When the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson first coined the term “metaverse” in 1992, the world of virtual reality-enabled computing that he imagined was still a long way off. But with virtual reality—and the computing infrastructure that enables it—making significant improvements in recent years, the interactive and embodied internet that Stephenson imagined is now closer to reality.
Today, computer science researchers conceive of the metaverse as a “network of interconnected virtual worlds” using three-dimensional platforms where humans interact with digital content and with each other, forming an “ecosystem where digital and physical worlds collide”. By relying on a combination of augmented, mixed, and virtual reality to move from the 2D version of the internet to a 3D shared space, the metaverse aims at an internet that is interoperable and synchronous.
The metaverse promises to connect devices to humans and humans to each other in ways that threatens to transform economic and social relations. As a result, it is critical that policymakers and technology companies collaborate to write the rules of the road for the metaverse. The potentially disruptive qualities of the metaverse are illustrative of how the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will likely transform how humans work, entertain, conduct business, and socialize. The scale of this disruption means that policymakers need to adopt a proactive approach in thinking about how these technologies are likely to change our society rather than attempting to address harms once they are widespread. Especially given the recent drawdowns in the technology industry, the impending buildout of the metaverse also offers a rare opportunity to design a system that is more equitable from the start—in contrast to past paradigms like Web 2.0.
The promise of the metaverse
Depending on how it develops, the metaverse could have profound impacts on business and the global economy, though, so far, the development of the metaverse has been driven by applications in entertainment. Firms like Roblox, Epic Games, and, increasingly, Meta and Microsoft are pouring huge sums into developing interactive online spaces that have many of the characteristics of the metaverse. As the metaverse develops, it may provide useful applications in other fields.
Metaverse technologies can accelerate skill development, for example, through realistic, 3D simulations and can better connect regions and communities to these resources. Already, the UK government is investing in medical training using augmented reality for frontline nurses. As users live greater portions of their lives in the metaverse and carry out transactions there, a larger share of economic life may be transacted via cryptocurrencies, a shift that has the potential to transform the global economy.
Local governments can use the metaverse and its technologies to better serve their constituents in the short and long term by directly connecting more people to services and by having tools to better develop and update city infrastructure and plan for the future. By using “digital twins”—digital representations of real-world objects—metaverse technologies can be used to simulate proposals for urban redevelopment projects. The Boston Planning and Development Agency, for example, uses a digital twin of the city to simulate how water and sewer systems affect the physical landscape of the city, while Singapore uses a digital twin to visualize the effects of population increases on the city and its resources.
Given its uncertain future and lack of a concrete definition, it is difficult to estimate the economic impact of the metaverse, yet market research groups, investors, and banks have predicted high speeds of growth in the next 4 to 8 years, with estimates for the global market value of metaverse-related technologies ranging from $700 billion up to $13 trillion. Using a narrow definition of the metaverse, CitiBank estimates the total addressable market value of metaverse technologies will be between $1 and $2 trillion by 2030. Using a broader definition of the metaverse results in a market value between $8 and $13 trillion by 2030.
Wider accessibility to skills, as well as the blending of physical and digital worlds, will bring new and potentially more productive types of jobs and make them available to a wider range of people. Due to the pandemic, remote work opened up work opportunities for people around the world who no longer had to rely on being physically present. The metaverse has the potential to enhance these benefits and remove some of the drawbacks of remote work by increasing connection and collaboration between teams.
The metaverse could bring positive benefits for the planet as well, such as saving resources and reducing physical consumption and waste if social and business events are held virtually. Using the metaverse to create immersive and complex simulations related to biodiversity and climate change could better educate people about global change, increase access to and protect vulnerable biodiversity sites, and include more global and diverse voices in research and discussion about environmental science and sustainability.
The metaverse also can bring opportunities to address global challenges that require collaboration. Diplomacy through metaverse technologies could allow smaller or less powerful countries to be better connected to countries and people, allowing for new alliances, collaborations, and services. Barbados announced in 2021 that they will be the first country to open a virtual embassy within the metaverse platform, Decentraland, opening the possibility for other countries to embrace the metaverse as a means for international relations. None of these benefits are guaranteed, but using metaverse technologies to connect countries, communities, and individuals to resources and services in an immersive way has the potential to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future across all aspects of society.
Challenges posed by the metaverse
The effects of the metaverse transcend borders and include risks to safety, privacy, work, resources, and inequality. These are issues raised by today’s technology as well, but the greater connectivity and integration of the metaverse threatens to either exacerbate or change their character.
Because the metaverse provides a more immersive experience, it is crucial that the safety concerns it raises are proactively addressed. The everyday abuse that users experience online today will only be worsened once such activities are experienced in VR and AR environments. Researchers have found that users experience abuse in these environments as “far more traumatic than in other digital worlds,” as the human brain can perceive virtual threats through immersive technology as actual threats. Online harassment, especially of women, has been prevalent since the internet’s inception and is happening in VR/AR environments already, with women reporting that they experience discrimination and violence in the virtual world more intensely than in other digital fora. At their best, advances in haptic and virtual technologies could help people feel more connected; at their worst, misuse could cause more realistic harm with little consequence to the perpetrator. Research has shown that online harassment disproportionately targets minorities, and these inequalities are likely to be replicated in the metaverse. Without policies to prevent such abuse, safety in the metaverse will likely be a barrier to widespread adoption.
