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Metaverse raises ‘scary’ question on surveillance of users, ex-Google exec says

Fox is set to premiere a singing competition show next week called "Alter Ego" in which contestants perform not as themselves but as digitally rendered avatars.

The launch follows a summer of hype for the metaverse, an immersive online experience across tech platforms that Mark Zuckerberg told the Verge in July is Facebook's (FB) "overarching goal." Nvidia (NVDA) CEO Jensen Huang, a month before, said the economy of the metaverse will someday exceed that of the physical world.

But the metaverse raises a "scary" question about surveillance, since participants will carry out everyday conversations and activities in a company-owned setting online, says artificial intelligence expert Kai-Fu Lee.

In a new interview, Lee — who worked as an executive at Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Apple (AAPL), and Microsoft (MSFT) — acknowledged "a lot of excitement" in the use of AI technology in the metaverse. But he warned that the new frontier may compromise users' privacy.

"In the the metaverse, there is a tricky and maybe a little bit scary question," says Lee, the co-author of a new book entitled "AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future." "The programmer of the metaverse, the company that builds the metaverse, will actually listen in on every conversation and watch every person."

"That on the one hand can make the experience very exciting because it can see what makes you happy and give you more of that," he adds. "But then what is the notion of privacy in a metaverse?"

Privacy concerns tied to AI have risen to the fore as a major issue across the globe. On Wednesday, the United Nations Human Rights chief advocated for a moratorium on the use of AI, citing applications like government deployment of facial recognition software.

"AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.

Facebook co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, speaks at an Oculus developers conference while wearing a virtual reality headset in San Jose, California on October 6, 2016. 
Facebook unveiled new hardware for its Oculus division as part of a stepped-up effort to integrate virtual reality with the leading social network. The new offerings aim to get an array of virtual reality gear to consumers in the coming months, including a new
Facebook co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, speaks at an Oculus developers conference while wearing a virtual reality headset in San Jose, California on October 6, 2016. GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Kai-Fu Lee has been at the center of AI development for decades, ever since he helped develop speech recognition and automated speech technology as a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University.

Since 2009, he has served as the CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a tech-focused venture capital firm in China with over $2.5 billion in assets under management.

Despite the privacy concerns, Lee said the use of AI in the metaverse will help achieve a realistic simulation of everyday life — all the while adding otherworldly elements that boost entertainment value.

"In the truly natural metaverse, we will be conversing using our language and our body language, and AI can of course provide an ability to understand that," he adds.

"There will be people who are themselves, but there will also be other beings you know, pets and aliens and games and other people," he says. "AI will be a part of that."

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