Metaverse - friend, foe or stone in your shoe?
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Metaverse is the new kid in town, and it's "in" to have an opinion about it. As a professional speaker on artificial intelligence and the flip side of digital, I too have an opinion. To be blatantly honest, thought, none of us really have a clue what the Metaverse will be like, because the whole thing is still only a vision.
On the other hand, based on the history of digital technologies and our current knowledge about the technologies involved in the Metaverse, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, blockchain, sensor technologies, and social media, we can meaningfully discuss qualified hypothesis around what the future may hold.
I recently did a keynote on this topic for a business leader audience. To provide a meaningful structure for a fruitful discussion, I offered my hypothesis through three different lenses:
Lens 1: The vision
Lens 2: The technology landscape
Lens 3: The commercial drivers
Disclaimer: This article is not an attempt at explaining everything about the Metaverse. The purpose is to highlight selected perspectives for inspiration and reflection.
Let me first give a bit more background on the term Metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg has been credited as the source of the term, but that is factually wrong. The first time the term Metaverse appeared, was in Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel 'Snow Crash', published in 1992. At that time, Mark Zuckerberg had just started primary school. 'Snow Crash' is an action novel intertwined with a dystopian story about a world where national states are replaced by privately owned enclaves, and the citizens live partly in the physical world and partly in the digital world, i.e. the Metaverse. Many of the described features of the digital world can be seen as direct parallels to our current use of digital tools and of the not-so-distant future of the "real" Metaverse.
Let's dig in!
LENS 1: THE VISION
Zuckerberg's vision has been quoted as follows: "The Metaverse will take the world into a more robust economy, where people can do things that are intellectually or physically interesting to them. Communities will pop up, leading to monetization and self-sustaining ecosystems." According to Mark Zuckerberg, we are probably 5-10 years away from realization.
It is easy to interpret this as social media on steroids combined with a touch of cryptocurrencies. From a business perspective it may be tempting to ignore or reject the idea. That would be a dangerous path. I gave myself the challenge of listing all potential use cases for the Metaverse that I could imagine. The task was daunting. I changed tactic, and decided to rather try to identify the use cases where the Metaverse is unable to deliver even in its most fluffy vision. So far I have found FOUR such use cases; ingesting food and beverage, emptying bowels, physical body hygiene, and reproduction. Note that I have not even included the rituals and processes around these four use cases, only the basic physical functions of the human body.
You are now probably tempted to say that "no, for this and that we need to meet face to face". I say you are most likely wrong. You are most likely victim of "failure of imagination".
You are most likely victim of "failure of imagination".
We need to think five steps ahead; what happens when almost everything we humans do in our lives can be done, enjoyed, solved in the digital space? What defines humans as humans? Which version of the future do we want? You need to take a stand and voice your opinion, because this train is leaving the station.
LENS 2: THE TECHNOLOGY LANDSCAPE
The main technologies involved in the Metaverse already exist; artificial intelligence, gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality, internet of things, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, NFTs. However, the processing power required to create and operate an immersive 3D experience is way beyond what is currently both possible and sustainable. New generations of hardware will also have to be developed, including data chips and glasses. . According to Intel, the computing capability needs to increase 1000x to fuel the Metaverse. Today, the data centres of the world gobble up about 1% of the world's total energy consumption. At the same time, large parts of the world are currently facing an energy crisis combined with an urgent need to transition to renewable energy resources. Bitcoin mining alone requires as much energy as about 18 million Nordic households for a year. Or 700.000 VISA transactions per second. It just doesn't add up.
In 2021, the world produced nearly 58 million metric tonnes of electrical waste. With the significant replacement of hardware needed to realize the Metaverse, we can only imagine the mountains of electrical waste in the years to come.
In my eyes, there is absolutely no way to argue that Metaverse offers solid solutions to the sustainability challenge. On the contrary, the Metaverse will amplify and speed up the burning and poisoning of our planet.
