Recently, Facebook gave us a glimpse of the next phase of our innovation civilization. They call it the “metaverse.” This will be a digitally turbocharged, hyper-networked online world, accessed by a range of virtual reality devices, where you will experience a lot of your life in an entirely digitally immersed manner.
You will shop at the Metaverse mall by virtually walking down aisles of merchandise; you will digitally try on clothes before you buy them. You’ll visit your doctor in the metaverse. Before your consultation, she’ll have all your vital statistics from your digital devices.
If you manage symbols for a living, you’ll work from home, but through the metaverse you’ll be able to exchange some critical intra-office information (what we know today as gossip) a few times a day on the system’s “personal channel.” In addition, your continuing education/training sessions will be immersive and highly interactive in the metaverse.
The list of Metaverse experiences and services from Facebook, and the equivalent offerings made available through Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and other companies, will amaze you. This new digitally mediated innovation civilization, though, will not reach its full potential, and may actually encounter existential problems, unless we first fix some of the major shortcomings of our current digital ecosystem.
“If we cannot develop a sensible set of working principles for trustworthy AI now, it will be even more complicated once we are immersed in a metaverse”
We require legal ground rules on artificial intelligence to ensure it operates in a trustworthy manner. The metaverse will be built on top of AI, but today, many digitally-oriented services are powered by AI engines that utilize massive datasets. If we cannot develop a sensible set of working principles for trustworthy AI now, it will be even more complicated once we are immersed in a metaverse.
We also need a global legal framework and related technical security standards to protect the privacy of online personal information (what degree of data surveillance is to be allowed?). Today we have several privacy law regimes in different countries, but we need to coalesce around one. This is an ambitious goal, but the breakthrough achieved recently by the world’s largest economies in agreeing to an international tax convention establishing a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% gives hope of what could be done in other domains relevant to an urgent online agenda.
There’s (lots) more to be done. Cybercrime is ubiquitous today. Malware (and especially ransomware) is out of control. Child pornography is rampant. Online fraud is coming at us from all quarters. If these trends continue, they will cast a dark shadow over the metaverse project. We have to come up with effective legal and technical solutions for these criminal perils now.
Another challenge is massive disinformation conveyed over social media. We need a globally relevant, practical response to this core shortcoming of the current model of ‘many to many communication’ that we can implement right away (and which can then be migrated into the DNA of the metaverse). We need new legal rules for online speech set by democratically elected governments. In contrast, the day-to-day implementation of the rules has to be left to new procedures adopted by the service suppliers – subject always to government oversight and regular audits to ensure compliance.
We will also need to create a system that solves the issue of personal identification confirmation online (both for today and in the metaverse). We also need globally consistent competition law rules for the online world fleshed out before we go full-on metaverse.
This brings us to a significant geopolitical sticking point. It would appear that a bifurcated world model is developing on technology questions between America and China. While politically, this appeals to specific hardline interests in both Washington and Beijing, this is no way to operate a truly global metaverse. Both the US and China need to evolve their respective attitudes towards the other, mindful that there is no moral equivalency between a democracy and an autocracy.
Two final points about the metaverse. It will be a significant development in human affairs, but however hefty it is, it will not bring sufficient meaning and joy to your life as an online phenomenon. For that, you will need to interact more in person with humans and outdoors with the natural world. So, get out of the house and make a point of re-engaging there with physical things that are green and blue, and in-person with your friends and family. Join a tribe specializing in empathy and effectiveness, like the Rotary or the Lions, and through them, get involved in building and supporting some physical projects in your community that will add purpose and deep human connection to your life – your real life.
Finally, while social media has a role in human relations, truth is rarely found in 280 character posts. You should examine life, including your own, and that requires truth-finding. Also, truth is found in books. So each evening, read a book uninterrupted for at least an hour. This will help put the metaverse in proper perspective.
George S. Takach Senior Partner at McCarthy-Tétrault