This article was published on May 26, 2022

The UAE’s AI minister wants ‘murder’ in the metaverse to be a real crime

File under: That's now how any of this works

The UAE’s AI minister wants ‘murder’ in the metaverse to be a real crime
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Omar Sultan Al Olama, the United Arab Emirates minister of artificial intelligence, yesterday told an audience at the World Economic forum in Davos that it’s his belief that people who commit “serious crimes” in the metaverse should be punished with real-world criminal consequences.

Per an article by CNBC’s Sam Shead, the minister views this as a necessary measure to protect people’s mental health:

If I send you a text on WhatsApp, it’s text right? It might terrorize you but to a certain degree it will not create the memories that you will have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from it.

But if I come into the metaverse and it’s a realistic world that we’re talking about in the future and I actually murder you, and you see it … it actually takes you to a certain extreme where you need to enforce aggressively across the world because everyone agrees that certain things are unacceptable.

Tell me you don’t understand how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works without telling me you don’t understand how PTSD works.

Upfront: There is no medical threshold by which PTSD occurs. Clinical diagnosis involves observation and interviews with a medical professional.

Anecdotally speaking, PTSD isn’t necessarily triggered in the manner which Al Olama indicated. I was diagnosed with PTSD while on active duty military service after learning about the death of someone I’d mentored. Other people’s diagnosis have come after entirely different experiences.

Jennifer Kobelt, a survivor of the NXIVM cult, told investigators and documentarians that her PTSD was triggered after being subjected to a horrific “experiment” in which she was exposed to graphic violence from Hollywood cinema and a real-world snuff film.

Deeper: You can’t murder an avatar. At least not in the legitimate legal sense. It’s a stupid idea that doesn’t deserve much attention, but let’s just lay it bare real quick so we can move.

Let’s say, 10 years from now, you’re wandering around in Meta’s version of the metaverse. You’re probably wearing a VR headset, and maybe the tech’s advanced to the point where the visual and audio fidelity are nearly indistinguishable from reality.

All of a sudden, someone pushes the buttons on their control pad to cause their avatar to leap out of a digital bush and then they push the buttons on their control pad that cause them to stab your avatar.

Your avatar bleeds out and dies. You have to witness the knife going in! Oh! The horror!

But wait, let’s rewind for a second. How did the knife get there? Who programmed the leaping out of the bush animation? Are there more kill moves? What’s the combo for a silent takedown?

Whoops. I’m getting ahead of myself. I forgot, we’re not talking about a video game. We’re talking about murder most foul, in the metaverse.

I’m not sure what the UAE’s minister of AI knows about the field that the rest of us don’t, but in this particular version of reality, there’s no basis for this fantasy.

Rock bottom: You may as well pass a law against ‘murdering’ people in video games. And that means all of you people who play Call of Duty are screwed — some of you have more kills than old age.

The point is that, no matter how traumatizing it might be to see yourself murdered in first person, it’s not like Zuckerberg’s planning on making that a feature.

Maybe Al Olama’s thinking the metaverse is going to be a splintered internet experience like web, where dark corners of the platform could be host to anything.

But, at least for now, the companies such as Meta, Nvidia, Microsoft, Google, and Epic that are investing billions of dollars into creating bespoke experiences probably aren’t going to put together a team of designers focused on adding PTSD-inducing gore to their production models.

Sure, a hacker could hack some violence onto a server or find an exploit that shows violence. And it’s possible some sort of underground mod scene could develop over time.

But seriously. The idea that somehow, you’ll be casually shopping in the Nike section of Meta’s billions-of-dollars and counting metaverse and suddenly a digital Jack the Ripper is going to appear in front of you in a rabid frenzy is just plain silly.

If you can murder people in the metaverse, it’ll be a feature that people log in specifically to experience. For the same reason so many of us play Dead By Daylight, Resident Evil, and Call of Duty, or watch R-rated horror movies, there’s plenty of people who’d enjoy a good old-fashioned fake-murdering in a VR world.

Quick take: Everything about the idea of criminalizing digitized violence in virtual reality is dumb. This kind of blathering rhetoric just demonstrates how far detached from reality some technologists can be. Nobody’s worried about logging onto a VR version of Facebook and being murdered in their headset.

There are plenty of real ethical concerns that the minister of AI for the sixth richest country in the world could spend their time on.

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