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Education March 15, 2023

The Metaverse Has a Security Problem



The Metaverse Has a Security Problem

In 2023 we stand at the cusp of the next epoch of the internet. The rise of blockchain technology and smart contracts have changed the way people engage with information as well as money. However, the benefits of this technology also come with some notable risks.

Networks dealing with user funds need to be absolutely secure – or else why should anyone trust them? Auditing the underlying code is an important start, but it isn’t enough. 

The latest major iteration of Web3 technology is the metaverse, and significant mainstream attention and financial backing make it look very likely to eventually achieve mass adoption, particularly for gamers. However, given that more established and mature applications of blockchain technology still face security issues, the relatively new metaverse space needs to address the security risks posed by complex smart contract interactivity before it can be expected to sustainably scale. 

The road to the metaverse

The internet has come a long way over the last three decades. It all began with what we now call Web1, the early days of basic text, images and links. By the early 2000s the internet began to shift into Web2, dominated by streaming entertainment and social media. Now, we’re at the dawn of Web3. 

This new era of the internet is built on top of decentralized technology, allowing for the free movement of data and value across multiple interconnected networks.

One of the promises of an open and decentralized blockchain economy is that of empowerment for the individual, allowing each person to take control of their own finances and profile information. 

The sum of these Web3 services, as well as the virtual worlds that are starting to be built on top of them, is collectively known as the metaverse. Right now we’re just at the cusp of this movement, but it holds potential for becoming the standard way that people engage with shopping, entertainment, and socializing online. The vision is inspiring, but in practical application, there are still unsolved issues to address regarding securing this brave new world.

Opportunity comes with responsibility

With this unprecedented level of control and flexibility comes new risks. While users should have unfalsifiable control over their own data and assets, there are still places where issues could arise in the underlying code, known as smart contracts. 

The promise of smart contracts is true decentralization, allowing users to rely on logic rather than needing to put trust in a central authority. Because of the power invested in smart contracts, their logic needs to be flawless, lest exploitable glitches arise and put user funds at risk. This isn’t unprecedented, particularly for contracts holding a large balance, and recently a major hack occurred on the BNB Token Hub, a bridge between the BNB Beacon Chain and the Binance Smart Chain. 

Approximately half of all DeFi hacks are from cross-chain bridges, as these tend to be complicated and have the additional requirement of maintaining a constant reserve of funds, making them prime targets for exploitation.

Additionally, any oversight in the smart contracts of a bridge puts assets on both connected networks at risk. Blockchains themselves are often nearly impossible to successfully attack, but services built on top of them, such as DeFi platforms and metaverse smart contracts, are only as secure as their code lets them be. 

When this code has not undergone a thorough security audit, the possibility of an exploitable error is actually quite high. The fact is, if this space is going to expand to become a larger part of everyday life, developers and administrators need to level up their security. 

How to truly secure Web3

The first line of defense for securing decentralized services is always going to be a thorough security audit of its smart contracts before it is deployed. Furthermore, before code updates are to be applied, additional audits should also be done. 

By hiring third parties to review and re-review all code, the likelihood of a bug or exploit slipping through the net drops considerably. This can go a long way in protecting users and giving them peace of mind when using decentralized platforms that handle real money and highly sensitive information.

Audits can only go so far, however, and the possibility of something going wrong due to an oversight or unforeseen interaction between multiple contracts is still very real. The only solid way to protect users from these types of risks is real-time network monitoring paired with automated risk assessment and flagging of threats, anomalies and other unusual behavior. 

Monitoring of this nature lets developers respond to security incidents as soon as they surface as potential threats. When developer teams take such proactive measures, they signal to users and the broader market that they have their best interest at heart, which would be a major advantage given the possibility of crypto regulation and the promotion of security badges and ratings.

The Poly Network’s exploit is just one example where real-time monitoring could have greatly stemmed what was, in this case, an eye-watering loss of $600 million. The exploit occurred over the course of several mined blocks, and so with advanced monitoring in place, functionality could have been halted after the first block, preventing any additional loss of funds.

