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5 Jan 2023

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Metaverse for Good? Whither Thou Goest, We Will Follow

(Note: The image above is a screen grab from the project Metamazonia, showing how a Digital Twin of an entire natural environment can be created to educate people about biodiversity and deforestation.)

The next wave of the tsunami of transformation to the digital-first economy across all sectors and endeavors – the Metaverse – is now on a rapid rise.

For the ICT digital infrastructure tech and engineering sector, it poses some significant challenges on the hunt to Net-Zero carbon/GHG emissions, while, in the same breath, both enormous opportunities for digital economy growth and a potential concomitant benefit on sustainability.

Web3, blockchain/NFT, 5G, AI, AR/VR/XR media – immersive, interactive, experiential and emergent– from IoT deployments to handheld edge devices (Microsoft has adopted Edge to mean its gaming controller devices already) to hyperscale HPC clouds – form the recipe of a veritable witches’ brew of technologies that result in the possibilities of parallel virtual multiverses. It’s no longer just the stuff of science fiction.

Meta Roots and Branches
From science fiction, Author Neal Stephenson first coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. Until very recently he had been quite nearly derisive of how the term has been so loosely applied. I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s latching onto the term and renaming the entire Facebook enterprise Meta didn’t improve Neal’s view.

However, he has now willingly joined the game by teaming on the launch of the first “Open Metaverse” platform, announcing in June that he and crypto pioneer Peter Vessenes to launch Lamina1, a new Layer-1 blockchain technology designed with the Web3 blockchain/NFT decentralized Metaverse in mind.

Their reasoning is that, for Metaverse to achieve its promise, a base-level blockchain protocol equal to the technical, economic, and philosophical foundations of the Metaverse idea itself requires anopen, expansive virtual universe.

It’s within this missing stitch in the Metaverse fabric that Lamina1 intends to develop its Layer-1 blockchain platform for the 3D Web3 Metaverse with decentralized control and individual data ownership as first principles. And NFTs have now found a significant and legitimate new home in protecting the artifact assets of the Metaverse.

The Lamina1 white paper is a tour de force on this well-seasoned entrepreneurial pair’s vision for the Metaverse. Equally compelling is their announcement a scant two weeks ago of the launch of a rolling angel venture fund to spur entrepreneurship in the Metaverse-first economy according to a Dec. 21, 2022 release in Coindesk.

But It Must be Sustainable
There’s no doubting that the Metaverse – even if slowed up a bit by current global economic stressors – will drive intense capacity growth in IoT edge devices and micro-datacenters to bare-metal hyperscale cloud. You don’t spawn an industry that seemingly overnight had a global revenue contribution value of just under $23B at the end of 2021, and is projected to grow to $1T by 2030 (a nearly 30% CAGR, excluding, we believe, any and all of the full-stack digital infrastructure architecture required to “put pedal to the metal” – in 1950s-60s hot-rod jargon, for those of you who missed that particular transformation.)

A Metaverse is a collective virtual 3D shared space, created either totally as total virtual reality (including you the player as avatar) or by the convergence of virtually enhanced and augmented physical and digital reality (i.e. AR/VR). A Metaverse is persistent, providing enhanced immersive and fully interactive experiences. Further to that thought, IT research analyst firm Gartner expects that a complete Metaverse platform will be device-independent, and will not be owned by a single vendor: It will have a massive virtual economy that’s in and of itself, enabled by digital currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

As with many other early-stages of digital transformation technologies, the Metaverses first uses may be for the insatiable gaming audience that already now spans three generations of avid players (and buyers of gaming devices and subscribers to games), most of the big transformational pay-offs will be in the Industry 4.0 realm across all digital economy sectors.

Now to my questions (for which there are now no data):

* How sustainable will that end-to-end digital infrastructure be that enables, empowers and supports the Metaverse?

* Will much of it be new hyperscale HPC cloud campuses?

* Will those new built-environment structures extract GHG Protocol Scope 3 emission out of all materials and their supply chains?

* If governing regulatory bodies don’t step up to make clean energy a requirement, what are the Metavers platform developers prepared to pledge?

That’s about as close to an ethical sustainable business and ESG mandate for the digital infrastructure sector as we can ever crawl up to. Nothing short of.

Metaverse-first for ESG Good
That looming risk threat of a significant worldwide increase in GHG emissions may be partially mitigated by what I’m calling “Metaverse-first for ESG Good.” Across nearly every imaginable endeavor and in every sector, Metaverse can and very likely play an important role. This marks the beginning of the second half of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

(Indeed, this is a central theme for IDCA’s DIGITAL UNIVERSE-Toronto Symposium, scheduled for June 21, 2023, at the Toronto Design Exchange, the original Toronto Stock Exchange, within the Toronto Dominion Centre.)

