How to navigate the ethical dilemmas posed by the future of digital identity

Matt Price
Fellow, Metaverse Initiative, World Economic Forum
Anna Schilling
Fellow, Metaverse Initiative, World Economic Forum

  • When it comes to digital identity, new technologies are focusing on ethical dilemmas like consent, ownership, and post-mortem existence.
  • This emphasizes the need for legal and technical frameworks, respect for dignity and authenticity, and awareness of social implications, especially regarding virtual interactions.
  • Collaborative efforts among experts are needed to ensure responsible development and use of digital identities.

Everyone online today has a metaverse identity. We all contribute to this online image of ourselves through our online interactions – whether it be Facebook, Reddit, or a Digital Wallet address. This data, linked with our behaviours, representational preferences, and visual likeness, can become embodied to form an avatar or even a digital replica. Moreover, it can be augmented using generative artificial intelligence (AI) to take on a life of its own.

As new technologies like spatial computing and generative AI take hold, the fundamental nature of human identity – encompassing authenticity, dignity, and human presence – is being exposed in new ways. This poses serious ethical questions that must be answered by regulators, the creators of the technology, and the end users who are exploring this emerging tech. Is human identity, via authenticity, dignity, and human presence fundamentally at stake with the rise of AI?

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This conversation about metaverse identity considers these dilemmas and seeks to spotlight the evolving landscape of our digital selves, particularly regarding the ethics of licensing and identity generation.

What does consent look like when creating and using a digital replica?

Authenticity, dignity, and presence are fundamental to our humanity. Digitizing identity may enable new modes of autonomy, but it poses challenges around the following:

  • What consent looks like for how a person’s digital identity is used – both in transactions and post-mortem.
  • How both dignity and authenticity should be maintained while employing a digital identity.

How consent is given and how consent is enforced will shape the guardrails of how our digital identities can be used online and the consequences of ill use. Without these consideration factors, deepfakes and even consensual digital replicas may harm our human spirit.

How should society respond to those who wish to transact with their digital likeness?

The potential to license, purchase, or transfer digital replicas, like doppelgangers, opens a myriad of economic possibilities for individuals alongside social challenges.

Before transacting, individuals must have a clear understanding of their digital identity ownership and how their digital identity may be created, utilized, and potentially augmented. For example:

While these possibilities hold promise, they also raise ethical, legal, and societal concerns.

  • How do we establish transparent and fair transactional frameworks for digital likeness (IP) licensing?
  • What safeguards should be in place to prevent identity theft or unauthorized use of digital replicas?

Informed consent plays a pivotal first step for those who wish to transact with their own digital likeness.


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What does life look like post-mortem?

The concept of creating digital replicas raises profound ethical questions in the context of post-mortem existence. For example, should a parent be able to personify and animate their deceased child via a digital replica? While this documentary by South Korean broadcaster MBC explores the subject, it also introduces the ethical question of “how can consent be given for the creation and use of a digital replica, particularly when it concerns someone who does not have the agency to provide consent?” Moreover, “what does the right to be forgotten look like in the age where someone’s identity can live online past their corporal life?”

This becomes socially complex when considering historical figures, deceased actors, and other public persons. Moreover, it becomes jurisdictionally complicated by recognizing that different cultures have varied beliefs about death and post-mortem dignity. Respecting these individuals and cultural differences is crucial in developing a universally acceptable approach to digital replicas.

These ethical questions necessitate technical and legal action via:

  • Developing robust legal and technological frameworks to govern the use of digital identities. These frameworks should define the parameters for creating and utilizing digital replicas, ensuring they align with societal values and respect individual rights.
  • Creating robust mechanisms for identity validation of digital replicas. This can involve stringent authentication processes, verification methods, and transparency in how digital entities are presented in the metaverse.
  • Creation of immutable consent records. Potentially via tamper-proof blockchain solutions, these records can serve as a secure ledger entry ensuring that the wishes of individuals are respected even after their passing.
  • Ensuring the dignity and authenticity of the digital likeness. To showcase respectful representation and accurate portrayal to safeguard against misuse or misrepresentation that could tarnish one’s legacy.

Will new technologies lead us all to confuse virtual community and human connection for the real thing?

The concept of digital replicas, both in our daily activities and representing those who have passed, is not just a technical challenge; it represents a significant shift in how we understand identity, legacy, and consent in the digital age.

The immersive nature of virtual environments can create experiences that are highly engaging and emotionally resonant. This can lead to a blurring of lines between virtual interactions and real-life connections – via dysmorphia or depersonalization-derealization disorder – particularly in younger individuals whose social skills and understanding of relationships are still developing. Research and collaboration between industry leaders and academics are needed to proactively understand this relationship and mitigate these societal harms.

As AI plays a significant role in creating these digital replicas, establishing ethical guidelines for AI development and deployment in this context is necessary. Without sufficient AI governance in place to govern AI augmenting digital identities and without including ethicists in the conversation, stakeholders risk innovating without balanced reservation.

Shaping the digital identity landscape

Further studies and collaborative efforts are not just a necessity; they are an ethical imperative in shaping the digital identity landscape of tomorrow. As we move forward, a multidisciplinary approach involving ethicists, technologists, legal experts, and cultural scholars will be essential to navigate the digital identity terrain responsibly.

It is through their collective insights, research endeavours, and ethical considerations that we can forge a path forward that upholds the values of authenticity, humanity, and ethical use of technology in the identity domain.

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