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Truth & Consequences

The Unknowable Metaverse

Not even the technologists hoping to build it know exactly what the metaverse is. But for philosophers, it’s grist for the mill.
Metaverse demo (Source: Meta)

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By Girish Mhatre

What’s at stake?
The Silicon Valley hype machine is revved up again over the Next Big Thing, and this time that thing is the metaverse. But what is it, and when will it be here? Is the metaverse an inevitable, synergistic confluence of the irresistible forces of social connection, experimentation, entertainment and, crucially, profit? We won’t know for decades, but the early explorations of metaverse concepts raise some interesting questions on the nature of reality.

According to the tenets of some ancient Eastern philosophies, the ultimate reality underpinning the illusory physical world is beyond form, attributes, and human comprehension. Language and imagination are inadequate tools for describing it. Indeed, one can only say what it is not. Practicing a negation technique called, “Neti, Neti,” translated as “not this, not this,” is the recommended meditation for attempting to realize this reality.

The metaverse, as the putative underlying, generative fabric of a virtual world, likewise may be best described by what it is not:

  • The metaverse is not the next generation of the internet.
  • It’s not an application that runs on top of a service. It’s not an app you can download from an app store.
  • It’s not a video game, though games are likely to be the major lure for early users of the metaverse, and game makers will be the first businesses to embrace it.
  • It’s not a 3D Zoom meeting.
  • It’s not just augmented or virtual reality (or blockchain, or NFTs), though you can use those tools to explore and inhabit this brave new world.

Finally, I do hope that the metaverse is nothing like Facebook’s mind-numbingly pathetic demo of legless torsos sitting around a conference table. As University of Massachusetts professor Ethan Zuckerman writes in his review of the Facebook demo, “Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks.”

(Source: Meta)

While definition through negation may work in philosophy, it’s hardly satisfying in the real world. To build the metaverse, we need a “positive” definition, which remains elusive. But venture capitalist and prolific essayist Matthew Ball writes that “we should not expect a single, all-illuminating definition of the metaverse.” Further, “there will be no clean ‘before metaverse’ and ‘after metaverse,’” Ball asserts. “Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services and capabilities integrate and meld together.”

Still, I’ll give it a shot: The metaverse is an aspirational term for a fully realized digital world that exists mostly in parallel with, and is indistinguishable from, the analog one in which we live. It is populated by digital entities — simulacra of humans, or “avatars” — and accessible through next-generation user interfaces.

What we do know, for sure, is that it’s going to take some doing; massive advances will be needed in compute power, network bandwidth/latency, and sensor hardware.

A major issue that needs resolution resides at the confluence of technology and business: Who will build the metaverse and, consequently, who will own it? The technology requirements will be so onerous that the companies that help build it will no doubt want to maximize their returns quickly.

Consider the issue of connectivity. For the metaverse truly to be a lifelike parallel universe — far more realistic than today’s games, with their robotic, pixelated avatars—it cannot be constrained by current network speeds. The internet of today was never designed to be fast enough for real-time interactions. Since the requisite speeds are only possible on private networks, a plausible architecture might be interconnected private networks, each one acting as an independent “nation state.” Each nation state would set its own rules for conduct, commerce, and governance. The Facebook nation would be connected to the Microsoft nation, to game-nations like Roblox and Fortnite, and so on.

Crucially, the connections among nation states would have to allow avatars and virtual goods to move seamlessly from one nation to another, retaining their identities. Such an architecture would allow the metaverse to be decentralized — as it needs to be — in the same way the web is, with lots of people hosting it. We would still need to develop tools — the equivalents of HTML and Javascript, for starters — to create a truly decentralized metaverse.

Given all this, my guess is that it would take 50 years, at least, to build a virtual world that is indistinguishable from the nonvirtual, down to simulating the laws of physics.

But that’s OK, because we can still indulge in valuable thought experiments.

New York University professor David Chalmers, a leading light in the philosophy of the mind, has some trenchant observations about the metaverse in his recently published book, “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.” Chalmers proposes a simplethought experiment: If the metaverse achieves a near-perfect simulation of the real world, how could you tell one from the other? How would you know — at this very moment — which world you were in? 

Further, in a question redolent of the movie “The Matrix,” Chalmers asks, “How do you know you’re not living in a computer simulation right now? The world we’re living in [the so-called real world] could be a virtual world. I’m not saying it is. But it’s a possibility we can’t rule out.”

Chalmers’ thought experiment resonates with one from antiquity: Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s famous parable “Zhuangzi Dreams of Being a Butterfly.” As Chalmers tells it, “Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakably Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.”

So, is this real life, or is it just a dream? The question has bedeviled philosophers throughout history. Even Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Chalmers points out, posed it in the first line of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The full-flavored metaverse may be some distance in the future, but, for the first time, ever, the technology roadmap is coming into view. This, therefore, seems a good time both to illuminate traditional philosophical questions using the lens of technology and to reexamine our technology in the light of philosophy.

Girish Mhatreis the former editor-in-chief and publisher of EE Times.

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