “Once you own a smartphone, you’re living with an illusion of privacy.”

“There is a very dark side to technology. Once you own a smartphone, you’re living with an illusion of privacy.”

Sociology in the Metaverse

Aly’s specialty is pervasive computing. If that sounds like computers, everywhere — basically, it is. The term refers to devices that use data to interact automatically with humans in real-world environments. 

We are already familiar with smart devices like Google Home, Amazon Alexa and the iPhone. The future, said Aly, could feature bus station screens that update automatically based on the person standing in front of them.

Social media — where every move we make is tracked and logged — is a plentiful source for the data needed to power these innovations. To Mohamed Abdou, assistant professor of sociology, the potential for increased surveillance in the metaverse is concerning. Students should be “skeptical about the monopolies that are involved in the technology itself and access in terms of the democratization of its usage,” said Abdou, whose research interests include social movements. For example, Twitter is often credited as a stimulus for the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Whether or not that’s true, Abdou said, a major social platform likely cannot facilitate that kind of mobilization again. “We can’t use Twitter the same way it was used in Tahrir. That moment is gone,” he explained.  

Part of Abdou’s previous research includes studying online communities, where — rather than providing an escape from the inequities present in real life — biases and prejudices can be reinforced.

“We live in the 21st century, and we’re not going back. The question is, what are the ethical and political implications of the technologies that we adopt?” 

Farah Rafik ’21, Aya Aboshady ’20 and Basant Samhout ’21 conducted an online harassment survey of 613 Egyptians for their Multimedia Reporting capstone in Spring 2020 and found that 72% of respondents had been harassed online. Amnesty International has reached similar conclusions through wide-reaching studies of Twitter. 

“We have to be conscious of exacerbating already embedded and existing structural and symbolic inequalities,” Abdou said. “We live in the 21st century, and we’re not going back. The question is, what are the ethical and political implications of the technologies that we adopt?” 

‘The AI Is Going to Inform Us’

Students who are involved in the design and integration of new technologies will also need to consider the people using them — where they come from, how they use technology and, more importantly, according to Jacquelyn Berry, what language they speak.

Berry, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, is excited about the future of artificial intelligence and immersive VR — with a few caveats. 

As a Fulbright Scholar at AUC in 2019-2020, Berry used the simple building block game Tetris to study how well Arabic-English bilinguals are able to “interface switch,” which refers to the process of moving from one device to another — something we do more than 20 times an hour, according to a study by OMD media agency network. She predicted that bilingual students would be able to adjust to an upside-down Tetris game more easily than monolinguals based on their cognitive ability to code-switch. The opposite turned out to be true.

Berry is also a member of AI 4 Afrika, a group of academics, artists, industry professionals and nonprofits centering African perspectives in tech. In a presentation for the AI 4 Good Global Summit, she described some of the findings of her research. 

“Not only does language govern how we interact with one another and react with our environments, it also acts as a mediator for how we interact with technology,” she said. 

Arabic speakers switch to a Latin-based chat language (using the 3 for ع, for example) that was specifically created because early internet applications and keyboards didn’t account for Arabic text. That requires more cognitive processing than simply picking up the phone and texting in the same language in which you were just writing. 

Going forward, she said new technologies should be more inclusive from the start.

“We have to make sure we have fair and uncolonialized ways of informing the AI because the AI is going to inform us.” 

“We’re going to get to a point, particularly with wearable tech, where it’s just the body interacting with the technology,” she said in the presentation. “But I think it’s important to remember that language informs so much about how we structure technology. We have to make sure we have fair and uncolonialized ways of informing the AI because the AI is going to inform us.” 

Overall, Berry said she is excited about the potential for VR to transition from only a form of escapism and entertainment to a tool that improves the way we learn. “For anyone who is trying to learn how to do something, simulators are nice, but getting an immersive sense of how to do something is really good,” she said. 

When asked whether there was such a thing as “too much escapism,” she paused for a moment. “I’m going to have to say no,” she said. “I think that the spoils will go to the people who can figure out how to merge their work and play lives.”

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