What is the Metaverse? Mark Zuckerberg is betting the farm on it, but there is still a great lack of clarity over what exactly it is, what it can do and how it will affect everyone’s lives.
There is no shortage of gushing predictions, of three-dimensional virtual worlds where your actions and experiences are limited only by your imagination. There are proposals of more serious practical applications such as virtual meeting rooms, digital replicas of apparel, furniture and household goods stores, and even sports – in this brave new world, you could be playing a round of virtual golf or lining up for your favourite football team.
Mr Zuckerberg is said to be ploughing billions of dollars into what he believes will eventually become our new normal, combining technologies like video-conferencing, immersive multi-player games, social media and live-streaming. Crypto tokens would inevitably be involved and the metaverse would be the perfect platform for Central Bank Digital Currencies – in itself a technology that can be seen as both liberating and menacing.
The idea is that you would both work and play in the metaverse. You will create a 3D avatar of yourself in Microsoft Teams for example, and use it to attend virtual meetings. After work, your avatar meets up with your virtual friends and heads off to a virtual concert, sports event or social gathering. All the elements you would expect in a real-life version of such activities will be available digitally, like merchandise stores or ticket agencies. Your avatar browses the schwag on show at the booths and makes a virtual purchase with virtual currency.
Is it making sense so far?
This whole new world will only work, of course, if metaverse providers make every element cohesive, compatible and interchangeable with the services of its rivals. Even the basic technological challenges are head-cracking – today’s internet connections can only just handle typical multiplayer games; imagine the bandwidth, speed and latency requirements to run thousands of simultaneous but separate data streams, in terabytes.
Let’s take a positive view. In this scenario, the metaverse could eventually become a technological leap equal to the way the web evolved from static images taking hours to load, to a billion-dollar e-commerce marketplace, to somewhere to collaborate on anything from product design to movie-making. For now, however, metaverse pioneers are subject to derision when they post images of cartoonish avatars, cut off at the waist. It is however early days, and it would be foolish to underestimate the determination of the tech world’s CEOs, and the brilliant capabilities of their engineering teams.
Every technological step forward so far has proven a bonanza for criminals, and unfortunately, the metaverse will be no different. AI is already capable of creating “people” that look and sound indistinguishable from the real human original. Letting such figures deliver malign messages in virtual political environments, for example, could be catastrophic, to say nothing of the potential for stalkers and blackmailers.
Interpol, the global police agency, has warned that the metaverse could allow existing crime to take place on a larger scale and even create new kinds of cybercrime. Phishing attacks and scams could take on new dimensions in a virtual world, and there are understandable concerns over child safety.
Also, given the geopolitical volatility of today’s world, it is frightening to consider how terrorist groups might use the metaverse for planning attacks as well as propaganda, recruitment and training.
History has shown that technological advances are pretty much unstoppable. The risks are certainly there – but we can be sure that the world’s cybersecurity specialists are already working on defences. Despite the risks, it is reasonable to imagine that for better or worse the metaverse is going to happen – and it will change our lives.