Tech Experts Disagree on Metaverse Future in Widely Scattered Predictions
Even technology experts can't agree on the future impact of the nascent metaverse, currently under construction.
Many predict it will fulfill much-hyped hopes and expectations by 2040. Almost as many predict it won't.
That mixed bag of opinions comes in a nonscientific canvassing of 624 technology experts conducted by Pew Research Center and Elon University.
The global tech innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists were asked for their predictions about the trajectory and impact of the metaverse by 2040.
With the metaverse still taking shape, the June 30 "The Metaverse in 2040" report described it as a realm of different kinds of computer-generated, networked-extended realities: mixed reality (MR), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), which can all be lumped together under the acronym XR (extended reality).
"At this point in time, the metaverse is generally made up of somewhat- immersive XR spaces in which interactions take place among humans and automated entities," the report said. "Some are daily interactions with augmented-reality apps that people have on their computers and phones. Some are interactions taking place in more-immersive domains in gaming or fantasy worlds. Some occur in 'mirror worlds' that duplicate real-life environments."
While the experts' predictions were all over the map in the detailed, sprawling and voluminous report, it did identify two divergent camps on the central issue of how impactful the metaverse will be by 2040:
- 54 percent of experts said that they expect by 2040 the metaverse WILL be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally. Insights provided by this camp include:
- Profit motives are driving significant investment in advancing these technologies
- Compared with today, far more people will find the metaverse useful enough to access it daily
- The technology to create an immersive universe is possible by 2040
- The pandemic gave XR development a big boost
- There are any number of potential positive and delightful uses of XR
- 46 percent said that they expect by 2040 the metaverse WILL NOT be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally. Insights provided by this camp include:
- It will not be seen as useful in daily life
- The technology needed to reach a lot more people will not be ready in 2040
- People prefer living in layers of 'real' reality
- Public worries about the impact of surveillance capitalism and abuse by authoritarian regimes will slow or stop adoption
- There are any number of threatening and harmful uses of XR
There was some consensus among respondents, however, as the report pointed to two "meta insights" concerning the kinds of altered realities that will dominate and the potential tendency of the metaverse to amplify both positive and negative characteristics of the human condition.
Listed here, these insights come from multiple-choice questions augmented by an open-ended question in which respondents provided remarks about their thinking:
- Augmented- and mixed-reality applications will dominate over virtual-reality advances: "Some argued that the most-popular technological enhancements will be tied to augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) systems. They said people will find those advances particularly appealing because they will expand upon real-world experiences and improve users' daily lives by making reality more understandable and interesting. Most of these experts said they expect that broader adoption of virtual reality (VR) will be limited to enthusiastic but smaller user bases, especially gamers and entertainment seekers and in select business, medical, education and training settings."
- The next-generation networked-knowledge ecosystem can be built in ways that better serve people than the current web does: "A share of these experts argued that coming tech advances in metaverse technologies will magnify all human activities, including the problems now associated with the current Web 2.0 environment. They said the immersive properties of the metaverse could raise significant threats to human agency and human rights as 'surveillance capitalism' expands and authoritarian governments take advantage of these new technologies."
Pew and Elon also listed some "intriguing predictions" from a selection of respondents:
- Avi Bar-Zeev (XR pioneer who has developed the tech at Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google and more) said digital systems will perform ever-more-sophisticated analyses of how people think and feel about people and other elements of their lives, their private political and spiritual thoughts, their emotional triggers. "We've turned people into data mines and no longer truly free-thinking individuals."
- Gina Neff (professor and director of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge) called for a redrafting of fundamental social contracts about trust and democracy, noting that powerful narratives in the metaverse will combine new ways of experiencing social connection with new forms of "trustless trust" from the hundreds of little contracts and exchanges people are asked to enter into every day.
- Glynn Rogers (a complex systems and networks researcher) predicted virtual extraterrestrial travel based on imagery constructed from a multitude of spacecraft sensors, "in which virtual craft can be flown, driven or sailed through environments in which humans could exist only with the most extraordinary aids." And Gary Arlen (principal at Arlen Communications) noted that alternative cyber environments will allow people to virtually go inside humans, animals or machines.
- Jim Spohrer (board member of the International Society of Service Innovation Professionals and longtime IBM leader) noted that "digital twins" will often function as people's alter egos in multiple worlds. And Melissa Sassi (global head of IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator) noted that having a digital twin in health care will be incredibly powerful when it comes to predictive modeling of diseases and sharing patient data across healthcare providers.
- Barry Chudakov (founder and principal at Sertain Research) said he expects that immersive mirror-world environments may raise enough psychological issues that "psychiatrists and counselors will be called in to help people cope with multiple-self syndrome."
- Stephen Downes (expert with the Digital Technologies Research Centre of the National Research Council of Canada) predicted that in 2040 it will not be possible for most people to distinguish between avatars representing humans and artificial intelligences, adding that there will be "convincing impersonations and worse."
- Rahul Saxena (CEO of CoBot Systems) said he expects a "Super-Metaverse" of tech enhancements that help people augment their work, for instance using imaging and actuators to perform surgeries. But some will choose to live in a "Fantasy-Metaverse" that "prefers gullible consumption over critical thinking," and he warned that "the shifts to the Fantasy-Metaverse will be like the unleashing of an opium super-epidemic."
- Alexander B. Howard (director of the Digital Democracy Project) warned it is possible that a "metaverse could empower authoritarians to track, control and coerce billions of humans in silicon prisons ringed by invisible barbed wire, governed by opaque algorithmic regulation and vast artificial intelligences."
"Two leading themes emerged from these experts' responses," said Janna Quitney Anderson, professor of communications and executive director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon. "First, many expect full virtual reality (VR) to remain primarily a niche space for gaming and entertainment -- that it will not be as well-developed and broadly embraced in people's daily lives by 2040 as augmented-reality (AR) tools that people can simply and easily use to create information layers in the real world.
"And second, a notable share warned that extended reality (XR) tools could dramatically magnify every human trait and tendency -- both the bad and the good. They said current problems with social media could be magnified, especially if the development of XR is led by the mega-tech companies that own and operate most of the most-visited public spaces on the Web today. They also worry about the ability of those in control of these digital systems to shape what people do and stifle their ability to self-actualize through the exercise of their own free will."
David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.