How does the inventor of the metaverse envision its future?

The metaverse can reshape business, education and social life.

The metaverse can reshape business, education and social life. Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Kelly Ommundsen
Chief of Staff; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Jaci Eisenberg
Head of Content Curation, Global Collaboration Village, World Economic Forum
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  • The World Economic Forum, Accenture and Microsoft's Global Collaboration Village recently hosted author Neal Stephenson to share his thoughts about the metaverse.
  • Stephenson coined the term "metaverse" and is regarded as a key figure in its responsible development and popular use.
  • In the session, Stephenson discussed the impact the metaverse can have on society and what needs to happen to see its meaningful adoption.

In his seminal work, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's protagonist finds himself in an intricate web in the metaverse involving hackers, the mafia, and computer viruses. Snow Crash popularized the terms "metaverse" and "avatar", and is still seen as a major inspiration in tech circles in Silicon Valley.

While the character Hiro's entry into the metaverse in Snow Crash was science fiction in the early 1990s when Stephenson published the novel to critical acclaim, today, this universe is reality.

In a recent discussion, as part of the Global Collaboration Village, the World Economic Forum hosted Neal Stephenson to hear his perspectives on the potential for interaction in this immersive virtual medium.

An open and collaborative metaverse

As the conversation got underway, Stephenson was quick to point out the importance of nurturing an open and collaborative approach to developing the metaverse.

"We can and should take an open and responsible approach to develop the metaverse. Here is a technology, like so many other amazing innovations of the last few decades in the internet space, that can truly enrich billions of lives and connect individuals from around the world."

While he said that he generally takes an optimistic stance on the technology's potential, he always emphasises that for its full potential and widespread adoption to be reached, efforts must be well thought through.

"Entrepreneurs, innovators and companies that are willing to spend time and money on the metaverse need to really think long and hard about how and why millions of people will be willing to become a part of it. I am hesitant to say that people will just join the metaverse for the sake of it - people usually try and stick to new things because either it’s entertaining or essential."

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Entertainment as a tool to build the metaverse

When pressed about the best ways to potentially see millions or even billions of people join the metaverse, Stephenson pointed to the power of entertainment.

"We will be able to attract tens of millions of people to the metaverse if we draw people in through engaging entertainment," adding that "if you look at how entertainment has changed – now we are focused on what gets the most clicks, the most views, and the most attention from upcoming generations – and a lot of the metaverse model will be about connecting artists and creators directly with people being entertained."

With several artists like Marshmello, Travis Scott and Justin Bieber already performing concerts in virtual settings, metaverse momentum in the entertainment industry is already picking up pace.

The gaming industry, for its part, has played a leading role in the wider adoption of metaverse technologies, with mainstream games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite already having strong elements of virtual collaboration and interaction. The gaming industry also remains a leading sector for developing and maintaining the top skills in the metaverse's development.

Says Stephenson: "The gaming industry is leading the charge in developing the metaverse in many ways. Here, we also see a large concentration of the talent needed to deploy metaverse solutions across different sectors. What gaming has done correctly is to build massive traction and engage millions through entertainment. If we're looking to build the metaverse into other segments of society, we need both the skills of the gaming industry to do so and their willingness to come up with metaverse solutions for other sectors."

When asked about how 'serious games' could help other industries and see wider uptake of the metaverse among businesses, Stephenson noted that: "These are very emergent technologies, and if we can make things fun and engaging, it can take off in any industry. The use of serious gaming and virtual reality can be deployed to things like training for safety and security in things as serious as training nuclear technicians. Scientifically correct simulations must be run though, this may take quite some time to set up and figure out."

AI, the metaverse and art

In a different Global Collaboration Village session, artist Refik Anadol explained how he is already using AI to create new and engaging art pieces at the intersection of the metaverse.

Furthering the ideas proposed by artists such as Anadol, Stephenson, too, sees the potential use of AI in developing the metaverse and how AI solutions may be deployed as valuable tools for metaverse artists.

"AI can support the creation of AI entertainment and AI-driven characters for the metaverse. In fact, it is very exciting to think that the information we feed into AI can turn them into works of art in and of themselves. It is important though that there should remain that human element and sense of community in the use of AI as a tool within art in the metaverse. We can incorporate these technologies and can create incredible concept art, but we should keep the human touch in it to actually call it art."

The future of the metaverse

While Snow Crash may have introduced the metaverse to readers over 30 years ago, a full-fledged adoption from businesses, governments, and individuals of metaverse solutions is still in its infancy. As companies explore these virtual options more and more, it will be important to engage, entertain and show value.

In conclusion, Stephenson said that: "The responsibility is on all of us to create something that will truly bring value to human lives. The metaverse can reshape business, education and social life. However, a lot of work must be done for it to transcend mere novelty to become a real part of our collective human experience."

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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