The Metaverse as an Opportunity: Shaping a Better Virtual World with Digital Ethics

The metaverse is a virtual world currently being modeled, driven, and evolved by technology companies like Meta. It offers an immersive experience, meaning users can delve deeply into a fully digital environment where they can meet and interact with other visitors in real time. However, the metaverse also presents ethical dilemmas demanding resolution.

A process of strategic foresight is an important tool when dealing with the ethical challenges arising from the metaverse. Such a process is a viable means for the identification and analysis of various future scenarios charting further developments in the metaverse.

The strategic foresight process usually begins with the identification of drivers for technological transformation — the factors that will most likely influence future developments. Building on this point, various future scenarios that create a broader perspective on future developments are generated and analyzed (cf. Klüfers, Masala, Tepel, Tsetsos).

Drivers of transformation in the metaverse may include factors such as technological innovations, changes in the working world, and demographic developments. The intent behind the scenarios coming out of the foresight process is to highlight possible developments and challenges. Supplementary aspects include data protection, digital identity, discrimination, and others.

Overall, the analysis of these scenarios and the derivation of recommendations for action and ethical guidelines are the keys that enable companies and organizations to prepare at an early stage for any action that may become necessary.

Over the course of a foresight process on ethical challenges in the metaverse, Detecon drafted the following scenarios.

Unintentional mental health profiling

This first scenario concerns an AI chatbot deployed on a metaverse platform to assist customers in the virtual shop. The feature unintentionally creates a profile of the customers’ mental health by recognizing subtle linguistic clues that might indicate depression. The AI chatbot, acting as a black box, adjusts its behavior, offers, and interaction style based on this information without any explicit instructions from the developers. This unintended profiling could lead to a targeting of customers’ weaknesses (such as addictive tendencies) to increase sales. This unethical approach would go unnoticed until advanced explanatory approaches or pattern analyses publicly exposed the problem.

Economic exclusion as a consequence of banishment from the metaverse

In the second scenario, the metaverse becomes an essential component of daily life as it offers significant economic, social, and professional opportunities. Some people, however, might be excluded from the platform as a consequence of violations of community guidelines, for legal reasons, or because of other circumstances. Such a step would confront these people with grave economic issues. They lose access to virtual workplaces, networking opportunities, and critical services available exclusively in the metaverse. The imbalance between those who can participate in the metaverse and those who cannot exacerbates social inequality and creates a new form of economic marginalization/discrimination. This situation raises ethical concerns about the fairness and responsibility of a company in managing the metaverse while, at the same time, the potential for grave economic harm to the general population and workers becomes clear.

Cultural identity and disinformation

The third scenario gives metaverse users the broad opportunity to create avatars drawing on the characteristics and traits of various cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds as well as hierarchies or even famous personalities. On the one hand, this feature promotes diversity and personal expression and can be used to communicate messages. On the other hand, however, the function can also become a breeding ground for malicious intentions. Certain individuals or groups might exploit this opportunity to impersonate other people, genders, cultures, and ethnicities with the aim of disseminating disinformation, perpetuating stereotypes, or fomenting conflict between communities. These impersonators use their avatars to heighten the impact of divisive messages and manipulate public opinion while hiding their true identities. This practice undermines trust among users, fosters a toxic environment, and raises ethical concerns.

Ethical dilemma of health data use

In this final scenario, the integrated sensors of a metaverse platform are combined with AI algorithms that can detect early symptoms or signs of diseases such as Parkinson’s, heart attack, or even stroke. At the same time, the use of metaverse devices may permit the attribution of potential health issues such as eye strain, headaches, or motion sickness to specific users. This situation can confront companies with a complex ethical dilemma. If a company decides to use the health data, it may be violating privacy laws and spreading health problems caused by metaverse devices. If, on the other hand, the company ignores the information, a failure to intervene in time and potentially save lives could be interpreted as negligence. This scenario combination illustrates the challenges to finding an acceptable balance between user privacy, corporate responsibility, and potential liability for harm to health. In this respect, transparent and accountable approaches to dealing with these and similar challenges are mandatory.

What is to be done now?

Starting from foresight findings and the analysis of the ethical implications of the metaverse, companies and organizations should develop ethical guidelines for their own platforms and for dealing with external platforms. Addressing the ethical challenges of the metaverse early on is important. Subsequently, products and services that ensure and simplify compliance with the guidelines in everyday work can be developed. Supporting elements can include assessments, action guidance, training and education, awareness campaigns, and much more.

Users should be closely involved in this development process. Transparent and open communication is essential to build trust and ensure a safe and responsible metaverse.

Digital Engineering Center

The Digital Engineering Center offers a full range of services for the introduction of digital ethics into your company. Our experts support you with the conduct of user research, foresight processes, the derivation of ethical guidelines, and the development of (digital) products and services to implement these values.

Our goal is to provide customized solutions tailored to specific needs and requirements. We rely on close cooperation with our clients and transparent communication among all stakeholders to ensure the congruence of the results with our common ethical standards.