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Home / Opinion / Columns /  When a car rides into the metaverse

Car launches are usually a predictable affair—large pulsating stage, boisterous dealers, preening hosts and hostesses, and then the star of the show itself, a gleaming new car. The Volvo launch last week of its latest electric car was quite different, however: it was actually launched in the metaverse! Now, I have had a soft spot for Volvo since it was granted Patent Number 3043625 for its three-point seatbelt and it decided to open-source the invention to every car company, thus shunning the billions it could have earned, and saving millions of road accident lives in the process. So, what was this remarkable company doing in the latest tech buzzword, rather than being in the real world where it presumably belongs?

I have often wondered whether the metaverse is for real or just some sort of tech hype created by Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk to deflect attention away from the troubles of the real world to the calm, sanitized unreality of their new creation. Sceptics have argued that the metaverse is just a new name for existing technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, massive multi-player video games and digital twins—all mashed into one. Neil Stephenson coined this term in his book The Snow Crash in 1992 and there have been a few proto-metaverses created since then. Linden Lab’s Second Life was one; launched in 2003, it created a virtual world you could buy land and live in, and it did capture public imagination for a short time. The vision for the metaverse, however, is much bigger and envisages multiple use cases, some of which the pandemic has made more real. People can meet as their avatars in the virtual world to simultaneously watch a movie or a game concert. The education metaverse would involve learning the sciences with chemistry or biology simulators sitting in virtual immersive classrooms in a life-like university campus. Company headquarters could be re-created, and workers could meet there, while actually working remotely, as the work-from-anywhere phenomenon becomes permanent. It could bring ‘live’ events back in safer virtual environments, with thousands of people watching a concert together. You could not only work or watch together in the metaverse, but also create stuff together, whether it’s fashion, architecture or games. It could thus turbocharge the creative economy.

An intriguing aspect that is being talked about is how the metaverse could be ‘greener’ too. Now this would make most people blanch; after all, most of the technologies it uses at a hyperscale level are proving to be highly polluting. The metaverse lives on the cloud, and clouds account for nearly 2% of global carbon emissions, the same as aviation. Massive artificial intelligence (AI) models power the metaverse; one transformer AI model with 213M parameters could emit up to 626,155 pounds of CO2 equivalent. Blockchains are at its foundation, but one Ethereum transaction releases the same amount of CO2 as watching 18,000-plus hours of YouTube. In fact, Intel believes that we need a thousand times increase in our total computing capacity to power the metaverse.

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However, it is quite possible that the metaverse could be net positive for the environment. Take fast fashion as an example. It is one of planet’s greatest polluters with one product taking thousands of litres of water to produce and releasing about 35kg of CO2. Virtual fashion could help lessen the load on the planet, with fashion shows on the metaverse, virtual clothing and non-fungible tokens. This is not a pie in the sky—Nike, Adidas, Gucci, and many others are all in on it. Working remotely on the metaverse could massively reduce commute traffic emissions. Virtual or hybrid events would save on all the travel and power footprints. Nvidia’s CEO has evangelized designing buildings through digital twins in the metaverse, helping designers optimize air-conditioning needs. Big cloud companies Microsoft and Google expect to be carbon-free in 2025 and 2030, respectively. Even something as mundane as replacing paper in the real world saves greenhouse gases. Take the Volvo launch; reportedly, the launch of its electric car in the metaverse made the launch event carbon negligible as compared to a physical event.

Technology is a double-edged sword—it can hugely benefit mankind and shape our world for the better, but it also has the power to destroy our future. It’s up to technology creators—us, human beings, society, countries and companies—to choose the path that will serve the world best.

Jaspreet Bindra is the founder of Tech Whisperer Ltd, a digital transformation and technology advisory practice

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