Home / Opinion / Columns /  Marriage in the metaverse and other tech ponderables

The role technology plays in our lives has gone beyond anyone’s expectations while simultaneously changing our lives to the point where personal and governmental action has become necessary to contain some of the excesses of Big Tech. This was certainly boosted by the pandemic, when many of us had to pivot to ‘virtual’ work during stay-at-home lockdowns and therefore use many tools of technology for work in the form of video meetings via Zoom, Google Meet and others. We have also had to depend on technology platforms for our day-to-day lives, thereby increasing the use of e-commerce and logistics sites such as Amazon, Dunzo, Flipkart and others.

It seems those heady days are a thing of the past. Markets have been taking notice. Last week marked the end of the worst month that the tech-heavy Nasdaq has had since 2008. On Friday 29 April alone, that index fell by over 4%, extending its losses for the month to over 13%. Netflix, one of the ‘FAANG’ darlings of just a few months ago, saw its shares drop by over 30% after an earnings report that showed that the movie streaming company has lost subscribers. During Friday’s carnage, Amazon shares fell by 14%, the biggest single- day drop since 2006 after the company reported its first quarterly loss in 7 years. The FAANG group of Facebook, Apple Amazon, Netflix and Google lost more than $1 trillion of market value in April alone.

Big Tech has started to morph itself. The erstwhile Facebook Inc, now rechristened Meta Platforms Inc, is trying to change itself into all things virtual, but is having starting trouble. It is building virtual reality glasses named Nazare, but the project has been beset by arduous customized chip development efforts and a bill of materials that runs into thousands of US dollars. Nonetheless, hype about the ‘metaverse’ has started, as has serious research work in this emerging space. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (also called FIG or the Future Interfaces Group) has figured out how to make users feel sensations in their lips, tongues and teeth that mimic a real-world kiss.

Bizarre as this may seem, there are early adopters for everything. Futurism.com reports that a Japanese man who married a hologram now can’t talk to his life-partner because of a software problem. Instead of loving words in dulcet tones, he got a “network error". Akihiko Kondo had married a hologram in 2018. The hologram is a representation of a popular Japanese virtual star called Hatsune Miku. Gatebox is a machine that allows users to interact with fictional holographic characters and chat with them. According to the Japanese paper The Mainichi, the startup that makes Gatebox had only made a “limited production model" of Hatsune Mike. At the height of the pandemic, the startup announced it was stopping its virtual Miku service, leaving Kondo bereft of his life-partner.

Nazare, the Miku hologram and the new ‘kissing machine’ from Carnegie Mellon’s FIG are but early and clumsy versions of what the metaverse has in store. I shudder to think what might happen as the metaverse evolves and scientists and Big Tech companies come up with more ways to present us with such uses of virtual reality.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have long tried using the alibi that they are only platforms for ‘free speech’. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter could strengthen that alibi even further. He has gone so far as to say that he is a “free speech absolutist". I believe he will have great trouble managing his new toy. Managing free speech on a platform is a vastly different (and significantly more difficult) proposition than making battery powered cars. And then there is the question of whether his financing will hold up. If last week’s stock rout were to extend itself, the debt financing he is using by providing his Tesla stock as collateral might suddenly become a lot more expensive for him (presuming, of course, that the financing materializes).

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have no journalistic norms. Any user can say anything at any time about any topic with scant respect for the truth. Everything is an opinion, but not clearly labelled as such. As a result, much of the ‘news’ available on these platforms is biased. The unscrupulous sale of users’ personal information and meddling by inimical foreign regimes can potentially even influence the outcome of elections. Worse, the spread of false and malicious news can stoke violence at short notice.

With Facebook and others now betting their future on the metaverse, this ‘we’re just offering a platform’ defence will not suffice. Today, it is just free speech. Virtual metaverse wearables, like the kissing contraption mentioned earlier, will inevitably grow. What is just a problem of hateful posts on social media platforms could morph into a world where users could actually perform acts of physical violence on other users. It’s anyone’s guess what the effects of this might be.

In my view, Big Tech corporations have already proven, time and again, that they are not capable of policing themselves properly. Even when they make grandiose public announcements, like pulling facial recognition technology in 2020 in response to protests that the technology routinely discriminated against people of colour, these are in response to public pressure. With any business, profit is always the motive. It is clear to me that virtual-reality regulation is needed, and fast. Physical interactions cannot be robotized without strict policing.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India


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