Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Metaverse in 2040

9. Closing thoughts

The following respondents wrote contributions that consider the range of issues societies confront.

Andy Opel, professor of communications at Florida State University, commented, “As someone who has been teaching Immersive Media Production for the past five years and 3D Stereo Media Production for five years before that, I have spent a lot of time exploring these technologies both in and out of the classroom. The evolution of the technologies has been very rapid, with each advancement enhancing the immersive qualities and expanding the possibilities of these technologies. The introduction of the film ‘Avatar’ in 2009 marked the starting point of the latest wave of immersive media technologies that can be traced back to the earliest stereographs in 1832.

“The arrival of the Oculus Quest wireless headset in 2019 marked a turning point where consumers had access to relatively affordable virtual-reality technology that included stereo 3D, 360 imagery, ambisonic sound and motion-tracking of hands. The Oculus product offered an entry point for many people, exposing new audiences to the power and potential of the medium. As of 2022, almost 50% of users on the Steam platform, a popular source for VR content and games, were using an Oculus Quest headset. The rapid adoption of this one tool is playing a central role in popularizing VR.

“While the technology is becoming more available, there is a slow learning curve taking place for audiences. Collectively in the U.S., we are like the audience in the Lumiere Brothers’ theater, ready to jump out of the way of the train that looks like it is coming into the theater. The power of VR to transport someone to a new location is in its infancy but the potential is clearly visible, and this potential is profound.

“Transporting people to real places and telling real stories is one small part of the emerging metaverse, but another dynamic space is ‘social VR.’ In 2021, I attended Burning Man VR, a completely online experience. The 10 days of Burning Man VR provided a crash course in social VR and an opportunity to experience the creativity and vision of the many artists who created the virtual Burning Man exhibits. Every night, my wife and I would interact with people from all over the world as we explored the exhibits, eventually recruiting friends in other states to join us. We could talk, gesture with our avatars, and navigate everything from the familiar spaces of a virtual outdoor bar to a series of floating giant sculptures emitting showers of colored light. The range of experiences, coupled with the social elements that allowed us to share the experience together, was a major turning point in my understanding of and my ability to see the radical possibilities of this new art form – from simulating the familiar to exploding the possible.

“Joe Hunting’s film ‘We Met in Virtual Reality’ (2021) captures a slice of the emerging possibilities of the metaverse in an incredibly compassionate, human portrait of the power and potential of the metaverse to offer new, unexpected possibilities to audiences the world over. Shot entirely in the world of VRChat, an online social VR platform, Hunting’s film offers a glimpse into the many diverse things taking place in the metaverse and suggests the intensity and diversity of these experiences is only going to grow as audiences begin to adopt these new tools and independent content creators gain access to the means of production.”

Humans have always lived in their own artificial realities, called ‘subjective reality’ in philosophy. The metaverse is only technologically new.

Calton Pu, co-director of the Center for Experimental Research in Computer Systems at Georgia Tech

Calton Pu, co-director of the Center for Experimental Research in Computer Systems at Georgia Tech, wrote, “Humans have always lived in their own artificial realities, called ‘subjective reality’ in philosophy. The metaverse is only technologically new. Many humans, perhaps a majority, do not distinguish their personal subjective reality from a shared objective reality, which is the physical world. As long as their subjective reality has sufficient overlap with the physical world (e.g., respect for laws of physics), subjective humans can function well in the physical environment, including our society. From this perspective, metaverse is primarily a technological projection of our subjective reality.

“The main potential innovation of metaverse is a translation of previously (mental) subjective reality into physical imagery and objects, which may enable physical interactions among subjective realities. The technological challenge is how faithful a representation of the subjective reality the metaverse can achieve, vis-à-vis the power of imagination in shaping and changing our subjective reality. The answer should be obvious: The speed of thought will always be faster than the speed of light.

“Given the limitations of metaverse as a necessarily simplified projection of our subjective reality, a more constrained question would be whether the metaverse can capture a significant part of our subjective realities that can be useful for half a billion people. For the purpose of projection, we will divide the metaverse space into two subspaces: one that intersects with the physical world – called the objective metaverse – and the subjective metaverse, which is independent of physical world. The subjective metaverse would be an extension of creative space currently occupied by intellectual contributions such as books, movies and games. In this space, we are primarily limited by the creative energy of artists, not by technology. Therefore, the technological evolution of XR refinement would be a necessary condition, but not sufficient, for the production of the equivalent of blockbuster movies.

“It will take a deep understanding of human subjective reality to develop such metaverse blockbusters, which is possible, but implausible, by 2040. The objective metaverse would be an extension of digital twin technologies, which have been hampered by the distance between the evolving physical world and the ever-trying-to-catch-up digital twin. Given the huge investment (and modest returns) of the last decade on the technologies known as IoT (Internet of Things) and CPS (cyber-physical systems), it seems unlikely that the objective metaverse would evolve sufficiently to achieve much larger impact compared to digital twins.”