The amount and type of data that is created and collected through metaverse technologies results in major privacy challenges. With users interacting with content and other users in a 3D environment, metaverse technologies are likely to collect highly detailed data on users and their interactions in a far more intrusive way than current online platforms. To describe the combination of behavioral and anatomical information collected in the metaverse, one Harvard researcher coined the term “biometric psychography” to describe how this data might provide insight into a user’s feelings and their potential causes. Data can be collected on eye tracking, facial scans, and other bodily responses that can be linked to an individual’s identity. When used for good, this data could lead to innovative and personalized experiences, but the potential exploitation and sale of this data leads to major privacy and human rights concerns. The potential value of this data creates major cybersecurity risks, as malicious hackers would be keen to obtain it.
The disruptions to work and the economy in the metaverse raises risks as well. The potential for further automation of jobs and the emergence of new jobs will be a challenge for those who are not prepared with adequate skills or guidance for transitioning out of these jobs. The widespread use of cryptocurrencies whose values are far from stable and that lack robust regulatory regimes may undermine trust in metaverse economies. The recent history of cryptocurrencies demonstrates that these digital currencies are quite vulnerable to theft, posing yet another barrier to adoption.
Given how computationally intensive metaverse technologies are, the energy demand to power these technologies is significant—so much so that one senior Intel executive predicted that the metaverse will require a 1000x increase on our current computing power. If the electricity to support this increase in computing power is not supplied by sustainable sources, the metaverse will drastically increase greenhouse gas emissions with extreme negative effects on the environment, making it critical that it is powered by alternative energy sources to manage its carbon footprint.
The metaverse also risks exacerbating global inequalities. Given its reliance on the interaction between new and existing technologies, the metaverse may first benefit countries, companies, and people who already in possession of its enabling technologies, infrastructure, and skills. This could result in early adopters capturing a majority of the benefits. Countries who supply the necessary infrastructure may also have greater control over the technology and how it develops. If the metaverse continues to grow and include more aspects of society from work to socializing, countries and communities already lagging behind in technology and internet adoption will be further isolated. As the metaverse attempts to create a virtual world that more accurately reflects the real world, already-existing power dynamics and inequality in the real world may be replicated in the metaverse.
The way toward a more equitable metaverse
The metaverse is currently not controlled by any one platform, and its early developers are operating under different incentives and regulations, which is likely to lead to market domination and insufficient privacy and safety protocols. To mitigate the evolving risks and capture the potential opportunities, key players—including the major tech companies, governments, developers, and users—must collaborate to co-develop regulations, align incentives, and create a governance framework now, rather than reacting to challenges that emerge later. Proactive strategies will be key to ensure that companies, users, governments, and experts are operating on a level playing field and create strategies to address safety and privacy concerns while still encouraging innovation.
Dealing with safety concerns within the metaverse will likely need a completely new approach—rather than adopting safety protocols from the currently existing internet. The immersive nature of the metaverse means that not only content but also behavior will need to be monitored and regulated. Regulation in other digital environments is often reactive and provides punishments after a violation, but the metaverse is likely to require incentives for positive behavior combined with effective mechanisms to report, prevent, and act on negative behavior. Norms may need to be created, agreed upon by users, and enforced by moderators. Balancing privacy with moderation will be a challenge, and moderation mechanisms should be discussed between platform developers, legal experts, and human rights experts.
Privacy mitigation will also need to be co-developed to ensure that data is safely handled. Companies and governments must examine potential vulnerabilities related to infrastructure and applications and adopt security practices such as breach notification and response, malware protection, and multi-factor authentication. As the metaverse and its platforms continue to develop across borders, data and privacy law will need to be examined and evaluated to address likely conflicts related to biometric data. Laws specific to metaverse technologies will likely need to be created and agreed upon internationally, instead of relying on existing statutes related to the internet. While laws and governance structures are developed, codes of conduct and voluntary constraints are likely to serve an important stop-gap function. Industry-wide codes of conduct could help provide a baseline for companies who are creating metaverse platforms or wish to be part of one to agree upon basic rules and be able to work together as they develop.
The rules of the metaverse are being written by its early adopters, which threatens to exclude key voices. Other players beyond tech-developers and governments have a role in the development of the metaverse as well, including financial institutions, mental-health professionals, sustainability experts, and civil rights activist. The scientific community will have an important role to play in studying regulatory mechanisms and governance structures, the effects of immersive technology on the brain, and sustainability. Maintaining diversity will be critical to preventing the metaverse from replicating the injustices and inequalities of the non-virtual world. Companies and governments alike should focus on policies that will contribute to a democratic approach in the development of the metaverse—including pushing for open-source standards and interoperability—to make sure the metaverse is not dominated by a select group of major technology companies whose incentives do not align with other members of society.
If developed with people and progress in mind, the metaverse and its technologies have the potential to enrich real lives with greater access to knowledge, experiences, and human connection. There is ample opportunity for accessibility, development, and equitable growth through the metaverse, but these can only be seized with proactive and strategic collaboration, planning, and action.
(Landry Signé is executive director and professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program and the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a distinguished fellow at Stanford University, and founding director of the Fourth Industrial Revolution Initiative. Hanna Dooley is a policy analyst at Arizona State University.