As titans of the technology industry implement their vision of the Metaverse – again, a sector projected to grow to $1T by 2030 – Lamina1 is working to ensure it does not repeat the missteps of the past by continuing to perpetuate existing structures of centralized ownership and the inequality of the wealth creation of the digital era. Digital transformation has always been a potential digital-first answer to social and economic injustice.

Lamina1 proposes an alternative – a more modern and integrated Web3 community and ecosystem as the first building block for a truly Open Metaverse. Its founders claim that it will be “provably carbon-negative.” Maybe at the level of application development, but that “climate-positive” claim demands significant justification.

Again, we need to understand whether this includes the full digital infrastructure, from energy in at the bottom layer of the technology stack, to the compute and network horsepower required to haul it to market.

“Lamina1 (block)chain will offer high transaction volume and an economic design with new incentive mechanisms to help create thriving, vibrant economies for creators and entrepreneurs.” So says the Lumina1 initial announcement.

Staggering Power
Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’ll say it: this is a global phenomenon. Global in that its creators will be found anywhere, and their projects will affect people everywhere, with awesome power.n

In Asia, for example, let’s listen to Nina Xiang, the founder of China Money Network, a media platform bridging the Asian and global innovation economy. Her new book, Parallel Metaverses: How the US, China and the Rest of the World Are Shaping Different Virtual Worlds, just came out, in mid-2022.

Nina recently contributed a post to Nikkei Asia. It’s worth quoting at length:

“As you enter the virtual world of the metaverse, your avatar dashes into a forest where every detail of the grass, trees, sky and clouds are realistically rendered in perfect high-definition. You turn around, look up and down, barely noticing as your field of vision instantly shifts in real-time to provide the same perspective as in the real world.

(Author’s Note: This XR media alternate reality can be used to train forest firefighters in a Metaverse in order to speed and de-risk what is a life-threatening skilled vocation. It can be used to walk (or drive) you through a digital twin of the Amazon rainforest to see its stunning biodiversity and the results of clear-cut deforestation. “What if” games with serious purpose.)

“Wandering around the metaverse will certainly leave you dizzy at times, but the computing power required to deliver this virtual world is even more staggering.

“The energy required implies a potentially significant impact on our climate (italics mine), a consequence that has not yet been fully studied and that is therefore not yet properly understood.

“The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the computing power and energy required to turn our flat web into a three-dimensional internet, what is known as the Metaverse, will be exponential.

“As tech titans such as Meta Platforms, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung Electronics, Tencent Holdings, Baidu and ByteDance rush to lay the foundation for this virtual universe of the future, its impact on our environment must be a key topic for consideration.

“‘The computing capabilities for the metaverse will be ‘several orders of magnitude more powerful’ than the current system,’ Raja Koduri, senior vice president and general manager of the accelerated computing systems and graphics group at Intel, wrote in a blog post.

“‘The amount of computing required to render a detailed avatar with realistic clothing, hair, skin tones, together with three-dimensional objects in the environment, audio, movement and other data such as eye and hand coordination from the physical world all in real time just cannot be compared to what is required to deliver two-dimensional video.

“Multiply the resources necessary to power one user's system by the one billion users envisioned by Meta for the initial adoption of the metaverse, and it is clear that the current infrastructure of the 2D web simply will not work.

Digital Infrastructure's Own Transformational Overhaul
“The entire plumbing of the internet from computing, storage and networking infrastructure, will need major upgrades to achieve the super high bandwidths and extremely low latencies…to deliver a convincing Metaverse.

“Since the work of building the metaverse has just begun, there are no serious studies on how much energy will be needed to power it and what impact that will have on the planet. There are some reference points, however.

“According to Philip Rosedale, the founder of the company behind the popular virtual world game Second Life, in 2006 around 4,000 computer servers running continuously at full power, all consuming enormous amounts of electrical power, were required to keep the game running. And that is just for just a niche game of 10,000 to 15,000 players at any given time.

“The energy required to power a future Metaverse, one that aims to accommodate billions of people, is almost impossible to imagine.”

(Author’s Note: I must say here that many generations of technology have occurred since 2006 that have massively improved both the power and efficiencies at all layers of the digital infrastructure. So the comments above can be partially set aside, but by no means wholly.)

So we concur. And much of that consumption will be in countries eager to fully participate if not dominate the Metaverse. And those countries are all the usual suspects who already dominate all the rest of the world in GHG emissions – US, China, India.

I remain optimistic that digital transformation taken en toto, and the transition to a digital-first global economy can result in mitigating and abating the catastrophic toll of climate change that is already upon us.

Will the technical, economic and social disruptor of the digital-first Metaverse hold an, if not the, answer? Are we wise enough and foresightful enough to live into such a promise?

If, as Antonio said in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Past is prologue,” then, despite my eternal optimism, I am not so sanguine.

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