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Can we create a moral metaverse? | The metaverse

Psychotherapist Nina Jane Patel had been on Facebook’s Horizon Venues for less than a minute when her avatar was mobbed by a group of males. The attackers proceeded to “virtually gang-rape” her character, snapping in-game pictures as mementos. Patel froze in shock before desperately trying to free her virtual self – whom she had styled to resemble her real-life blond hair, freckles and business casual attire.

“Don’t pretend you didn’t love it,” the human voices of the attackers jeered through her headset as she ran away, “go rub yourself off to the photo.”

The metaverse – the blurrily defined term for the next generation of immersive virtual reality technologies – is still in its infancy. But even with crude graphics and sometimes glitchy gameplay, an experience like this can trigger a deeply rooted panic response. “The fidelity is such that it felt very real,” Patel, who is also co-founder of children’s metaverse company Kabuni, tells the Observer. “Physiologically, I responded in that fight or flight or freeze mode.”

Emerging reports depict a metaverse more akin to the lawless chat rooms that dominated the early internet than the moderated and algorithmically pruned digital gardens we mostly occupy today. A recent Channel 4 Dispatches investigation documented metaverses rife with hate speech, sexual harassment, paedophilia, and avatars simulating sex in spaces accessible to children.

Research predating the metaverse hype finds that these experiences are far from uncommon. A 2018 study by virtual reality research agency The Extended Mind found that 36% of males and 49% of females who regularly used VR technologies reported having experienced sexual harassment.

Facebook, which changed its name to Meta last year to signal its investment in this space, publicised its decision to introduce a “personal boundary” feature into its metaverse products shortly after Patel’s experience hit the headlines. This is a virtual social distance function that characters can trigger to keep others at arm’s length, like a forcefield.

For her Dispatches documentary about the metaverse, Yinka Bokinni posed as a 13-year-old and encountered racial and sexual abuse.
For her Dispatches documentary about the metaverse, Yinka Bokinni posed as a 13-year-old and encountered racial and sexual abuse. Photograph: Channel 4

“We want everyone using our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations like these, so we can investigate and take action,” said Bill Stillwell, product manager, VR integrity at Meta.

The metaverse pitch says that one day we will interact with the internet primarily through a virtual reality headset, where sharply rendered and convincingly 3D environments will blur the boundaries of the physical and virtual worlds. Virtual concerts and fashion shows have already attracted flocks of digital attendees, and brands and celebrities are buying up plots of land in the metaverse, with single sales reaching into the millions of dollars – prompting concerns over a metaverse real estate bubble.

Technology companies are working on ensuring that one day, these worlds feel as real as possible. Facebook announced last November that it was developing a haptic vibrating glove to help mimic the feeling of handling objects; Spanish startup OWO has created a sensor-packed jacket to allow users to feel in-game hugs and gunshots; and Japanese tech company H2L is working on simulating pain in the metaverse, including the sensation of a bird pecking your arm.

Billions of dollars are pouring into the space. Besides Meta, Microsoft, which ​​sells its mixed-reality HoloLens headsets, is working on metaverse-related software, while Apple is developing an augmented reality headset. Video-game companies such as Roblox and Epic Games, and decentralised, blockchain-based metaverses such as Sandbox, Decentraland and Upland are also keen to grab a slice of the future. CitiGroup’s investment bank predicts that the metaverse economy will balloon to $13tn by 2030.

The regular internet is plagued by harassment, hate speech and illegal content – and as early reports make clear, none of this will disappear in the metaverse. “If something is possible to do, someone will do it,” says Lucy Sparrow, a PhD researcher in computing and information systems at the University of Melbourne, who has studied morality in multiplayer video games. “People can really be quite creative in the way that they use, or abuse, technology.”

The metaverse could actually magnify some of these harms. David J Chalmers is professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University and the author of Reality+… Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. According to him, “bodily harassment” directed against an avatar is generally experienced as more traumatic than verbal harassment on traditional social media platforms. “That embodied version of social reality makes it much more on a par with physical reality,” he says.

Prof David J Chalmers argues that ‘bodily’ harrassment in the metaverse can be more traumatic than verbal abuse on social media.
Prof David J Chalmers argues that the ‘bodily’ harrassment in the metaverse can be more traumatic than the verbal abuse on social media. Photograph: TED/YouTube

With this brave new world come emerging ethical, legal and philosophical questions. How should the regulatory environment evolve to deal with the metaverse? Can metaverse platforms rely on the safety protocols of their predecessors, or are entirely new approaches warranted? And will virtual punishments be sufficient to deter bad actors?

