The Metaverse – Hype or Paradigm Shift?

Posted by Peter Rudin on 11. February 2022 in Essay

Metaverse has arrived    Picture Credit: thepressfree.com

Introduction 

A paradigm shift is defined as an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking or doing something is replaced by a new and different way. The term was introduced for the first time in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn, the well-known physicist, philosopher and historian of science. In his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, he suggested that scientific revolutions are not a matter of incremental advance; they involve “paradigm shifts”. A paradigm shift is a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary advance in science and technology. According to predictions by the Big-Tech Companies like Apple, Facebook (now Meta) or Microsoft, advanced versions of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and devices supporting 3-D vision that interact with computers through body sensors will soon become available. Labelled as metaverse, the integration of these technologies might challenge not only how we work, learn and live, but also change our conception of reality and what it is to be human. While some see this as a new expanded world of freedom, others fear a digital dystopia where we are seduced, stupefied and puppeteered into a subtle and seductive form of capitalism. To assess whether the metaverse represents a paradigm shift, one has to contrast its design concept with other scientific achievements related to human behaviour. For example, neuroscience  – unlocking the mysteries of brain functionality with new  technologies or embodiment – researching the mind-body connection to consciousness and its evolution from lower-level organisms. 

What is the Metaverse?

There is no exact definition of the metaverse. A virtual reality space for artificial interaction by humans and avatars, combining specialized computer systems, visual interfaces, sensors and software might best describe the potential of its functionality. Many of these components already exist. With the exponential growth in system-performance and improved usability, the metaverse as a service will eventually touch everybody’s life as the internet did over the past 25 years. Hence it comes as no surprise that the Big-Tech community is jumping on a ‘Metaverse-Bandwagon’, although  we do not really know where this ride will lead us. Economic advantages from cutting production cost – improving productivity – to better matching  user’s product and service requirements – improving profitability – represent the key drivers of this movement.  Based on this assumption one can define three interlinked components of metaverse-applications:

Component 1: Entertainment

Gaming is a key-component of the metaverse. In a game, you can dream of being a rock star, a Jedi, a racing car driver, or anything else you might imagine. Experiencing a phantasy world as escape from one’s own reality of possibly unpleasant work or social problems is – as research shows – especially attractive to youngsters, potentially causing addiction or behavioural problems.  Another entertainment application relates to the limitation of physical space in a concert with only a few seats available. In a virtual concert one enjoys the best seat and the interaction with friends from the shared experiences enjoying the music.

Component 2: Education

Over the past ten years MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have attracted millions of students, across the globe. While continuously improving both curriculum, interactivity and authentication,  formal university degrees have become accepted credentials in today’s hiring process. The metaverse gives educators virtual teaching tools that may accelerate students’ learning curve. For example, medical students can inspect the virtual representation of a human body with the help of augmented reality technology, learning how to remove a tumour. While virtual reality provides a more immersive experience of interaction, many research studies document that learning is most effective when it is fun. Hence, ‘gamified’ learning experiences may advance education to a new level of interactivity.

Component 3: Experimentation

Moving from reality to a virtual space equipped with 3-D headsets or glasses that augment reality offers numerous opportunities for testing real-world tasks under experimental conditions. Access to a space where the interaction with artificial objects, digital twins, artificial robots or avatars can be simulated provides a new testing ground for the analysis of user experiences. Sensor based feedback from human’s action and reaction enables the monitoring of human behaviour under various conditions and tasks. Analysing this feedback with AI-technology and other means may lead to improvements which can be transferred back to a real-world environment.

