computer scientists explore the future potential of the Internet — University Affairs


Getting it right requires consideration of a range of factors, including equitable access, privacy, and mental and physical well-being.

Ever since Meta (formerly Facebook) announced plans last October to create a “metaverse,” speculation has swirled about what it might look like and how it might affect our lives. The company envisions a network of immersive, three-dimensional and interoperable virtual worlds driven by artificial intelligence where we will work, play, shop and socialize.

Among the existing technologies believed to help us get there are virtual reality, augmented reality, user-generated video games, and blockchain. Others could emerge, such as computer interfaces that would allow users to control applications with their thoughts via an electroencephalogram or an implanted sensor. The idea, at the broadest level, is that these technologies will combine to create graphically rich virtual spaces with a high degree of verisimilitude that will seamlessly blend with or replace parts of our offline lives.

To help realize this vision, Meta recently awarded $510,000 in grants to 17 computer labs at 11 Canadian universities to support research that “advances the innovations needed to build for the Metaverse.” Researchers can use these unrestricted $30,000 grants as they see fit to support their work in the areas of human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and next-generation digital technologies.

For IT professionals, the success of the metaverse will depend in large part on the thought with which we design and develop its infrastructure, its functionalities and its services. Getting it right, they say, will require striking a healthy balance between the business interests of Meta, other companies driving this push, and the needs of users. To do this, we must consider factors such as equitable access, privacy, mental and physical well-being, and technical functionality, they add. Their expert insights illuminate the opportunities and challenges we face, as well as the actions we need to take, if we are to achieve a functioning, inclusive, decentralized, and healthy metaverse.

Advancing AI

Harnessing the full potential of cyberspace will depend on the progress we make in artificial intelligence, that is, how we get robots to perform tasks typically done by humans, says Richard Sutton, professor of renowned computer science at the University of Alberta. Dr. Sutton is one of the founders of reinforcement learning, a branch of machine learning in which robots learn optimal behavior by interacting with their environment through trial and error and gaining positive or negative rewards based on of their actions. This differs significantly from the dominant supervised machine learning paradigm in which a machine relies on a set of labeled data programmed by a human to identify patterns and make predictions.

“Reinforcement learning is more naturalistic,” said Dr. Sutton, a principal investigator in the university’s Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Lab. “It’s learning like an animal or a person would – by interacting with the world and seeing what works better or worse…. This is the standard model of how the brain processes rewards.

After conducting decades of research, Dr. Sutton believes that robots trained in reinforcement learning will perform many important functions that we can expect in the metaverse, such as giving advice on stock trading, providing a customer service as store avatars or serve as characters in video games.

“We need smart systems that are continuously responsive to our feedback so they can help us make smart decisions,” Dr Sutton said. “They have to be aware of our purpose and try to accomplish that mission.”

Work from 9 a.m. to ?

For many of us, using the metaverse will influence how we earn a living. According to computer scientist Joanna McGrenere, digital technology has already blurred the lines between our work and personal lives, a trend accelerated by the pandemic-fueled Zoom boom. The Metaverse is intended to exacerbate this trend.

“I can imagine that in the planned immersion of the metaverse, it’s going to be very easy to lose track of time, and it kind of takes over in a way that has the potential to be unhealthy,” said Dr. McGrenere, who leads the eDAPT research group at the University of British Columbia (recipient of a Meta grant). “I think more and more people are going to need help thinking about how their time is spent at work, and whether it’s consistent with what they need to produce in a classic productivity sense, but also taking well-being into account.

That was the conclusion of a 2020 research paper co-authored by Dr. McGrenere that examined how the increasing cognitive and temporal demands of functioning in the always-connected digital age necessitate rethinking measures of work productivity. Researchers surveyed 40 knowledge workers about their personal productivity, how they define good use of time at work, and their feelings about their working time. “We plan to highlight the integration of emotion tracking and the need for human self-reflection in addition to automatic tracking” of work time in a potential revamp of current productivity tools, the authors wrote.

“If you can capture in a lightweight, easy-to-use tool how you feel about how your time is spent and then reflect on that at the end of the day,” Dr. McGrenere said, “you can start to see , “wow, when I spend 15 hours a day in the metaverse, maybe I don’t feel so good at the end of the week” or “maybe I feel good” and sort out what works for them.

Promote well-being

Rita Orji agrees that promoting wellness in the next iteration of the internet is important, not just at work but in all spheres of life, and it will take innovative thinking and methods. The computer scientist leads the Persuasive Computing Lab at Dalhousie University, which explores how to design interactive and personalized technologies, such as apps and games, that promote health and well-being, especially among underserved groups . His recent research has focused on persuasion games to prevent disease and interventions that use augmented reality and virtual reality for healthy behavior change.

While every new technological innovation gives rise to both opportunities and challenges, Dr. Orji is optimistic about the metaverse’s potential to deliver personalized, easy-to-use and accessible healthcare services and supports. Specifically, she says, it could have a positive impact in areas such as monitoring our physical and mental health, prompting us to adopt healthier behaviors, helping healthcare providers diagnose and treat patients. , and “promoting the greater good,” as she put it.

“What really excites me is figuring out how to design digital apps that can empower people and improve lives, and that are smart enough to understand your specific context,” said Dr. Canada research in persuasive technology and another recipient of a Meta grant. .

Achieving this will require avoiding a common pitfall of the tech industry – building apps that serve narrow interests or populations, or as Dr. Orji puts it, the “privileged few” with enough resources to access these apps. Having grown up in a remote Nigerian village without access to electricity or running water, she would like to see cyberspace serve users of all stripes, including those from marginalized socio-economic, gender, racial or disabled groups. To that end, she says, we will need to emphasize participatory design that incorporates input from all stakeholders to create truly responsive tools and services.

“Deciding that we’re going to bring diverse voices and experiences into the design early on in the design is key to inclusion,” she said.

Hardware Hacking

The inclusion of women in the design of hardware to build the metaverse is a topic computer scientist Mark Hancock has explored. He is co-author of a systematic review of how virtual reality research considers the gendered aspects of “cybersickness”. More common in women than in men, cybersickness occurs when exposure to a virtual environment causes symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, headache and fatigue. Dr. Hancock and his co-authors concluded that the issue has not been systematically studied and deserves attention at every stage of VR research.

“There are known gender issues with virtual reality technology that suggest people who identify as female are more likely to suffer from cybersickness, and the tech industry has a habit of ignoring the equity and diversity throughout its design processes, perhaps unintentionally,” said Dr Hancock, who is director of the University of Waterloo’s Touchlab, which focuses on designing ways to interact with people. information on new digital interfaces. “It is also a known issue that it is difficult to recruit women to participate in studies involving virtual reality, as they often describe it as not being designed ‘for them’.”

Dr. Hancock also explores embodiment, which is when our awareness of material components fades and we feel like we really inhabit our virtual selves. A full embodiment will be essential for people to have meaningful metaverse experiences, he said, but the extent to which we can trick our brain into thinking a virtual body is our real body depends on future advances in VR technology.

Dr Hancock and his team set out to measure how embodied we feel when interacting with different virtual reality tools – a survey which proved that using our hands, compared to using a controller , leads to a more embodied experience. Another study he co-authored found that the transport quality of a virtual reality headset can mitigate productivity-stifling distractions that are common in open offices, improving performance and job satisfaction. ‘a worker.

“Actually, being able to feel the way things are in a virtual world – there are still technical challenges,” Dr Hancock said. “You can have rich experiences using a VR headset, but it’s not there in the sense that you can’t reach out and grab things, you have to use a controller…. Can we accommodate this new way of being? Maybe, yes.


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