Now You Need To Know What A “Metaverse” Is — 6 Reasons To Listen Up

Prepare to step into the internet…(sort of)

Decentraland

Last week, the tech media treated us to the latest power move to promote a future of “visual search“, with social giant Snapchat pushing their Scan feature front and center on the app’s camera. Scan allows Snapchat users to detect and search for things they find in the physical world — clothes, dog breeds, food nutrition information, plants, wine, furniture, etc. And as the app opens in camera mode, this visual search feature is now available to 300 million daily users, which could see Snapchat evolving from a messaging app to a leading visual search engine (see full reporting from The Verge).

While this move toward visual search clearly presents commercial opportunities for retailers (note: Scan isn’t currently being used for ad targeting, but it’s not difficult to see how this is where it could wind up…), arguably there some advantages for users. For one, it could force us to drag ourselves out of cyberspace and into a healthier, more interactive relationship with the world around us.

After all, how many of us are guilty of disengaging from our surroundings in order to Google something that’s physically right in front of us? (*Raises hand*).

Yet, just as the merging of our on-and-offline worlds starts to look good for our vitamin D intake, we hear the noise of year’s buzziest of buzzwords being chanted more loudly in Silicon Valley: The Metaverse. If you don’t already know what it is, then you should know that it’s on its way to turn us all into washed out, disengaged husks of remote humanity. But here’s a more helpful description from the Wall Street Journal:

“The metaverse concept, rooted in science-fiction novels such as “Snow Crash” and “Ready Player One,” encompasses an extensive online world transcending individual tech platforms, where people exist in immersive, shared virtual spaces. Through avatars, people would be able to try on items available in stores or attend concerts with friends, just as they would offline.”

Or more briefly from the NY Times: “…a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live.”

If that didn’t make it too much clearer, here’s why you should still sit up and care:

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Insidious “corrective” image filters allow app creators to dictate beauty standards

Portrait thought to be of Simonetta Carraneo Vespucci by Sandro Botticelli c.1480-1485.

In the 15th century, Florentine statesman and all-round bigwig Lorenzo d’Medici (also modestly known as “Lorenzo The Magnificent”) made some pretty outspoken comments on the looks and deportment of the ideal Italian Renaissance beauty. Despite himself being described as “quite strikingly ugly“, Lorenzo was rather specific on what should be considered desirable, basing his high standards on celebrated noblewoman Simonetta Carraneo Vespucci. He writes:

of an attractive and ideal height; the tone of her skin, white but not pale, fresh but not glowing; her demeanor was grave but not proud, sweet and pleasing, without frivolity or fear. Her eyes were lively and her gaze restrained, without trace of pride or meanness; her body was so well proportioned, that among other women she appeared dignified…in walking and dancing…and in all her movements she was elegant and attractive; her hands were the most beautiful that Nature could create. She dressed in those fashions which suited a noble and gentle lady…” (Commento del magnifico Lorenzo De’ Medici sopra alcuni de’ suoi sonetti)

Clearly beauty standards have evolved since Lorenzo’s time — and thankfully we’re probably less concerned about the restraint of our gaze and the beauty of our hands — but this notion of one common beauty ideal for women, dictated from without, unfortunately persists. And while Renaissance women agonized about achieving Simonetta’s bodily proportions and alabaster skin, their 21st century counterparts are turning to technological, and even surgical correction to emulate the new, algorithmically dictated standards for attention-worthy good looks.

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Here’s How AI Could Diagnose You With Psychopathy

We’re fast becoming accustomed to clandestine observation. Quietly, in the background, algorithms have been watching our facial expressions, features, and behavioral mannerisms to try to establish a supposed “understanding” of such things as our job suitability, our sexuality, what “subcategory of person” we fit, and even our propensity for criminality

Of course, that’s on top of the mammoth and ongoing analysis of the vast digital footprints Big Tech companies use to fuel their hit-and-miss predictions. 

But what about an AI tool that can diagnose your mental health — or more specifically, whether you’re a psychopath — just by looking at you?  

Well folks, here we are. 

A study, Quantifying the psychopathic stare: Automated assessment of head motion is related to antisocial traits in forensic interviews, was recently published in the Journal of Research in Personality, which shows “promising” signs of just such a technology. 

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Does This $3.25m Funding Round Mark A New Phase of All-Pervading Surveillance?

Image from the Mindtech Global website

A lot has been made of surveillance technology in recent years. Our once relatively benign CCTV setup has been given an AI-driven makeover. At the same time, lower production costs have facilitated a kind of “camera creep” evident in the boom in home security cameras, police bodycams and the trend for heightened employee surveillance

Many cameras now also have so-called facial recognition technology baked in, allowing them to identify and track rule breakers. (Though volumes of evidence stands to show that the technology is often deeply flawed and discriminatory.) 

And while surveillance cameras have become more pervasive and (arguably) more sophisticated in what they can identify — like faces or employee inattention or even a distinctive gait — bigger plans are afoot, and a recent investment boost for a small UK start-up called Mindtech Global might give us a clue as to how things will unfold. 