The Metaverse – Ethical Issues

The metaverse relies on many technologies that already exist. Continuous advances in computational technology, integrating the three application components discussed, might nevertheless set the stage for a paradigm shift with positive as well as negative consequences. As neuroscience drives its own accelerating momentum regarding behaviour, cognition and emotional intelligence, new insights on brain functionality may predict as to how humans may react to metaverse- experiences. Recording and analysing a human’s response to specific tasks with fMRI, EEG or NIRS brain-monitoring technology, will provide new insights as benchmarks about human’s capacity to adapt to the virtuality of the metaverse. These benchmarks must address fundamental legal issues in respect to ethics and the respect of human rights, something western society is grappling with today already, especially in regard to the misuse of social media. Human’s creative capacity to invent new tools for basic survival as well as physical and emotional wellbeing could cast the metaverse as a ‘sandbox’ for testing local socio-economic issues, fostering the ongoing trend towards decentralization. In contrast to the immense financial power accrued by Big-Tech’s monetisation of behavioral data, a new sense of collaboration might promote the development of smaller, open-source designed platforms, introducing a new element of competition where antitrust regulations respectively its government’s enforcement effort so far are failing. Big-Tech’s immense publicity associated with the introduction of metaverse-platforms raises the suspicion that they see the metaverse as an instrument to maintain their existing market dominance. Although labelled as such, there is no indication of a paradigm shift.

Limits of the Metaverse

The metaverse provides a virtual space for mental experiences where body reaction can be sensed and analysed. To experience action, however, our body would have to be physically included, demanding a physical rather than a virtual space. The lack of experiencing this so called ‘embodiment’ defines one of the limits of the metaverse and its often-overhyped expectations. Embodiment begins at birth. For the new-born infant, even the simplest act of recognition of an object can be understood only in terms of bodily activity. Embodied cognition can give us an explanation regarding the process through which infants attain spatial knowledge and understanding. According to former Yale University Professor Eleanor Gibson’s theory, exploration itself takes an essential place in the cognitive development. For example, infants explore whatever is in their vicinity by seeing, tasting or touching it before learning to reach to objects nearby. Then, infants learn to crawl, which enables them to seek out objects beyond reaching distance, but also to learn about basic spatial relations between themselves, objects and others including basic understanding of depth and distance. Hence, life-experiences starting in childhood and the human ability to think and self-reflect far exceed the virtual experience the metaverse may provide. It might be applied to augment reality but this by itself cannot be defined as a paradigm shift.

Consciousness and Evolutionary Life

The combination of mind and body correlates strongly with human consciousness. If you could upload your consciousness to the cloud and live forever as a mind in the metaverse, would you do it? In his latest book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious , Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California argues that consciousness is far more than an algorithmic process. Introducing his book in  How Do We Make Sense of the Meaning of Consciousness? ‹ Literary Hub (lithub.com)  he writes that “Uploading your consciousness to the cloud would be like experiencing a meal by reading a recipe rather than by eating. So then what is consciousness?” According to Damasio two types of intelligence govern human beings and it is not possible to make sense of what consciousness is and how it is developed without first addressing them. The first intelligence is based on reasoning and creativity and the manipulation of explicit patterns of information known as images, something the virtual room of the metaverse can offer. The second intelligence relates to the non-explicit competence found in bacteria, the one variety of intelligence on which most lives on earth are depended and continue to depend on. “ We know that the most numerous living organisms on earth are unicellular, such as bacteria, for example. Are they intelligent? Indeed, they are, remarkably so. Do they have minds? No, they do not.  Do they have consciousness?, I do not think so. They are autonomous creatures; they clearly have a form of ‘cognition’ relative to their environment, and yet, instead of depending on minds and consciousness, they rely on non-explicit competences based on molecular and sub-molecular processes”,  Damasio writes. “And what about humans? Do we have minds and only minds? The simple answer is no. We certainly have minds, populated by patterned sensory representations called images, yet we also have the non-explicit competences that serve simpler organisms so well“,  Damasio states.

Conclusion

It is difficult to predict where the metaverse will be in five years and if we indeed are witnessing a metaverse-induced paradigm shift. Considering human issues such as  ‘embodiment’, respectively the interaction between mind and body and its relation to human consciousness or the evolutionary impact of  bacteria-based molecular processes, one can conclude that the metaverse is a great tool for gaming, education and experimentation, yet certainly fails to fully represent what real life is all about unless leaving reality in favour of a virtual space is one’s desired way of existence.

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