Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes the ill-fated journey of a sailor facing a challenging ocean, while making questionable decisions. Literature may seem far removed from 21st century emerging technology. But themes are often applicable, and the analogies may help us find our way -- hopefully without an albatross hanging around our necks.
The metaverse is amid a hype cycle, and for some, it might be a tired topic. But the metaverse is already here, albeit in a form -- namely the internet -- that currently doesn't live up to the expectations. Although we haven't yet achieved the ultimate vision, the metaverse will continue to evolve and expand over time, changing our relationship with each other and with the physical and virtual world.
In the process of working through policy implications in, with and through the metaverse, a rather poetic definition of the metaverse surfaced: "an emergent yet persistent digital environment governed by code but subject to society." The metaverse can be viewed as one or more virtual environments with both persistent and ephemeral qualities. It is informed by physical IoT sensors and is populated by a combination of algorithms and avatars, or representations of beings.
Although some have associated the metaverse with virtual reality, immersive headsets are just one entry point for users. In fact, immersion might not be the most interesting capability of a fully realized metaverse.
Among the many promises of the metaverse is the ability to have virtual environments that mirror or augment physical spaces and experiences. These digital twins -- high-fidelity simulations driven by ground-truth data -- offer countless possibilities to improve the human condition: more efficient homes, buildings and cities; improved ability to react to natural and human-driven disasters; and a redefinition of our relationships with each other and the world.
IoT and the metaverse
To reach these lofty goals, the metaverse requires data -- and lots of it. IoT is the data engine that will power the metaverse and inform the digital twins that enable us to better understand our world and explore changes in nondestructive ways. As more objects and entities become sensors that report data, the metaverse will achieve a richer set of experiences that are better informed by ground truth from the analog world.
The power of digital twins is manifold. In particular, the ability to ask "what if?" and "why not?" enables us to explore what is possible in noninvasive, nondestructive ways. Consider how the ability to undo an action changed the way we craft text, audio and images.
Computational simulation has been used for years in engineering and other fields. With sufficiently accurate and detailed models, computation can provide insight into design parameters and manufacturing details. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us better understand and predict failures.
That said, large amounts of data bring their own challenges, including bandwidth, veracity, security and privacy. Add to this the issues of equity and diversity, and you have myriad problems that need to be tackled from both technical and policy angles. It is critical that policies, including standards and regulation options, are developed in concert with the emerging technology and data sources rather than after the fact.
The pace of metaverse development and engagement, driven by increasing IoT data sources, will continue to increase, especially as AI and machine learning capabilities become more commoditized. We are at a tipping point with regard to a collection of emerging technologies. Generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, are forcing institutions such as schools and universities to rethink their longstanding models.
Technology has always existed, but the difference with digital technologies lies in the compressed time frames from development to adoption. With such a fast rate of change, humans have little time to work through personal impacts, let alone broader societal policy issues that arise from commoditized new capabilities. Previous technologies have reshaped society in different ways, and the digital epoch's impacts will touch parts of society that were previously relatively insulated from automation and technology impacts.
As with any change, there will be winners and losers. But we could be in for truly tectonic shifts in society, driven by a combination of data and digital forces. It is critical that we try to make progress while remaining thoughtful, innovate while being ethical, and foster technology development and adoption while creating policies that are equitable and sustainable.
The promise is huge but so are the risks. And we ignore those risks at our own peril, lest we shoot the albatross and miss the deeper meanings as we continue our journey into a digital future.
Todd Richmond is director of the Tech + Narrative Lab and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, as well as research faculty member at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.