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Our “AI Ghosts” Could Have A Stake In The Future

Back in 2016, James Vlahos spent many months building the ambitious piece of software he ended up calling Dadbot. It was a heartfelt attempt to preserve the memories of his then dying father by assimilating them into a chatbot that he and his family could converse with in their grief, and in the years to come. A journalist by trade, James wrote the full story of this journey in WIRED, and if you don’t shed a tear while reading it you are *officially* dead inside.

James now helps others memorialize themselves and loved ones in a similar fashion with his business Hereafter, which is part of a wider tech-driven trend for conserving legacy (see Vita and Storyworth).

However, outside of these clear and obvious reasons for recording and encoding human lives, the WSJ reported last week that there is a parallel movement to use AI and digital technologies to somehow prolong the lives of the subjects in question: “…not only as static replicas for the benefit of their loved ones but as evolving digital entities that may steer companies or influence world events.

No, I’m not making this up.

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Do Our AI Assistants Need To Be Warm And Fuzzy?

Open the tech news on any given day and you’re almost guaranteed to find something about conversational AI or Natural Language Processing (NLP). This is the tech that powers chatbots, virtual assistants and the likes as they mimic human interaction. As this blog has noted, complex language models have come on leaps and bounds recently, and our future as users is becoming clear: we’ll be holding (reasonably) natural conversations with non-human bots on a regular basis, and for a variety of reasons.

The shadows on the cave wall — if not yet the fully realized Platonic form of conversational AI — can already be made out. Want banking tips? Ask Erica. Legal advice? There are bots like April. Want to engage your students? Juji thinks it can help.

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Will Google’s Controversial LaMDA Help or Hinder Internet Discovery?

In his online Masterclass on the art of writing, renowned journalist Malcolm Gladwell explains the shortcomings of Google when it comes to research and discovery. “The very thing that makes you love Google is why Google is not that useful“, he chirps. To Gladwell, a Google search is but a dead-end when a true researcher wants to be led “somewhere new and unexpected“.

In juxtaposition to Google’s search engine stands ye olde library, which Gladwell calls the “physical version of the internet” (sans some of the more sophisticated smut…). In a library — should it be required — guidance is on-hand in the form of a librarian, and unlike the internet there is a delightful order to things that the writer likens to a good conversation. Discovery can be as simple as finding what books surround the book that inspired you…and following the trail. Gladwell elucidates: “The book that’s right next to the book is the book that’s most like it, and then the book that’s right next to that one is a little bit different, and by the time you get ten books away you’re getting into a book that’s in the same general area but even more different.”

There is something altogether more natural and relational about uncovering the new — and the forgotten — in the context of a library or a conversation. Hidden gems lay undisturbed, unlike popularity-ranked internet search results that spew out the obvious and the familiar.

Enter LaMDA AI.

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Vaccine Passport Apps: The Latest Covid Tech Is Upon Us

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vaccinepassport.jpg

The concept of a passport is probably older than you think. Though it might be heavily associated with the early days of international air travel, the documents actually date back to the early 15th century. Indeed, Shakespeare himself has King Henry V use the term in his famous Crispin’s Day speech at the Battle of Agincourt:

Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made.” (Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii)

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Klara and The Sun: Love, Loyalty & Obsolescence

If you’re of a certain generation, you might remember the Tamagotchi; the Japanese pocket-sized “pet simulation game” that became the chief obsession of 90s kids bored of yo-yos and other fleeting trends. The Tamagotchi lived mostly in the grubby hands or lint-filled pockets of its owners but, for social currency, could be paraded before envious or competitive enthusiasts. 

Oddly, these oviparous virtual critters weren’t remotely animallike in their appearance, and could be intolerably demanding at times. Neglect to feed them, clean up after them, or tend to them when sick and — as many of us found out — very soon you’d be left with nothing but a dead LCD blob. But even the best cared-for Tamagotchi(s?) had certain obsolescence looming in their futures, once their needlessly complex lifecycle was complete: egg, baby, child, teen, adult, death. 

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Dig out your tinfoil hat! Consumer neurotech is here to stay – and it needs more scrutiny

“Thoughts are free and subject to no rule. On them rests the freedom of man, and they tower above the light of nature”

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541)

This week, Facebook Reality Labs revealed the latest piece of hardware gadgetry that it hopes will introduce eager consumers to a new world of augmented and mixed reality. The wristband is a type of technology known as a neural — or brain-computer — interface, and can read the electrical nerve signals our brain sends to our muscles and interpret them as instructions.

In other words, you don’t have to move. You can just *think* your movements.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if we’ve evolved too far..

A jazzy, high production video features grinning young San Francisco-type execs describing this new, immersive experience. They’ve invented it, and they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to foist it upon us.  “The wrist is a great starting point for us technologically,” one chirps, “because it opens up new and dynamic forms of control.” Quite. 

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