On the other hand, all these technologies are already here, and they all have very real use cases. Covid taught us all to use digital tools for interaction, making the transition to 3D and virtual reality meeting solutions an obvious next step. For most people, the technologies around financial transaction are probably the most "foreign". DeFi, Web3, crypto, tokens, etc. Even the vocabulary in itself can scare off the most technology-friendly among us. A key topic to understand for a fruitful discussion around the future of finance is the difference between cryptocurrencies and tokens. Tokens (often referred to as digital security tokens) are a way of keeping track of stakes of value creation. One such example is venture capital, where many involved parties in a startup investment also contribute to building the value of that startup. Tokenization of the equity makes money and sweat equally important in the financial value creation. Where sweat historically meant labour to be compensated with wages, tokenization turns sweat into a financial instrument for investments. This means that wealth creation through investing becomes accessible to everyone, not just the financially well-equipped.
Where sweat historically meant labour to be compensated with wages, tokenization turns sweat into a financial instrument for investments.
LENS 3: THE COMMERCIAL DRIVERS
While Elon Musk is planning a human settlement on Mars and Jeff Bezos is preparing to take tourists to the Moon, Mark Zuckerberg chose a more "down-to-earth" approach and created the vision of the Metaverse. Mad men with lot of money have the power and ability to do wild and "impossible" things. In the wake of these wild ventures come large investments, ground-breaking innovation, and ubiquitous commercial interests. Retailers are unsurprisingly enough among the first players to jump on the Metaverse bandwagon. Walmart and Nike are two such examples, both with rather aggressive experimental approaches to NFTs and the use of gaming and 3D worlds to create new revenue streams. Real estate is another obvious sector in which virtual reality offers a new and compelling way to view properties without having to travel.
Some of these commercial initiatives will fail, some will succeed. Whichever way you look at it, the players who do take these early steps will also be the first ones to explore and learn. Again, you may think that digital shoes are a fad to be ignored. Let me tell you a quick story about my stepson. He just turned 11, and we asked him what he wanted for his birthday. Lego? Nope. Money? Nope. V-bucks, please. What are v-bucks? The currency in Fortnite, one of the world's largest games, owned by Epic Games. You see, the 11-year old boy wants to buy new gear (skins) for his female avatar, to match the avatars of his friends when they meet to have fun and talk about life - in Fortnite.
Even if we as grown-ups reject the idea of cryptocurrencies, digital assets, and socializing in digital worlds, our kids grow up in this landscape. They are the future employees, customers, citizens - and decision makers.
Even if we as grown-ups reject the idea of cryptocurrencies, digital assets, and socializing in digital worlds, our kids grow up in this landscape.
Throughout my entire career, as a leader, advisor, board member, and speaker, I have helped leaders to understand and embrace new technologies, in particular artificial intelligence. We have talked a lot about general artificial intelligence, media has made us worry about the world being taken over by some superintelligence that makes all humans unemployed and useless. But we are still not there. Artificial general intelligence is still only science fiction. However, machine learning has become a much used methodology, with a wide range of very powerful use cases, such as improving medical research and diagnostics, making buildings more energy efficient, supporting more sustainable food production, and a long list of other use cases.
The situation with the Metaverse is a direct parallel; the high-level vision vs realistic use cases. Dismissing the high-level vision as nonsense will put us in danger of becoming blind to the wide range of very realistic use cases right in front of our noses. These use cases are likely to have significant impact on how we understand and preserve our role as humans on a planet that needs healing.
So what can YOU do? Watch and learn. Form opinions, so that you are able to take part in new exploring new opportunities, but also equipped to put your foot down when technology goes too far. If you are not up to speed, you will not be ready to neither question nor explore the developments at the right time.
It's up to us to make sure that the future of technology is human-more, not human-less.
If you would like to learn more about artificial intelligence, the Metaverse, or the flip sid of digital, feel free to reach out!