Continual audit support for various metaverse system components is required. That includes monitoring native metaverse tokens, meta-transaction implementations and additional required dependencies. Because the pieces that make up a metaverse puzzle are intricate and extensive, there is a lot to keep an eye on. 

Spotting fraud in real-time

Often, strange transaction activity can be the first sign that something malevolent is underway. For example, if suddenly many large transactions begin moving funds off of a platform, well above the average traffic seen, then at the very least it needs to be looked into more closely, and fast. 

Hacker at work

Such action can halt attacks before they begin when the warning signs are made apparent. Automated monitoring can send an alert to a team of security experts who can then immediately look closer at the activity and respond appropriately.

Without active observation, these types of events are often only noticed days or weeks later, well after the damage has been done and the attackers have had time to cover their tracks

There’s far too little of this going on in current Web3 applications, but this needs to change. Users can’t be expected to participate in the metaverse without well-vetted security protocols in place. The practice of auditing has proven essential in deploying existing Web3 services, but when considering the added complexity of metaverse projects, such measures can’t account for all possible variables, especially once code has been deployed and is running in the wild. 

That said, automated, 24/7 monitoring of blockchain transactions and smart contract activity can be a powerful tool in dealing with threats as they emerge. This is the model that will make Web3 practical, and safe enough for global adoption, as users will rightly turn their backs on anything less. 

This article was written by Stephen Lloyd Webber, a software engineer and author with diverse experience in simplifying complex situations. He is fascinated by open source, decentralization and anything on the Ethereum blockchain. Stephen is currently working in developer relations at OpenZeppelin, a premier crypto cybersecurity technology and services company, and has an MFA in English writing from New Mexico State University.

Image credits: Shutterstock, CC images, Midjourney, Unsplash.
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Rise of AI-Powered Cheating: Challenges and Solutions for Educators



Rise of AI-Powered Cheating Challenges and Solutions for Educators

AI advancement are raising serious concern in the academic sector, especially in this frenzied chatbot era. ChatGPT, a viral AI-powered chatbot, became the best cheating partner of students immediately after its launch last November.

Because of its ability to complete school assignments, OpenAI’s tool soon became popular among students in particular.

Also Read: Microsoft Unveils AI Tools to Improve Education

And ChatGPT isn’t the only tool; there are now a wide range of AI-powered chatbots available which can complete school tasks such as writing essays, poetry, or even coding for IT students.

Teaching and learning change over time

Demands to change the way teaching and learning are structured are now being raised – and some experts say it should be based on the technology available.

“The way we’ve thought about how to teach students has often depended on what technology was out there,” says Jon Ippolito, a new media educator.

Educational methods are changing over time, just as we saw with the boom in online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The internet has long assisted the education process, with students relying on search engines to find information, sources, or background for their work. However, the emergence of generative AI is not just about finding information and presenting it in one’s own words. It can also present that information as a complete assignment.

“After we had search engines that could find facts, it was more about, how do we write up those facts and present them. But AI like ChatGPT makes the presentation really easy. It can spit out a term paper in a matter of seconds,” said Ippolito.

Student gets a ready-made answer

To test this theory, I asked a question from a biology book – and ChatGPT supplied an extremely comprehensive answer.

When the same question was posed to DuckDuckGo, a list of search results was returned, necessitating a deeper dive to find the answer.

Since AI chatbots are now widely available, students have nothing left to do after receiving a perfectly presented solution. Why use Google when you can turn to a chatbot instead?

Perhaps most alarmingly, experts say there isn’t a good way for educators to know if students are using AI chatbots to complete  work.

Request for syllabus changes

The challenge of blocking or detecting the work done by AI has now come to the fore.

“The very nature of these learning technologies is that they adapt to whatever test you give them. So when you make a better detector, the AI uses that to make a better AI,” says Ippolito.

