Subbu's blog: The verse of reality and the reality of verse

In this piece, the co-authors explore a few possibilities the metaverse provides

Aug 08, 2022 08:08:00 AM | Article | S Subramanyeswar

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…,” the contemplative soliloquy by the ever melancholy Jacques from Shakespeare’s comedy: As You Like It, is eerily prescient—especially with respect to today’s zeitgeist.
 
The ongoing transmutation of our existence into the fluid and flexible worlds of metaverses or extended reality (XR) environments, driven by technological developments and convergence has, perhaps, imbued new meaning to Jacques’ utterances with respect to our business with businesses, and more fundamentally with our sense of being or existence. We explore a few possibilities herein. 
 
The fifth Industrial Revolution (Industry 5.0) is imminent upon us, wherein humans and machines will not only coexist, but also collaborate, in: augmenting human capabilities, superseding human physical and biological limitations, and creating a new socio-economic reality. As everything around us becomes sentient (or, at least, artificially so), building relationships with the artificial is going to be inevitable. For instance, not far into the future, individuals experiencing emotional distress may be able to readily find solace and companionship in artificial entities.
 
Such entities may even become capable of expressing complex human emotions like love. Imagine, the introverted and forlorn Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) experiencing unprecedented emotional turmoil in his endeavor to find true love in Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), an artificial general intelligence entity, in the academy award winning movie: Her (2013). Developments in hyperreal extended reality (XR) technologies that obfuscate the distinction between the real and the artificial, hold the promise of creating such immersive experiences that are rife with possibilities.
 
More realistically, perhaps, in such worlds, one may be able to get away with cajoling one’s refrigerator (possibly by calling it ‘cool’) that is friends with (read connected to) one’s Fitbit, in securing a sizable helping of sinful chocolate cake, quite surreptitiously. Our past experiences in forming meaningful relationships with inanimate objects, especially anthropomorphic ones, like the VW Beetle, make this a real possibility.
 
Enterprises like Affectiva (a Forbes’ AI 50 company founded by: Rana el Kaliouby and Rosalind Picard of MIT), spearheading developments in affective computing or emotion AI, are aiming at humanising technology by bridging the gap between humans and machines. They are well on their way in developing and commercialising technology that makes machines capable of interpreting human emotions. Concomitantly, enterprises like Meta Platforms, Inc. (formerly Facebook, Inc.) as part of their Presence Platform and Project Cambria initiatives are developing technologies designed at emulating realistic presence in metaverses. These technologies are designed to inculcate a deep sense of being connected with others in metaverses—a key driver of immersive human experiences—among individual users. Over and above quantity, we think, the quality of human interactions in metaverses, as measured by the emotional content (e.g., warmth) of these interactions, will be the ultimate yardstick of Meta’s success. Further, detrimental possibilities aside, metaverses, like the ones envisioned by Meta, can give wings to human creativity and imagination. In fact, each entity in such environments, whether the animate in their vanilla avatars or as their virtually augmented selves, or the purely inanimate like the virtual influencers (e.g., the Miquelas of the world) will have a role to play in creating new spaces and communities in driving interactions and developing new connections. These interactions will be reflective of an entity’s scope of influence, or an interaction field (like gravitational fields) that the entity may weave around itself over time.
 
These interaction fields will, however, be ineffective without a unique identity undergirded by a purpose or stand—the raison d'être for an entity and the cogent reason for others in the metaverse to interact with the entity under discussion. The more human or social the purpose, the more efficacious the interaction field will become in spurring interactions. Conversely, without a distinct and innately human character, interactions in metaverses will be nothing but forgettable mechanistic episodes (e.g., one, in greater probability, will remember her interaction with her Steinway piano vis-à-vis her computer keyboard). 
 
We expect the tremendous flexibility, fluidity, and the creative possibilities offered by the extended reality environments of the future to inspire entities (humans or otherwise) in crafting their own unique identities in multifarious ways. Stated otherwise, we expect metaverses to emerge as ideal platforms for entities to create their distinctive brand identity. As we speak, Sophia, a humanoid robot, developed by Hanson Robotics and the world’s first robot citizen and Innovation Ambassador for UNDP, has already made history by selling the first digital artistic creation ever made by an artificial entity, as an NFT. Sophia’s work sold for almost seven-hundred thousand US dollars. As we push the limits of our imagination, our unbridled creativity may result in new spaces that will be nothing short of Dalínian worlds of the fantastic (where melted clocks remain strewed over a bleak landscape, refer Dalí’s Persistence of Memory). In these worlds we will seamlessly traverse the subconscious and the real in creating distinctive surrealistic experiences (imagine living in one of Dalí’s paintings) on our path to self-discovery. In this regard, our journey will represent Chihiro’s (the protagonist in Hayao Miyazaki’s internationally acclaimed magnum opus: Spirited Away) voyage into the world of kami (Japanese for spirits) where everything comes alive (e.g., the humble hopping lantern that follows Chihiro around) in many ways. In such a world, the distinction between the real and the unreal just evanesces and everything seizes to exist as is (like René Magritte’s famous surrealist painting titled: The Treachery of Images).
 
In metaverses or in the XR environments of the future, both the animate and the inanimate will come alive, coexist, and interact in unprecedented ways (imagine Harry Potter interacting with his fierce Monster Book of Monsters with trepidation, in the movie: Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Azkaban). In such circumstances, the true identity of entities will remain shrouded in layers of meaning that entities may choose to create around themselves (only to be found out by others through interactions, much like in a treasure hunt). With our curiosity naturally piqued under such circumstances, we may be persuaded to dig deeper in unearthing the true identities or personalities of the entities that we choose to interact with in metaverses. Specifically, this endeavor, as part of our experience with the fantastic, will impel us to question what makes things real versus unreal, and more significantly, what is it that makes us human. In short, these immersive experiences, thus imagined, may, in turn, lead us into Montaignesque (after Michal de Montaigne, who established the essay as a literary form) introspection, wherein we become our own muse in making sense of the world around us. 
 
The intriguing future that knocks at our door will free us to paint our own reality, or to compose our own play, with the world as our stage, and our imagination as our palette. Given these bewitching possibilities, the key for us in making sense of the new reality will depend on our ability to remain critically open to the emergent developments. Whatever may be the outcome, the metaverse will compel us to question what is it to be human, alongside the promise of becoming the best improvisational theater that we have participated in, ever. This will then become the true triumph of the humanity that remains nestled in all of us.
 
S Subramanyeswar is chief strategy officer - APAC and head of global planning council of MullenLowe Group, and Rahul Kumar Sett is a faculty member and the chairperson of the center of excellence in brand management at the Indian Institute of Management Nagpur.