DUBAI: Anna Stewart, a CNN reporter at the news channel’s bureau in London, is the host of its shows “Decoded” and “Marketplace Europe.”
In the former, she explores the latest trends in technology, from cryptocurrencies to wearables, so Arab News sat down with her for an exclusive chat about the latest developments in the tech sector.
The metaverse has been a hot topic for the past year or more yet it remains hard to define exactly what it means and encompasses.
“It’s always difficult to define something that is still evolving and people really differ in their opinions on this one,” Stewart said. “At its most broad definition, I would say the metaverse is the internet gone three-dimensional.”
As Stewart has gotten to know the ideas behind the metaverse better, she said she has been most surprised by the fact that there is more than one metaverse, “and they all look and feel very different.”
She told how she has experienced several metaverses, including a virtual nightclub in Somnium Space, a virtual reality experience on the Ethereum blockchain, where she danced with strangers, and buying a pet lion in Second Life and then flying with it, because “why not?”
Some metaverse platforms aim to enhance human connections, such as Meta’s Horizon Workrooms.
“I was skeptical that this would be any better than Skype or Zoom,” said Stewart. “I like to meet people IRL (in real life) but, of course, that’s not always possible and the VR experience brings you ever closer.”
The “Decoded” team often holds production meetings in the metaverse, she explained.
“When I’m wearing my VR headset in London, I am able to interact with the team around a virtual desk and even view the latest episode on the big virtual screen,” she said.
“It makes us feel like we are together and collaborating in a way that a video call just can’t.”
Although some people have voiced concerns that the metaverse might be detrimental to real-life connections and interactions, Stewart is not too concerned about that.
“Sometimes we worry too much about change,” she said. “People worried the advent of the mobile phone would have a similar impact and I don’t believe it has.”
The rise of the mobile phone, the internet and, consequently, social media did, however, have implications for privacy and online safety. Even now, more than a decade after the dawn of social media, regulation remains a challenge.
“I worry deeply that hate speech, cyberbullying, and sexual harassment could be even more invasive if people can hide behind the anonymity of an avatar,” said Stewart.
The question of user privacy is something Philip Rosedale, the founder of virtual world Second Life, has been pondering since its inception. One of his biggest concerns is how future metaverse platforms will make money.
He told Stewart: “It has to be a business model that doesn’t include surveillance, targeting and advertisement.”
If metaverse platforms fail to self-regulate, governments might have to step in and define the rules, which will be no easy task, Stewart said.
Jane Thomason, a futurist and author on the subject of digital ethics, told Stewart: “Typically, regulation has been done on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, and yet some of these metaverses will be multijurisdictional, and even virtual in that they don’t have any particular geography that is their home.”
Another important area in which regulation is still under development is cryptocurrency. Following the FTX scandal, crypto adoption has slowed globally. Dubai, however, has embraced cryptocurrency, “so it’s little surprise you’ll find well-known crypto influencers living there,” Stewart said.
“You’ll also find you can buy a car or even an apartment using cryptocurrency; two of the region’s largest property developers, Damac and Emaar, appear to be embracing a crypto future,” she added.
More importantly, she said, Dubai is seeking to regulate the sector through its Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority. Additionally, crypto exchanges such as BitOasis and Binance have secured licenses to operate in the UAE.
The future of cryptocurrencies, according to Stewart, will probably be different from what many people think.
“I think a truly decentralized currency, like Bitcoin, could revolutionize financial transactions in some parts of the world and is a useful method of payment for cross-border transactions,” she said.
But she added: “I don’t think buying Bitcoin in the hope its value will go up and make you a Bitcoin billionaire is a good strategy or one that’s likely to work.”
In addition to the metaverse and crypto industries, artificial intelligence is another topic that has sparked controversy and discussions about regulation, especially the emergence of bots and deepfake technology for manipulating digital images.
Stewart was deepfaked, with her consent, for an episode of “Decoded” and the process “was fairly easy, which is hugely worrying,” she said.
Selina Wang, another CNN journalist, recently reported on deepfaked anti-US newscasts spread by pro-China bot accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
“These realistic newscasts feature AI-generated anchors that are difficult to tell apart from the real thing,” said Stewart.
“This technology is spreading rapidly around the world and would have major consequences on trust and reliability.”
Although AI is not without its share of controversy, and concerns about the disruption it might cause to some jobs, its proponents believe it holds great promise in terms of reshaping society and education, and creating new industries. One report predicted that 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented yet.
Despite fears about AI-powered chatbots such as ChatGPT, which has been used for a wide range of activities, from writing essays to creating recipes, Stewart believes they could in time prove to be an “incredible sounding board for creatives.”
She said she uses them herself to find the right words or metaphors for her scripts, or to generate new ideas for her show.
“Even if what it spits out is no good, it may spark a different idea in my brain,” she explained.
While new technologies often seem threatening and dangerous at first, they could revolutionize the future, Stewart added.
The experiences she has had talking with guests on “Decoded” and trying some of the innovations for herself have converted her “from a cynic to a firm believer that this technology has an important role to play in the future.”