Stepping from a social media platform such as Facebook into the metaverse means a shift from moderating content to moderating behaviour. Doing the latter “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible”, admitted Facebook’s chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth in a leaked internal memo last November.

Bosworth’s memo suggested that bad actors kicked out of the metaverse could be blocked across all Facebook-owned platforms, even if they used multiple virtual avatars. But to be really effective, this approach would rely on accounts requiring ID to be set up.

Facebook said last year that it is exploring how to apply AI moderation to the metaverse, but hasn’t built anything yet. Automated content moderation is used by existing social media platforms to help manage vast amounts of users and material, but still suffers from false positives – primarily due to an inability to understand context – as well as failing to catch content that genuinely violates policies.

“AI still isn’t clever enough to intercept real-time audio streams and determine, with accuracy, whether someone is being offensive,” argues ​​professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University, Andy Phippen. “And while there might be some scope for human moderation, monitoring of all real-time online spaces would be impossibly resource-intensive.”

There are some examples of when digital-world crime has resulted in real-world punishment. In 2012, the Dutch supreme court ruled on a case involving the theft of a digital amulet and sword in the online multiplayer game Runescape. Two players who robbed another at knifepoint were sentenced to real-world community service, with the judge saying that although the stolen objects had no material value, their worth derived from the time and effort spent obtaining them.

Adjudicating digital transgressions in real-life courts doesn’t exactly seem scalable, but legal experts believe that if the metaverse becomes as important as tech CEOs say it will, we could increasingly see real-world legal frameworks applied to these spaces. Lecturer in bio-law at Brunel University, London, Pin Lean Lau, says that although some novel legal challenges may emerge in the metaverse, for example questions about “the avatar’s legal personality, or the ownership of virtual property and whether this might be used as collateral for loans … we may not completely need to reinvent the wheel.”

However, there are those who hope that the metaverse might offer an opportunity to move beyond the reactive enforcement model that dominates the current crop of online social spaces. Sparrow, for one, disapproves of metaverse companies’ current emphasis on individual responsibility, where it’s the victim that must trigger a safety response in the face of an attack. Instead, she asks, “how can we be proactive in creating a community environment that promotes more positive exchanges?”

No one wants to live in a virtual police state, and there’s a growing sense that enforcement should be balanced by promoting prosocial behaviour. Some suggestions put forward by industry body XR Association, which comprises Google, Microsoft, Oculus, Vive and Sony Interactive Entertainment, include rewarding altruism and empathy, and celebrating positive collective behaviour.

Co-founder of the gaming research company Quantic Foundry, Nick Yee, has highlighted the example of multiplayer game EverQuest, where players who had died in the game were forced to travel back to the location of their deaths and reclaim lost belongings. Yee argues that this design feature helped to encourage altruistic behaviour, because players had to solicit help from other players in retrieving the items, helping to foster camaraderie and promote positive interactions.

Patel advocates looking beyond enforcement mechanisms when thinking about how to regulate the metaverse. She proposes examining the harmful behaviour of some people in digital environments and getting “curious about what it is that’s making them behave this way”.

The top-down governance model of present-day social media platforms might be shaken up too, if decentralised platforms continue to play a role in the metaverse ecosystem. Such models have been tried before. The online forum platform Reddit, for example, relies partly on community moderators to police discussion groups. An early multiplayer children’s game, the Disney-owned Club Penguin, pioneered a gamified network of “secret agent” informants, who kept a watchful eye on other players.

A 2019 paper by researchers working with Facebook-owned Oculus VR indicates that the company is exploring community-driven moderation initiatives in its VR applications as a means of countering the problems of top-down governance.

Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar (left) hangs out in the metaverse during the conference in which Facebook was rebranded as Meta in October last year.
Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar (left) hangs out in the metaverse during the conference in which Facebook was rebranded as Meta in October last year. Photograph: Facebook/Reuters

In many ways, the solutions tech companies have come up with to tackle metaverse harms echo the inadequate strategies they’ve employed on the internet – and could be described as a sop to avoid regulation.