Institutions are blocking access to ChatGPT on college-owned devices, as some students try to leverage it for different subjects including math. The expert believes the solution for educators to prevent such cheating is to change assignments.

There are many ways to “change the syllabus and do things that only humans can do,” he said. “So, for example, reacting to something that just happened in class or something that’s local to your own community.”

Naturally, the new trending AI chatbot has posed fresh challenges for tracking students’ growth.

“Nobody’s got the answer at this point. We’re just figuring it out. And I think being candid with your students always goes well,” said Caleb Husmann, a professor at William Peace University.

To pretend it doesn’t exist, however, “is not the right approach” according to Lee Tiedrich, a professor at Duke Law School. Embracing ChatGPT may be a better method, she argues.

“I think we need to have a national learning moment about artificial intelligence, which is something I’ve been saying for a while, because students need to understand how it works,” she said.

The educator believes students should be trained to maximize the benefits of AI and learn more about it.

“What our students need to learn is, you know, ‘what are some of the beneficial uses? How can it help you with research? But, you know, what are the responsibilities that come with using the technology?’,” stated Tiedrich.

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Educators Remain Metaverse Positive Despite Negative Media Spin



Educators Remain Metaverse Positive Despite Negative Media Spin

Universities and business schools around the world continue to roll out new metaverse experiences for their students, despite mainstream media outlets writing the technology off.

Institutions from around Europe are among the frontrunners in the adoption and implementation of virtual reality and the metaverse, offering opportunities that weren’t previously available.

The VR campus is still just the beginning

The Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) is the latest school to offer students the chance to join them virtually for a postgraduate course in the metaverse.

Students seeking to undertake WU’s professional master of sustainability will have the option to attend the part-time course virtually. Developed in partnership with an edtech start-up, the Tomorrow University of Applied Sciences, the course will facilitate attendance through a laptop with the aid of 3D technology and a VR headset.

Barbara Stöttinger, dean of WU’s executive academy, told the FT on Sunday that the course, “provides us with greater reach, making the course more global.” Stöttinger went on to add that, “Vienna is a great location so coming to campus is still pretty attractive to most of our students.”

Vienna State Opera

Vienna State Opera

To the FT who initially broke the story under the title “Courses in the metaverse struggle to compete with real world,” Stöttinger’s second statement was enough to rebuke the very notion of holding courses in the metaverse.  

The paper editorializes that “studying in the real world has its advantages,” which is true enough – but doesn’t change the fact that studying in the metaverses has advantages too.

To argue the former and then forget the latter is to somewhat miss the entire point: the metaverse gives students a greater degree of choice when it comes to study, and opens them up to new experiences that weren’t previously possible.

A gentle reminder of fact

The WU may be the latest school to offer course in the metaverse but it is by no means the first. In November, MetaNews told the story of the Neoma Business School in France, which is running lectures in the metaverse. The school has a persistent virtual campus the equivalent of 10,000 square meters including all the facilities you’d expect from a bricks-and-mortar university campus.

Professor Alain Goudey, the associate dean for digital at Neoma, explained very simply why it was so important for students to have exposure to metaverse technology.

“It is going to shape the world of tomorrow,” he said.

Beyond the virtual campus, the Polimi Graduate School of Management in Milan is betting that the metaverse has more to offer than a simple replication of existing services.

Polomi has created its own VR edtech start-up Fadpro to offer students courses that will take them around the world – virtually. Fadpro will leverage the concept of “digital twins” to allow them to transport business students to locations the world over, visiting virtual twins of headquarters and factories.

Using digital twins, students could conceivably visit Toyota’s headquarters in the morning, Tesla’s in the afternoon, and be back in time for tea in Milan.

Try doing that in the real world.

The future of education

London Imperial College and Vlerick Business School in Belgium are among a global alliance of business schools seeking to further metaverse education.

The Future of Management Education (FOME), which also includes the Norwegian Business School and ESMT Berlin, dedicates itself to “shaping immersive and engaging online education.”

