This opinion piece was originally published on LinkedIn in October 2022.
The need for an ethical framework as we leap into a virtual world was high on the agenda at #FII6 in Riyadh this week.
It was clear from the many web 3.0 topics covered at the #FII6 conference in Riyadh this week that we aren’t walking towards our future – we’re running at it, and at a speed at which I don’t think most comprehend.
This is in many ways wonderful, but there can also be pitfalls to moving too fast, without consideration. That’s why I found it particularly heartening that there was a talk called ‘Ethics and the Responsible Metaverse’ at the 6th edition of the @Future Investment Initiative conference. As we zoom into a truly virtual, decentralised and AI-driven world, I’m particularly passionate about giving ethical considerations reverence – all linked to the PhD I am currently pursuing at Warwick Business School.
I wholeheartedly agree with what Dr Moudhi ALJamea, Dean of the STC Academy, said during the panel discussion – that the “concept of the metaverse is a co-creation” so we need to “come together as governments, as the private sector, as researchers and as countries right now to look at the challenges we’ll face 10 years from now”.
Beverly Rider, Chief Commercial Officer, who is working on #NEOM’s metaverse, had fantastic points about how such projects have a unique opportunity to approach the digital with an ethical lens: “We talk about data privacy, your digital presence and what that means and the morphing of oneself to be somebody else… what’s beautiful about NEOM is that we’re building it from the ground up – so as the physical is being built, the virtual is too."
We get to decide what those privacy standards are going to be. We get to look at every aspect of society, and it’s a greenfield.
During the talk at FII, I found one anecdote particularly illuminating: that designers of one particular metaverse were surprised that they would be asked to build wheelchair ramps in order to make the metaverse accessible. They’d just presumed that those who use wheelchairs in the default physical world would choose not to be in a wheelchair in the metaverse.
Such presumption is why I think checks and balances need to be built in as we create these new worlds. So, as we move further and further towards a reality in which transactions, communication and whole lives are enacted on the metaverse, I think we need to re-think our C-suite.
Remember, ethics is not a precise science where one step logically follows another, ultimately leading to a predictable outcome. It’s complex and subjective and may evolve in line with major developments within any given organisation, as well as global trends.
That’s why I believe companies should start to consider appointing a Chief Ethics Officer. This doesn’t mean that no one else in the organisation needs to be thinking about ethics, in the same way that a Chief Financial Officer isn’t the only person who considers money.
However, it will be this person’s responsibility to ensure ethics is woven into the organisation’s overall culture.
This becomes easier if the individual is supported by a diverse Ethics Committee that is able to view AI or the metaverse through multiple lenses. The team’s composition should include ethical experts (such as HR specialists and informational ethicists), technical experts (including data scientists, project managers, SMEs and social scientists), legal experts and, finally, user representatives. This ensures that a number of different viewpoints are considered before a solution is either defined, designed or implemented.
It may not be possible to create perfect AI or perfect metaverses from an ethics perspective – imperfection, of course, being another element of the human condition – but by addressing these issues and taking practical steps, we can at least ensure that more people are helped, rather than hurt, through technology.
The fact such topics were discussed at FII6 in Riyadh this week is certainly a step in the right direction.