Karl M. van Meter, mathematician and research sociologist at École Normale Supérieure-Paris and leader with the Association Internationale de Méthodologie Sociologique, wrote, “The metaverse – just like other high-tech developments – will have its own ‘teething’ problems, and those problems will be addressed and in many ways resolved by individuals and institutions that have an interest in its correct functioning. This has been the case with the Internet, the web, email and the digital social media. All four have provided tremendous access to information and also previously unimaginable sources of social conflict whose future, like that of the metaverse, is far from being currently determined. The real question is whether or not the relatively open and highly developed countries responsible for these high-tech developments have the means of resolving the social conflicts that have been generated and still remain open or even democratic societies.

“Will the metaverse be different in China, in Russia, in North America, in Western Europe in the near future? I think the answer is clearly yes, and so how about in 2040? I think these countries, more than us as individuals or the high-tech developers, will be the major factors in determining what 2040 will look like and what the metaverse will be by the date.

“The U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) produces reports with projections into the future, looking at ‘all the actors’: China, Russia, North America, Western Europe, etc. Unfortunately, I have never seen one of these reports analyzing what role the NIC was going to play: telling the U.S. government that the ‘police action’ in South Vietnam would be successful; telling the UN and the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; claiming that ‘advanced-interrogation techniques’ were not torture. I wonder what the NIC would say about the future of the metaverse, without – of course – saying what its role will be.”

Edson Prestes, professor of informatics at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, responded, “Certainly, by 2040, we will have had enough great technological advancements to have a more-fully-immersive and much more refined metaverse; however, I am a bit skeptical we will have made a lot of progress by then in regard to human development.

Investment in technological solutions alone will not be enough to serve the best interests of humanity. It is necessary to put the entire planet at the center of future development.

Edson Prestes, professor of informatics at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

“Investment in technological solutions alone will not be enough to serve the best interests of humanity. It is necessary to put the entire planet at the center of future development. Are we genuinely doing that – not only talking about it but taking positive action for positive technological evolution with all of our hearts, minds and energy? There are some efforts underway, but will they be enough to take the metaverse in the right direction for humanity in the face of powerful players whose main motivation is not global good? Not sure.

“The metaverse can bring some clear benefits in various domains, but I am concerned about how the most vulnerable people will be victims of human rights violations due to new forms of manipulation, abuse and violence. We must also consider the perils for humanity in an age with AI-powered weapons. Lethal autonomous weapons systems continue to be developed. I am pessimistic.

“Trust among stakeholders (governments, industry and civil society) is fragile. Strong regulations and international agreements must be in place. Foresight, strategic thinking, planning and strong engagement from global society are necessary now so these new technologies do not amplify current real-world problems, such as energy overconsumption, the increasing exploitation of people and of natural resources, the degradation of human relationships and so on. The metaverse has great potential to impact democracy in unthinkable ways, including leaving offline people so far out of the picture that they are totally invisible to the rest of society. Of course, this already exists in some sense today, but it will be amplified, since it is not a question of access to the internet, but the access to a whole new world.”

Stewart Umpleby, an American cybernetician, professor emeritus of management and former director of the research program in social and organizational learning at George Washington University, wrote, “I work to advance the field of cybernetics, which provides a general theory of control and communication. It is clear to me that the world is moving from an industrial society based on matter and energy to an information society based on control and communication.”

Jaak Tepandi, a professor of knowledge-based systems at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia, said, “The idea of one possible positive future scenario for humanity stems from the logic of human evolution to date – the evolution of existing species and the emergence of new species, with some new species gaining increasing influence over other species and the environment. Even now, a new species may emerge, which represents the integration of humans and artificial systems, and it can eventually become dominant. Examples of important components in the development of such a species include genetic engineering (including CRISPR), artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, metaverse and others. Some realistic developments for humanity include:

  • Evolution – human integration with the artificial environment (similar to evolution from ape to human).
  • Survival – humans exist alongside the developed artificial environment (comparable to humans’ existence alongside the animal kingdom).
  • Isolation – will the setting for humanity be more similar to a zoo or to a nature reserve?
  • Destruction – an ‘on-site anthill’ or ‘running costs.’

“These scenarios are likely to be combined. The slower the transition, the greater the likelihood of positive scenarios for humanity. So, I express wishful thinking for the transition to be slow enough to allow humanity to experience a peaceful evolution.”

