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Metaverse Rising

The metaverse is a subject of unending debate.

Nobody seems to agree on what a future metaverse might look like… or what it might mean.

But I’m convinced its implications are very real, that something unique is happening. The transition into the metaverse could be as dramatic as the one from analog to digital. New types of computing ability, digital interactions, and business models will emerge. New depths of collaboration could spur unimaginable innovation.

In effect, while technology has already taken center stage in our lives, soon enough tech will be demanding that we all play a role in the unpredictable drama.

So how to convince skeptics that, eventually, they too will be actors in this play of ubiquitous computing? Whether they like it or not?

A Mania that Swept the Countryside

Things are changing so quickly it’s increasingly difficult to predict the future. So perhaps one way is to start by pulling back the curtains on the past….

In a recent piece in National Geographic, “Britain’s Stone Age Building Boom,” we learn that 4,500 years ago something unusual was happening in the south of Britain. An obsession emerged from the mists of pre-history: “Whatever it was – religious zeal, bravura, a sense of impending change – it cast a spell over the inhabitants and stirred them into a frenzy of monument building.”

For reasons we still don’t fully understand, people undertook a massive effort to build mega-monuments from giant, carved, intricately placed stones.

And if you were among the groups of human beings living in the regions where this phenomenon took place, participation would almost certainly have been mandatory. It’s hard to imagine skeptics sitting on the sidelines as the effort progressed. The task was too large, the belief in its importance too all pervading.

Just imagine it. “In an astonishingly brief span of time – perhaps as little as a century – people who lacked metal tools, horsepower, and the wheel erected many of Britain’s huge stone circles, colossal wooden palisades, and grand avenues of standing stones.”

Participants in the frenzy dragged giant bluestones weighing upwards of two tons 175 miles from the craggy hills of Wales (an outcrop of rocks called Carn Goedog) all the way to Salisbury Plain, to be integrated into Stonehenge.

But as National Geographic also points out, other mysterious monuments may have eclipsed Stonehenge in scale and grandeur. One of them, the Mount Pleasant mega-henge, overlooking the Rivers Frome and Winterborne, was comprised of massive timber structures that would have dominated the landscape for centuries. The work it took to create the mega-henge boggles the mind:

An army of workers used antler picks and cow-bone shovels to dig an enormous ring-shaped ditch and embankment, or henge, three quarters of a mile in circumference – more than three times larger than Stonehenge’s ditch and bank. Inside the great earthwork the builders reared a circle of towering timber posts from oak trees, some six feet thick and weighing more than 17 tons.

It does, in retrospect, seem utterly manic. According to Susan Greaney, an archaeologist with the nonprofit English Heritage, “It was like a mania sweeping the countryside, an obsession that drove them to build bigger and bigger, more and more, better and more complex.”

Is it too much to suggest that the same fever that sparked such wild creativity and herculean efforts at the end of the Stone Age, the same creative force, has reemerged in today’s world, a drive to pursue the construction of a metaverse none yet fully comprehend? It’s part of a mania I called “The Lowell Loop” in a blog this past March.

The metaverse, in other words, just might be the mega-monument of humanity’s future.

And it will draw everyone into its orbit.

From No Wheel to Flywheel: Metaverse Rising

If the metaverse is ever to become a successful communications medium it will take the same kind of teamwork and collaboration that characterized the late Stone Age. Open standards should be prioritized. After all:

A balkanized metaverse in which a few big providers engage in a winner-takes-all competition to create the Meta- or Apple- or whatever-owned metaverse will take far longer to develop than one that allows developers to create great environments and experiences and connect them bit by bit with the innovations of others. It would be far better if the metaverse were an extension of the internet (‘the network of networks’) rather than an attempt to replace it with a walled garden.

Intriguingly, the evolving metaverse also will drive increased demand for AI, even as advances in AI drive forward the metaverse, a flywheel of almost stupefying possibility. And as most companies continue to seek to integrate AI capabilities into their operations, an array of tech firms will play a key role in providing the underlying infrastructure and tools to make the integration of AI effective and impactful.

Take, for example, AI startup Anyscale. Its new platform is designed to help corporate technology teams build, manage, and scale AI applications. The company’s CEO, Robert Nishihara, almost certainly has the metaverse in mind when he claims that, “The bet is that AI is going to be huge.”

It’s no coincidence that McKinsey projects spending on the metaverse to total in the trillions by 2030. And without AI, the metaverse couldn’t exist. In fact, the AI-metaverse flywheel already has begun to spin. As The Wall Street Journal notes, by 2025, research firm Gartner predicts that roughly half of the world’s businesses will reach a mature level of AI adoption, or “stabilization stage.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But one thing seems sure – no organization will be able to sit it out. As the race gathers momentum, success in the construction of the metaverse will depend on interoperability, like the precisely placed henges and interlocking stones of the late Neolithic. As an example, think again of the contributions of a player such as Anyscale:

Ray, the company’s open-source software released six years ago, is designed to link together the siloed computer and data technologies needed to build and run AI applications in a distributed system…. As they become more complex, these apps require access to a range of different data repositories, search capabilities, data processing and training models—and an ever-growing amount of computing power.

Metaverse CX: from Interoperability to Omnichannel Success

Now think of this interoperability in the context of “metaverse CX.” As Teleperformance and MIT Technology Review put it in their new report, Embracing CX in the Metaverse:

Of course, there’s still infrastructural work that needs to happen before CX in the metaverse becomes seamless and less siloed. One of the most ambitious endeavors currently underway is establishing the metaverse’s promised interoperability—the critical ‘connective tissue’ that will allow users to assume the same avatar, wear the same virtual lipstick, and occupy the same digital property in multiple brands’ proprietary platforms.

But just imagine the possible impacts on enterprises and customers, regardless of industry. In a new piece in The New York Times called, “We Need to Talk About How Good AI is Getting,” Kevin Roose describes the wonders of DALL-E 2, an app developed by OpenAI that turns text descriptions into hyper-realistic images. From there, Roose mulls the stunning progress of AI in general over the past “golden decade” – from DeepMind’s AlphaGo and AlphaFold to the AI-generated text of GPT-3, the coding capabilities of GitHub’s Copilot, and the state-of-the-art language model of Google’s LaMDA.

I described the wonders of GPT-3, AI, and exponential technology two years ago here. As I wrote then, “With so many bright minds swinging their hammers of creation on the anvil of today’s sophisticated tech platforms, it’s impossible to predict what all this innovation portends, or what kind of world it will forge.”

Or as Kevin Roose says, “… the best AI systems are now so capable — and improving at such fast rates — that the conversation in Silicon Valley is starting to shift. Fewer experts are confidently predicting that we have years or even decades to prepare for a wave of world-changing AI; many now believe that major changes are right around the corner, for better or worse.”

The metaverse will come with surprises. There are inherent risks with AI’s transformational potential, of course, but for me it’s all the ways in which AI is evolving, and what that could mean for the future, that startles the imagination.

The metaverse is a monument emerging out of the fog of our collective future. It will take time and a lot of heavy lifting. But time is accelerating. The human spirit is a powerful force.

As I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, we’re living in a sci-fi world, a world within the world, and the metaverse is coming.

Image credit: from the website

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