samuel taylor coleridge's ancient sailor's rime It depicts the ill-fated journey of a sailor who makes questionable decisions in the face of difficult seas. Literature may seem far removed from the emerging technologies of the 21st century. But the themes often apply, and the analogy may help us find our way. Hopefully I won't have an albatross hanging around my neck.
The Metaverse is in the middle of a hype cycle and may be a boring subject for some. But the Metaverse already exists, albeit in a form that currently doesn't live up to expectations: the Internet. Although we have not yet achieved our ultimate vision, the metaverse will continue to evolve and expand over time, changing its relationships to each other and to the physical and virtual worlds.
Considering policy influence In, with, and through the Metaverse, a rather poetic definition of the Metaverse has emerged. It is “an emergent yet persistent digital environment, governed by code but subordinated to society.” A metaverse can be viewed as one or more virtual environments that are both persistent and temporary in nature. This is informed by her physical IoT sensors and implemented by a combination of algorithms and avatars, or representations of beings.
Although some people associate the Metaverse with virtual reality, immersive headsets are just one entry point for users. In fact, immersion may not be the most interesting feature of a fully realized Metaverse.
Among the many promises of the Metaverse is the ability to build virtual environments that mirror or extend physical spaces and experiences. These digital twins (high-fidelity simulations driven by ground truth data) offer countless possibilities for improving the human condition, including making homes, buildings, and cities more efficient. Improving our ability to respond to natural and man-made disasters. and redefining our relationship to ourselves and the world.
IoT and Metaverse
To achieve these lofty goals, the metaverse requires large amounts of data. IoT is the data engine that powers the metaverse and powers the digital twins that help us better understand the world and explore change in a non-destructive way. As more objects and entities become sensors reporting data, the metaverse enables a richer set of experiences that are better informed by ground truth from the analog world.
The power of the digital twin is wide-ranging. Especially the ability to ask “What if?” and “Why not?” You can explore what's possible in a non-invasive, non-destructive way. Consider how the ability to undo actions has changed the way we create text, audio, and images.
Computational simulation has been used in engineering and other fields for many years. With sufficiently accurate and detailed models, calculations can provide insight into design parameters and manufacturing details. Perhaps most importantly, it helps you better understand and predict failure.
However, large amounts of data come with unique challenges such as bandwidth, veracity, security, and privacy. Add to this the issues of equity and diversity, and there are a myriad of issues that need to be addressed from both a technical and policy perspective. It is important that policies, including standards and regulatory options, are developed in conjunction with emerging technologies and data sources, rather than after the fact.
The pace of metaverse development and engagement due to the proliferation of IoT data sources will continue to increase, especially as AI and machine learning capabilities become more commoditized. We are at a tipping point with respect to a range of emerging technologies. Generative AI tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney are forcing institutions like schools and universities to rethink long-standing models.
The technology has always existed, but the difference with digital technology is that the time frame from development to deployment has been shortened. With the rate of change so rapid, humans have little time to deal with the personal implications, let alone the broader social policy issues that arise from new commoditized capabilities. Traditional technology has reshaped society in many ways, and the impact of the digital age will affect parts of society that have previously been relatively insulated from the effects of automation and technology.
As with any change, there are winners and losers. But we could see real seismic shifts in society through the combination of data and digital power. It is important to be thoughtful yet progressive, ethical yet innovate, and foster the development and adoption of technology while developing fair and sustainable policies.
Expectations are high, but so are the risks. And we ignore these risks at our peril, lest we shoot the albatross and miss the deeper meaning as we continue our journey into the digital future.
Todd Richmond is the director of the Tech + Narrative Lab, a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and a research faculty member at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.