Commissioner Finlay gave this speech at Metaverse Safety Week 2023 on 11 December 2023.
Good morning, afternoon, and evening to you from wherever in the world you are joining us today. Thank you, in particular, to the X Reality Safety Intelligence and Kavya Pearlman for bringing us together for Metaverse Safety Week and, in particular, for our human rights-focused discussion today.
As is customary in Australia, I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I join you today – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to all First Nations peoples here today.
I am absolutely delighted to join you today at Metaverse Safety Week’s day on Human Rights in AI-powered Immersive Worlds, which is taking place on Human Rights Day. This year’s theme – ‘Freedom, Justice and Equality for All’ – reminds us that human rights should apply to everyone, everywhere, every day.
Critically for our discussions today – this includes not only the physical world, but AI-powered immersive worlds as well.
Human rights day
Today is not only Human Rights Day, but also marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the past 75 years, the world has clearly changed in many significant ways – generative AI, neurotechnology and the metaverse were all still entirely in the realm of science fiction at the time of its drafting and adoption back in 1948.
But the core principles that are outlined in the Universal Declaration – the idea that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and that governmental power should be limited with human rights protected by the rule of law – these principles are as important today as they were when they were first adopted by the nations of the world 75 years ago.
They are also the principles that should guide all of our discussions about technology – to ensure ultimately that technology serves humanity, not the other way around.
This is the focus of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission with respect to technology – to advocate for a human rights’ centred approach. This is why we choose to support important initiatives such as the Metaverse Safety Week. We know that AI-powered Immersive Worlds offer enormous opportunities and benefits, but that they can also pose significant risks to our human rights and cause serious harm to individuals.
Our work in this area is not new, but is built upon a legacy of advocacy, such as the 2021 Final Report on Technology & Human Rights.
Since then, our work in this past year has included producing Human Rights Impact Assessments for the use of AI in the Banking Industry, a Guidance Resource looking at AI and Discrimination in Insurance, and, early next year, will be releasing our much-anticipated Background Paper on Neurotechnology and Human Rights.
Neurotechnology and the metaverse
The issue that I wanted to focus on in the time available to me is the interconnected impact of neurotechnology and AI-powered immersive worlds on human rights.
Neurotechnology promises profound benefits for both individuals and our society. From improving the quality of life for people with a disability, to expanding the mind and challenging what it means to be human – this unique technology is truly a modern marvel.
But when you combine neurotechnology with AI-powered immersive worlds, it is not only the opportunities but also the risks that are enormous. When you enter an AI-powered immersive world, you immediately allow third parties to access an extraordinary array of personal data, potentially including physiological responses, biometric data and neural data, and to adjust immersive interactions in real-time to optimize impact.
As with all technologies, this is neither inherently good nor bad. Its impact depends on how we use it.
To ensure that this technology benefits humanity, and that we don’t see real harm caused to real people, we need to ensure that human rights are central to the development and deployment of neurotechnologies and other products connected to AI-powered immersive worlds.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is concerned that these rapidly evolving technologies are not currently supported by adequate safeguards and regulations to protect people from harm and preserve their human rights.
Right to privacy
One key example is the erosion of the right to privacy, which is a cornerstone human right.
Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, once stated that ‘privacy may actually be an anomaly’. As neurotechnologies improve and break into consumer markets, there may be some truth to this statement – unless we take action.
The boundary between the external world and one’s internal mental cognition has traditionally been an impenetrable one. Mental privacy is the last true bastion of protected information which is secret to us. However, neurotechnologies challenge this.
It is due to the unprecedented ability to access internal thoughts that neural data is more sensitive and valuable than all other categories of personal data.
The collection of neural data will make it possible to one day track, analyse and predict the actions and attitudes of individuals about anything from political leanings, sexual orientation or health status.
For example, a recent experiment has seen the integrated use of neurotechnology and large language models to translate brain activity into words. Although conducted in a highly tailored environment, one study was able to partially replicate a story read by participants using neurotechnologies.
While this technology may bring numerous benefits, especially in terms of accessibility for people with disability - the risk to privacy is a real concern.
New and emerging technologies – including neurotechnologies, generative AI and the metaverse – offer the promise of immense benefits to humanity. However, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I encourage all of you to stop and consider the human rights risks of these often-exciting new technologies.
Ultimately, it is up to all of us to ensure that these technologies are developed and used in ways that benefit humanity, and protect against the very real risks posed to our human rights – such as the right to privacy.
We need to ensure that the future of AI-powered immersive worlds is one that places humanity at its very the core.