What is Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, and Do We Want It?

Ron Baecker is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives and Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and organizer of computers-society.org.

AI and in particular machine learning has made great progress in the last decade. Yet I am deeply concerned about the hype associated with AI, and the risks to society stemming from premature use of the software. We are particularly vulnerable in domains such as medical diagnosis, criminal justice, seniors care, driving, and warfare. Here AI applications have begun or are imminent. Yet much current AIs are unreliable and inconsistent, without common sense; deceptive in hiding that they are algorithms and not people; mute and unable to explain decisions and actions; unfair and unjust; free from accountability and responsibility; and used but not trusted. 

Patient safety and peace of mind is aided in medical contexts because doctors, nurses, and technicians disclose their status, e.g., specialist, resident, intern, or medical student. This helps guide our expectations and actions. Most current chatbots are not open and transparent. They do not disclose that they are algorithms. They do not indicate their degree of competence and their limitations. This leads to user confusion, frustration, and distrust. This must change before the drive towards increasing use of algorithmic medical diagnosis and advice goes too far. The dangers have been illustrated by the exaggerated claims about the oncology expertise of IBM’s Watson. 

Ai algorithms are not yet competent and reliable in many of the domains anticipated by enthusiasts. They are brittle — they often break when confronted with situations only trivially different from those on which they have been trained.  Good examples are self-driving anomalies such as strange lighting and reflections, or unexpected objects such as kangaroos, or bicycles built for 2 carrying a child on the front handlebars. Ultimately, algorithms will do most of the driving that people now do, but they are not yet ready for this task. AIs are also shallow, possessing little innate knowledge, no model of the world or common sense, which researcher Doug Lenat, creator of the CYC system, has been striving to automate for four decades. 

But we expect even more of good agents beyond competence.  Consider a medical diagnosis or procedure.  We expect a physician to be open to discussing a decision or planned action.  We expect the logic of the decision or action to be transparent, so that, within the limits of our medical knowledge, we understand what is being recommended or what will be done to us.  We expect a decision or an action by an agent to be explainable. Despite vigorous recent research on explainable AI, most advanced AI algorithms are still inscrutable. 

We should also expect actions and decisions to be fair, not favoring one person or another, and to be just in terms of generally accepted norms of justice. Yet we have seen repeatedly recently how poor training data causes machine learning algorithms to exhibit patterns of discrimination in areas as diverse as recommending bonds, bail, and sentencing; approving mortgage applications; deciding on ride-hailing fares; and recognizing faces. 

If an algorithm rejects a résumé unfairly, or does a medical diagnosis incorrectly, or through a drone miscalculation injures an innocent person or takes a life, who is responsible?  Who may be held accountable? We have just begun to think about and develop the technology, the ethics, and the laws to deal with algorithmic accountability and responsibility. A recent example is an investor suing an AI company peddling super-computer AI hedge fund software after its automated trader cost him $20 million, thereby trying to hold the firm responsible and accountable. 

The good news is that many conscientious and ethical scientists and humanists are working on these issues, but citizen awareness, vigorous research, and government oversight are required before we will be able to trust AI for a wide variety of jobs These topics are discussed at far greater length in Chapter 11 of . Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, Chapters 12 and 17 of  Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do, and also in The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI


What do you think? Are my expectations unreasonable? What issues concern you beyond those I have discussed? 

In a recent blog, I suggested that we have finally lost patience with Facebook after new revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen and the Wall Street Journal. Leaked documents show that FB knows that almost six million VIPs are given special dispensation to violate their content standards; criminals use FB to recruit women, incite violence against ethnic minorities, and support government action against political dissent; Instagram is toxic to many young girls, contributing to poor self-image, mental health, and suicidal thoughts; the firm relaxed its safeguards too soon after the U.S. election, contributing to the January 6 riot; and FB is incapable of suppressing election and vaccine misinformation. 

Mark Zuckerberg then tried to shift attention from its failure to provide safe and healthy online platforms and the looming threat of antitrust action by changing the company’s name to Meta and its focus to the metaverse. (He had been taking steps in this direction for some time.) The term originated in a 1992 science fiction novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Zuckerberg interprets it to mean a successor to the global internet in which everyone is represented by avatars and is immersed in a pervasive virtual reality environment (an imaginary world synthesized by computers), a world including images and sounds from the real world (augmented reality). Mark ended his recent 75-minute keynote speech with the phrase “If this is the future you want to have …” 

Is this the future you want to have? To stimulate thought and critical analysis, I will post this week my answer to this question. 

Here are some quotes from Zuckerberg’s keynote speech describing his vision (underlining for emphasis). 

” …The next platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it … the metaverse. … you’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine, get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create as well as entirely new categories that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today. … 

… the metaverse ,,, the successor to the mobile internet. We’ll be able to feel present like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are. We’ll be able to express ourselves in new, joyful, completely immersive ways … unlock[ing] a lot of amazing new experiences. When I send my parents a video of my kids, they’re going to feel like they’re right in the moment with us not peering through a little window. When you play a game with your friends, you’ll feel like you’re right there together in a different world … when you’re in a meeting in the metaverse, it’ll feel like you’re right in the room together, making eye contact, having a shared sense of space and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen. … Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences. Everything we do online today connecting socially, entertainment, games, work is going to be more natural and vivid 

This isn’t about spending more time on screens. It’s about making the time that we already spend better. Screens just can’t convey the full range of human expression and connection. They can’t deliver that deep feeling of presence, but … what we should be working towards [is] technology that’s built around people and how we actually experience the world and interact with each other. … 

… fundamental building blocks … the feeling of presence. This is the defining quality of the metaverse. You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their face expressions. You’ll see their body language. Maybe figure out if they’re actually holding a winning hand. All the subtle ways that we communicate that today’s technology can’t quite deliver. … there are avatars … that’s how we’re going to represent ourselves in the metaverse. Avatars will be as common as profile pictures today … they’re going to be living 3D representations of you, your expressions, your gestures that are going to make interactions much richer than anything that’s possible online today. You’ll probably have a photo realistic avatar for work, a stylized one for hanging out and maybe even a fantasy one for gaming. You’re going to have a wardrobe of virtual clothes for different occasions … 


… you should be able to bring your avatar and digital items across different apps and experiences in the metaverse. Beyond avatars, there is your home space. You’re going to be able to design it to look the way you want, maybe put up your own pictures and videos and store your digital goods. You’re going to be able to invite people over, play games and hang out. … even a home office where you can work … your personal space from which you can teleport to anywhere you want. … like clicking a link on the internet. … 

… It’s … going to take ecosystem building … and new forms of governance. …  this … we’re really going to focus on. … Privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space, or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone

… Instead of typing or tapping, you’re going to be able to gesture with your hands, say a few words, or even just make things happen by thinking about them. … we believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses … 

… the lack of choice and high fees are stifling innovation, stopping people from building new things and holding back the entire internet economy. We … take a different approach … to serve as many people as possible … working to make our services cost less.  

… designing for safety and privacy and inclusion … Last year, we announced grants for research on the impact of AR, VR, and smart devices on people who aren’t currently using them, especially communities whose perspectives have often been overlooked, … we’re opening up support for even more research … we need those independent perspectives to make sure that we’re living up to another one of our principles: consider everyone. … we need to make sure the human rights and civil rights communities are involved …” 


Do you want a Metaverse built by Meta? Why or why not? Please explain the assumptions and reasoning behind your opinions and feelings. 

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