It’s clear that there will be desirable and non-desirable effects. The cases labelled as “clearly negative” have existed for many years in regular social media, though perhaps with less efficacy than what the metaverse is capable of.
The items under "potentially negative" in the middle have question marks because it cannot be clear whether and to what extent they are risks.
For the sake of illustration, here are two concrete questions situated at the extreme end of the spectrum but nevertheless pertinent:
• Will users with tendencies to violent behaviour, which they can act out freely and with impunity in the metaverse, be thus more or less inclined to do so in the real world?
• What are the effects on mental health for users of the metaverse who adopt a second identity through an avatar? More specifically, what will happen to users who suffer from a split personality?
We know that other immersive technologies with less immersive power can trigger distressing mental lapses mental lapses. So we cannot simply dismiss these questions and look away.
Instead, such questions can only be answered after solid empirical studies have been completed.
How can society deal with the issue sensibly?
The idea of very smart algorithms as triggers for mental changes may be new yet there is very extensive knowledge on the impact of chemical and biological triggers, i.e. psychopharmaceuticals. Institutions like the FDA, the EMA and the MHRA have been developing the expertise for their scientific evaluation of these phenomena.
When looking for the capacity for independent scientific assessment of psychoactive algorithms, we can only revert to the supervisory institutions for the healthcare industry and the launch of any new product for the metaverse should depend on the agencies’ prior approval. Their scientific evaluations protect consumers from harmful effects and reduce liability risks for the manufacturers of medicines. There is no reason for an exemption for the new sector. As with chemical and biological medicines, public health is the highest priority.
The boundaries between chemistry and artificial intelligence are currently in flux. Consequently, these agencies are expanding their expertise. This includes the area of psychoactive substances.
The fear that such institutions might not be impartial is understandable. Breaches of integrity can occur in all institutions that are supposed to oversee commercial activities especially if the decision-makers are poorly paid or society cannot guarantee their or their family members’ personal safety. It should be noted that this is a general issue, applicable to many areas of society, not only the supervision of the metaverse.
As the agencies give the green light for metaverse products one by one, a market segment for compliant products will come into being driven by companies eager to defend their reputation.
However, it would not be realistic to expect that the permissible supply of metaverse content will be enough to meet the demand. As in the area of non-legal drugs, unauthorised offers for special areas of the metaverse will enter the market quickly and in large quantities.
It is quite likely that the markets for unregulated services will organise themselves in a similar manner to those for illicit drugs and have a negative impact on the mental health of the population. This is where the jurisdiction of regulators ends, and challenging new tasks fall to the police.
There are established ways to contain and regulate the dangers that will be generated by the metaverse. However, their complete elimination will not be possible.