Tony Smith, a leader with the Kororoit Institute, a collaborative polydisciplinary research group applying complex systems and organisation knowledge theory to practice, responded, “As much as I have been invested for 40 years in the development and exploitation of virtual spaces that would facilitate not just rich interaction but also wide ranging collaboration, the proximate failure of our overstretched administrative systems, planetary hydrology and ecology is unlikely to leave space for such dreams to come true. I still see this kind of tech providing an irreplaceable platform for the transition to deeply devolved, diverse and transparent society that may be our best hope for finding viable pathways because successful devolution needs the confidence building that open transparency can deliver.

“In the interim, info tech must seriously take on board those who have a clue, moving on from human-centric notions of individual ‘intelligence’ to recognise that knowledge is the key foundation on which any cleverness can be built, that knowledge is a property of populations to a far greater degree, as Carl Safina suggested, extending to mother trees and the fungal wood wide web, and it now appears to water, so we really need our user-interface champions to make a start on bringing the Other Others into a species-neutral collaboration environment in a quest for the kind of solutions that clearly aren’t coming from humans in self-imposed isolation.

“As beneficiaries of membership in the most-indulged generation, we have to extinguish all thoughts that the continuation of ‘business as usual’ is in any way good, and accelerate the collapse of the recalcitrants. I watched part one of the new film version of ‘Dune’ for the third time a couple of nights ago. It reminded me that we could really use our own Paul Atreides to lead our indigenous survivors to assert their always-was-and-always-will-be responsibility for Earth’s land and waters.”

Yvette Wohn, associate professor in informatics at New Jersey Institute of Technology and director of the Social Interaction Lab, responded, “Purely from an accessibility perspective, I do not believe that the metaverse as described by Meta and others will be something that most people will be using  by 2040. It requires significantly advanced computing resources, both in terms of hardware and Internet infrastructure.

“The metaverse is neither a positive nor a negative space. Its designers have to consider the social consequences their designs will bring. For example, will activities be restricted to only those who have certain hardware or software? Will it lead to dystopian scenarios in isolated virtual spaces? If I were designing the metaverse, it would be something that seamlessly integrates with one’s offline life, that is compatible and integrated with all previous versions of the Internet, and something that enriches life as a whole instead of further deepening the divide between online and offline.

“My doubts should not indicate that I do not see merits in the metaverse. I believe the metaverse will create more jobs in ways that we cannot even imagine now. I believe the metaverse has the potential to enrich the quality of our lives, especially for people who lack physical resources. But like any new technology, the derived benefits are contingent on how the technology is designed.

“If we are not to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past, it is essential that more stakeholders are involved in the design and development of digital spaces. This includes people of diverse expertise – not just programmers, but also social scientists, educators, policymakers. If we expect the metaverse to be an integral part of life in the future, we should not expect that for-profit companies will represent all of the needs of all of society. Placing all of the accountability on companies is unrealistic and to some extent irresponsible.”

The metaverse will develop in a world with a metamodern imagination. It is time for an astute foundation to bring together meta makers and metamodern philosophers to deepen this conversation.

Warren Yoder, longtime director at Public Policy Center of Mississippi

Warren Yoder, longtime director at Public Policy Center of Mississippi, now an executive coach, wrote, “The smartphone became part of daily life because it commanded foveal vision to present engaging social media stories. Its 1D sound was adequate for 2D storytelling. It was good enough then; it is tedious now. Today’s rudimentary metaverse commands binocular vision and surround sound, with some attempts at haptic touch but little development on balance, position, smell or the other senses. Meta makers will have to do better for the sensory experience of the metaverse to command sustained attention.

“An immersive metaverse will also have to command more of the human imperatives that drive our attention. We have decidedly mixed examples for the three positive imperatives. Social media has shown us how to capture the social imperative for nefarious purposes. Porn and sex toy makers are working with the sexual imperative. Education meta makers are exploring ways to truly engage our innate curiosity. Still untouched are the two aversive imperatives of homeostasis and pain. They may not seem natural candidates for the metaverse. But what humans have done in the past, meta makers will redo in the metaverse. Physical challenges have a long and storied history. Will meta makers create desert marathons for participants to run to exhaustion? Will metagroups create painful, scarifying initiations?

“Before horrific developments overtake us again, we need deeper conversations about this new mode of being. Fortunately, key philosophers are doing useful work. Not the philosophers arguing for and against transhumanism. Look instead to those exploring the transition from postmodernity to metamodernity. Postmodernity interrogated modern power and knowledge. Useful back then. Now metamodernity recognizes the existence of multiple modes of the real and prompts one’s imagination to take bits and pieces from useful practices wherever we find them.

“We have already begun constructing a new metamorphic reality not limited by old binary contradictions. The metaverse will develop in a world with a metamodern imagination. It is time for an astute foundation to bring together meta makers and metamodern philosophers to deepen this conversation.”

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