However, some of the new laws being enacted to temper social media may well be applied to the metaverse. Government legislation such as the EU’s newly rolled out Digital Services Act – which imposes harsh penalties on social media companies if they don’t promptly remove illegal content – and the UK’s still-incubating online harms bill could play a role in the development of safety standards in the metaverse. Facebook’s metaverse ventures are already falling foul of regulators over safety. Earlier this year, the UK’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, sought talks with Facebook about the lack of parental controls on its popular Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset.

But there are still unresolved legal questions about how to govern virtual bodies that go beyond the scope of the current web – such as how rules around national jurisdiction apply to a virtual world, and whether an avatar might one day gain the legal status necessary for it to be sued. The highly speculative nature of the space right now means these questions are far from being answered.

“In the near term, I suspect the laws of the metaverse are by and large going to derive from the laws of physical countries,” says Chalmers. But in the long term, “it’s possible that virtual worlds are going to become more like autonomous societies in their own right, with their own principles.”

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Culture

Top 10 Florida Cities Dominate The Business Startup Landscape In The U.S.

Top 10 Florida Cities And Business Startup Landscape In The U.S.

The Voice Of EU | Florida emerges as a hub for entrepreneurial endeavors, with its vibrant business landscape and conducive environment for startups. Renowned for its low corporate tax rates and a high concentration of investors, the Sunshine State beckons aspiring entrepreneurs seeking fertile grounds to launch and grow their businesses.

In a recent report by WalletHub, Florida cities dominate the list of the top 10 best destinations for business startups, showcasing their resilience and economic vitality amidst challenging times.

From Orlando’s thriving market to Miami’s dynamic ecosystem, each city offers unique advantages and opportunities for entrepreneurial success. Let’s delve into the chronologically listed cities that exemplify Florida’s prominence in the business startup arena.

1. Orlando Leads the Way: Orlando emerges as the most attractive market in the U.S. for business startups, with a remarkable surge in small business establishments. WalletHub’s latest report highlights Orlando’s robust ecosystem, fostering the survival and growth of startups, buoyed by a high concentration of investors per capita.

2. Tampa Takes Second Place: Securing the second spot among large cities for business startups, Tampa boasts a favorable business environment attributed to its low corporate tax rates. The city’s ample investor presence further fortifies startups, providing essential resources for navigating the initial years of business operations.

3. Charlotte’s Diverse Industries: Claiming the third position, Charlotte stands out for its diverse industrial landscape and exceptionally low corporate taxes, enticing companies to reinvest capital. This conducive environment propels entrepreneurial endeavors, contributing to sustained economic growth.

4. Jacksonville’s Rising Profile: Jacksonville emerges as a promising destination for startups, bolstered by its favorable business climate. The city’s strategic positioning fosters entrepreneurial ventures, attracting aspiring business owners seeking growth opportunities.

5. Miami’s Entrepreneurial Hub: Miami solidifies its position as a thriving entrepreneurial hub, attracting businesses with its dynamic ecosystem and strategic location. The city’s vibrant startup culture and supportive infrastructure make it an appealing destination for ventures of all sizes.

6. Atlanta’s Economic Momentum: Atlanta’s ascent in the business startup landscape underscores its economic momentum and favorable business conditions. The city’s strategic advantages and conducive policies provide a fertile ground for entrepreneurial ventures to flourish.

7. Fort Worth’s Business-Friendly Environment: Fort Worth emerges as a prime destination for startups, offering a business-friendly environment characterized by low corporate taxes. The city’s supportive ecosystem and strategic initiatives facilitate the growth and success of new ventures.

8. Austin’s Innovation Hub: Austin cements its status as an innovation hub, attracting startups with its vibrant entrepreneurial community and progressive policies. The city’s robust infrastructure and access to capital foster a conducive environment for business growth and innovation.

9. Durham’s Emerging Entrepreneurship Scene: Durham’s burgeoning entrepreneurship scene positions it as a promising destination for startups, fueled by its supportive ecosystem and strategic initiatives. The city’s collaborative culture and access to resources contribute to the success of new ventures.

10. St. Petersburg’s Thriving Business Community: St. Petersburg rounds off the top 10 with its thriving business community and supportive ecosystem for startups. The city’s strategic advantages and favorable business climate make it an attractive destination for entrepreneurial endeavors.

Despite unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, and high inflation, these top Florida cities remain resilient and well-equipped to overcome obstacles, offering promising opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs alike.


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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.


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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.


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