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Meta unveils new virtual reality headsets — and a plan for their use in classrooms


Facebook's parent company, Meta, has a new educational product for their Quest virtual reality headset, intended to go along with third-party educational apps. That's right - this one's headed to the classroom. Now, the headsets, which costs around $300 and are aimed at students who are 13 and older, are already in some schools. Meta's president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, thinks these headsets can engage students by immersing them into virtual environments - study ancient Rome by walking through ancient Rome, dinosaurs by walking among dinosaurs. We've seen Meta's commercials. I asked him, though, if headsets were an answer for students struggling with reading or math, areas where test scores have been at their lowest level in decades.

NICK CLEGG: I was reading a study the other day by I think it's Pricewaterhouse, PwC, who said that the learners that they'd spoken to, who'd been learning in virtual reality, said that they were 150% more engaged during classes than they otherwise would be. And Morehouse College reported much higher average final test scores for students learning in VR than from traditional or even traditional online methods. This isn't just about kind of academic learning. This is also about practical education. So for instance, in Tulsa, there is a welding school where welders of all levels are using VR to upskill their welding, you know, certification, their welding training. So I think there are lots and lots of different applications that educators and teachers are telling us at this very sort of nascent stage of the technology that they're using.

RASCOE: What do you say to those who will be critical of Meta in this space, given Meta's record of creating and marketing social media tools to children and teens that are addictive, and that research shows can have a real negative impact on kids' mental health? Why should Meta or its products be trusted in a classroom?

CLEGG: I don't think it's about whether you do or don't trust a company like Meta. It's do you or don't you trust the judgment of the teacher in the classroom? And we are building these tools so it is entirely controlled by the teacher. It's not controlled by us. It's the teacher that decides whether the headset is used. It's the teacher that decides what the content is on the headset. Students won't be able to access the Meta Quest store. They won't be able to access social media apps and social experiences on the Meta platform.

RASCOE: Separately, since I have you here - we're in an election year. There are major concerns about deepfakes and altered media spreading misinformation online. Meta announced starting next month, it will label AI-generated content and will also label any digitally altered media, AI or not, that it feels poses a particularly high risk of materially deceiving the public on a matter of importance. When it comes to election-related content, why just label the content and not remove it completely if it poses a risk of deceiving the public?

CLEGG: Oh, no. We will continue, of course, to remove content that breaks our rules. It doesn't matter whether it's synthetic or whether it's by a human being. We disable networks of fake accounts. We expect people, if they're going to use AI to produce political ads, to declare that. And if they don't, and they repeatedly fall foul of our rules, we won't allow them to run ads. But we have to work across the industry.

RASCOE: Well, that brings me to this question, because researchers at the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights - they released a report this year arguing that it's not the creation of AI content that's really a threat to election security, but the distribution of, quote, "false, hateful and violent content" via social media platforms. They argue that companies like Meta need to add more humans to content moderation. They need to fund more outside fact-checkers and institute circuit breakers to slow the spread of certain viral posts, that it's really about the distribution of the content versus, like, how it's created by AI or whatever. What is your response to that?

CLEGG: Well, we as Meta so happen to have by far the world's largest network of fact-checkers, over 100 of them around the world, working in over 70 languages. If you look, for instance, at the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook now, what does prevalence mean? That means the percentage of hate speech as a percentage of the total amount of content on Facebook. It's down to as low as 0.01%. And by the way, that's not just my statistic or the statistic from Meta. That's actually a independently vetted statistic.

RASCOE: But you said you have 100 fact-checkers. I mean, there are millions and millions of posts. So is that something where you need more content moderators, you need more fact-checkers - is that something that Meta would consider in a pivotal election year?

CLEGG: Well, as I say, we constantly expand the number of fact-checkers we have. We'll never be perfect. The internet is a big open landscape of content, but I think we are a completely different company now than we were, for instance, back in 2016 at the time of the Russian interference in the U.S. elections then.

RASCOE: That's Nick Clegg, Meta's president for global affairs. Thanks for joining us.

CLEGG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.