I recently received a survey request from a Pew Research project, usually I ignore these, but today I clicked through. It might have been a combination of avoiding the awful news around the world, or procastrinating on some work I need to get done, or perhaps it was the topic. The survey was about “The Future of the Metaverse” (!) (:o) (!). I’m very interested in multiverses you see, and every time I see something about THE Metaverse, I get excited about the philosophical and scientific implications of different kinds of multiverses, and then realize it’s just something about this new Facebook rebranding initiative. A more severe intellectual let-down is almost not possible for a cosmology/consciousness/math/philosophy-nerd such as myself. So, after clicking through to this survey about “the meta(verse)”, I now found I had opinions! So here they are, apparently.
The question from the survey was something like…
Will there be a fully functioning Metaverse accessible and actually being used by hundreds of millions of people by 2040?
I answered no to this questioning, here’s my reasoning, unfiltered by too much overthinking, for once.
We could build a MetaVerse, but why would we?
I say no, but it’s not a matter of the development for a Meta Verse not being far along enough, or not possible technologically, that will not be the limiting factor. I believe the limiting factor will be that it is unnecessary.
People think they want this, or that they can make money off of it, but the real world is far richer and more important than any virtual reality and it always will be. I know a great deal about this, I’m an AI researcher myself and I have read most modern science fiction predictions about different types of meta-verse, as well as having used Second Life and other previous attempts at this. The more advanced we become, I think the more we realize that our connection to the real world is important.
Also, no matter how advanced the options for communication and expression that are available to us, most people always seem to gravitate to the primary expressive forms that ground them in reality, text, images, and maybe videos. The rise of Instagram and TikTok are prime examples. But for me, one of the most compelling reasons is the, frankly shocking, enduringness of “ancient” computer paradigms such as IRC chat commands, VI keyboard shortcuts, and basic emoticons. Human beings did not evolve communicating and telling stories via three dimensional storyboards. I have no doubt that dedicated and creative people, artists and engineers, will continue to spend huge amounts of time and create incredible content in these new realities. But the average person, will limit themselves to text, images and the occasional video edit. Sure, people share complex remade videos and memes, but this is nothing new, that kind of thing has always existed in different media, but creation is hard.
The METAVerse requires everyone to create constantly and to communicate in ways that go beyond any natural inclination. What you’ll end up with are incredible interactive galleries and event spaces. Spaces where the vast majority of people still simply text, chat and video call with each other to express their ideas just as they do now.
So why bother?
So What IS the Next Big Thing?
I literally do not know, why would I? But here’s a thought.
If you want to bet on the next transformational communication paradigm enabled by technology, why aren’t we thinking about the most important part of social networks and any communication system, communication?
Machine Learning enabled language models have skyrocketed in complexity and accuracy in the past few years. Much of the most impressive results are still locked behind corporate research gardens, but that won’t last forever, and the concepts are all out there for anyone to try. Google Translate is famously “bad” at doing perfect translation, producing funny memes and errors. Type something in to GT, English to Chinese, then take the output and translate Chinese to English, hilarious hijinks ensue.
But we forget how incredibly impressive it is to do even what Google Translate does that well, something which was completely impossible more than 10 years ago. What if the next big thing in human communication isn’t a 3D virtual reality idea recycled from previous failed attempts, with a name swiped from a legendary science fiction novel (You have read Snow Crash…haven’t you?).
What if instead it is something as simple, and revolutionary, as IRC chat plus a nearly perfect universal translator? Maybe it’s WhatsApp+Translation or maybe it’s Twitter.AllLanguages, but whatever it is, once the language models are built to master not just English and Chinese but the top 20 or 50 languages that can reach 90% of human speakers in their native tongue, what will even happen?
Trying to build a box, that fits some notion of a virtual world for communication of the future isn’t the way to unlock human creativity. The way to do it to make reliable, usable tools, that are open and available to everyone, and just put them out there.
Imagine being able to freely communicate in your own language and read the ideas and opinions of anyone else, in your own language as if they are native speakers? There is no way to predict the wonders human creativity and initiative will create with such a technology.