Although the group is extremely positive about the future role of metaverse education, they do also acknowledge that challenges remain. Steve Muylle, associate dean of digital learning at Vlerick Business School in Belgium, believes that one of the most pressing challenges is the price of hardware and software development.

“Part of the problem is that the technology is constantly evolving. So, even if you did invest, the hardware and software quickly moves on,” says Muylle.

At the same time, educators such as Muylle want to continually offer their students the very best the sector can offer: “We have to offer people a wow experience in the metaverse,” he argues.

Fellow FOME member, the London Imperial College, is currently piloting a new scheme under its mandatory ‘Working in Diverse Organisations’ module. The school has yet to make a final commitment to the scheme, but should the trial prove successful, all of its 2,000 masters students will eventually take the course.

Sarah Grant, a leading member of Imperial’s edtech team, is cautiously optimistic about plans to introduce the course.

“I am confident that we will find that it is useful. But I want to look at the evidence before we invest in a roll out,” said Grant.

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Scientists Working on AI Built From Human Brain Cells



Scientists Working on AI Built From Human Brain Cells

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University are working on AI built from human brain cells, with the project touting “biocomputing” as the next big step for neural networks, reports RT.

“Computing and artificial intelligence have been driving the technology revolution, but they are reaching a ceiling,” said Thomas Hartung, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Whiting School of Engineering, who is leading the work.

The team led by Hartung is aiming to build what it calls “organoid intelligence.”

Also Read: Civil Servants and Students Allowed to Quote From ChatGPT

“Biocomputing is an enormous effort of compacting computational power and increasing its efficiency to push past our current technological limits,” said Hartung.

‘Brain organoids: the future of sustainable computing’

For almost 20 years, researchers have been utilizing miniature organoids – artificial tissues that resemble fully-developed organs – to conduct experiments on organs such as kidneys and lungs, without the need for animal or human testing.

The scientists at Johns Hopkins have now been investigating brain organoids, minuscule orbs comparable in size to a pen dot that contain neurons and other components capable of supporting functions like memory and learning.

“This opens up research on how the human brain works, because you can start manipulating the system, doing things you cannot ethically do with human brains,” said Hartung.

In 2012, Hartung initiated the cultivation and arrangement of brain cells to create functional organoids; he accomplished this by utilizing cells from human skin samples that were reprogrammed into a state resembling embryonic stem cells.

The resulting organoids are composed of approximately 50,000 cells, which are roughly equivalent in size to the nervous system of a fruit fly. Hartung’s ultimate goal is to construct an advanced computer utilizing these brain organoids, per the university.

Hartung believes that in the coming decade, computers utilizing this “biological hardware” could potentially alleviate the mounting energy requirements of supercomputing that are quickly becoming unsustainable.

“The brain is still unmatched by modern computers. Frontier, the latest supercomputer in Kentucky, is a $600 million, 6,800-square-feet installation. Only in June of last year did it exceed for the first time the computational capacity of a single human brain— but using a million times more energy,” said Hartung.

Student allowed to keep diploma for AI-written thesis

The era of AI has picked up since the release of ChatGPT by OpenAI last November. OpenAI’s ubiquitous AI-powered chatbot has faced continuous restrictions since its launch.

The recent adoption of a Russian student’s thesis has raised eyebrows, as he faced scrutiny for defending a paper authored by ChatGPT. Despite the controversy, the student has been granted permission to retain his diploma.

“In short, writing a thesis with ChatGPT is cool,” said Alexander Zhadan, in a widely-circulated Twitter thread on Wednesday. He confirmed that he had used OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot to compose his paper and had earned a passing grade.

“You definitely need to edit it yourself, but the machine produces most of it on its own,” said Zhadan, detailing his 23-hour effort to write prompts and translate ChatGPT’s answers into Russian.

After Zhadan’s account of using a chatbot to write his thesis in modern organizational management became viral, the Russian State University for the Humanities requested a meeting with the student to discuss the matter.

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