Announcing ExpressVPN’s 2022 scholarship winner

ExpressVPN news
5 mins
A mortarboard. The 2021 ExpressVPN Scholarship is now open for entries.

We are excited to announce the winner of the ExpressVPN Future of Privacy Scholarship 2022: Razvan Ciuca, a student at Université de Montréal, Canada. Congratulations!

This year, our essay prompt asked students: If you were writing the rules for the metaverse, how would you ensure it were free, open, and safe? 

We received over 1,200 entries tackling the topic, with plenty of exploration into different facets of the metaverse, from decentralization and DAOs to government regulations surrounding different metaverse environments.

We chose to award the $5,000 scholarship prize to Razvan’s essay, which discussed the inevitability of a compromise between the three characteristics, and how he would prioritize them. You can read his essay on our scholarship page.

The competition was tough, but we chose five runners-up who also presented well-crafted, compelling arguments. Each runner-up wins a 12-month ExpressVPN subscription. They are:

  • Mihir Salil Gokhale – University of Texas at Austin, TX, U.S.
  • Harry Warne – Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK
  • Rana Dubauskas – Vanderbilt University, TN, U.S.
  • Riley Choquette – The Open University, UK
  • Michael Wieder – Princess Anne High School, VA, U.S. 

Q&A with our winner

We spoke to Razvan about his winning essay, the privacy measures he takes, and how he plans to use his degree to help others when he graduates. 

Have you personally ventured into the metaverse? If you have, what are your thoughts on it?

I have not ventured into anything that I would consider “metaverse proper” so far (indeed defining the word “metaverse” at this moment in time is pretty hard). I’ve certainly tried on a few VR headsets to see what they were like, but most of my impressions of the current metaverse come from watching people on YouTube trying the social features of the Quest Pro recently released by Meta. From those accounts, the current metaverse seems to me incredibly empty and forced. Most of what I see is bored people talking to other bored people, like a sort of higher-tech Omegle. 

Your essay argues that while compromise of all three qualities (freedom, openness, safety) are necessary, you weighed openness as the most important quality. Why?

Openness seems like the aspect that is hardest to change once the foundations are laid down. If a system starts out unsafe, there aren’t really financial incentives that make it stay unsafe in the future, so while it might take lots of work to make it safe later on, you don’t have too many intelligent adversaries with lots of resources opposing that goal from within. And while I can see that there are moneyed interests who want to keep the internet unfree, it’s nothing compared to the amount of power going towards maintaining unopenness. Windows will never become open, nor will macOS. The entire power of trillion-dollar market-cap companies is going towards ensuring that these pieces of software stay closed. If the metaverse starts out closed, I see no hope of it ever becoming open. That’s why openness is critical at the initial design stage in a way that the two other qualities aren’t so much. 

If the metaverse starts out closed, I see no hope of it ever becoming open. That’s why openness is critical at the initial design stage.

What do you think the main challenges are to making the internet a more decentralized space?

The main challenge is probably coming up with advantages of decentralization that normal people actually care about. If there are two versions of Tiktok, one centralized and one decentralized, but the centralized one is 1 percent more intuitive, snappy, or addictive, the centralized one wins. People just don’t care enough about decentralization for its own sake to make the switch, normal people can’t even really define what “decentralized” means. Any product that has to list “decentralized” in its list of features in an attempt to excuse itself for a poor user experience has already lost. In all honesty, I don’t see the internet ever becoming more decentralized than it is today.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to making the metaverse widely available to the masses?

The biggest obstacle is figuring out what problem the metaverse solves. A secondary one is making the headsets lighter and smaller, the pixel density higher and the field-of-view wider, but those will predictably come after Meta dumps a few more tens of billions into their hardware division. The initial problem of “What the hell do I actually do in here?” is much more important. The killer app will almost certainly be a really solid VRMMORPG, it has to be something good enough for most teenagers to ask for a VR headset for christmas, like they do with smartphones and computers. 

Fully interactive AI-generated pornography would also work to get the teenagers interested, though few people will admit in polite company to that reason, so there would also need to be an app to serve as cover, for the sake of plausible deniability. That last option would no doubt also horribly exacerbate pretty much all social problems we currently have. In general, all the paths where I see the metaverse becoming widely available involve making people addicted to something they can only get from the metaverse. I unfortunately don’t think the whole “work from within the metaverse” thing will be successful.

All the paths where I see the metaverse becoming widely available involve making people addicted to something they can only get from the metaverse.

What are you currently studying and what do you hope to pursue in the future?

I’m studying Math & CS at Université de Montréal right now, after that I’m going to graduate school to study AI, probably into deep learning theory or deep reinforcement learning. Any changes that the metaverse brings to our society will be a small ember next to the Giant Blazing Supernova that the advent of human-level AI will be, and I can’t see any better way to spend my life than to ensure that the supernova doesn’t burn all I care about in its path.

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