The metaverse in 2040? Buckle up for a bumpy ride, says Elon professor and Pew researcher
- A revolutionary impact could certainly be possible, but only if things come together to make the metaverse a better place for human agency and human rights than the internet is right now.
- Many experts say even if network capabilities and user interfaces make the metaverse more attractive to the public, full-immersion spaces are not going to be broadly adopted globally as an everyday function in most people’s lives.
- Some tech experts are saying that the word ‘metaverse’ will pass out of use fairly soon. They expect that all tools of digital life will be accessible in all connected spaces, fully immersive or not, and most members of society will live IRL—in real life—part of the time while also easily making use of augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR) as needed throughout the day.
Janna Anderson, professor of communications and director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, is the lead author of the report The Metaverse in 2040, published in partnership with Pew Research. She is a senior contract researcher for Pew and co-leads the center’s 19-year series of reports outlining experts’ predictions for the most likely future of digital life. The full report, released in late summer 2022, is available for free on Elon’s Imagining the Internet site and at Pew Research. Anderson is a renowned tech futurist and metaverse expert, and author of the book Imagining the Internet: Personalities, Predictions, Perspectives. Anderson sat down with Joe Kornik, Editor-in-Chief of VISION by Protiviti, to discuss the findings of the 2040 report, journey into a Web 3 future and offer a sneak peak of a forthcoming report on digital impact by 2035, expected in the fall of 2023.
Kornik: It’s always wise to start with a level-setting question: How do you define the metaverse, and when do you expect it to make an impact?
Anderson: Of course, there are many definitions out there, depending upon one’s point of view. In our recent research report The Metaverse in 2040, we found the most commonly accepted definition is that the metaverse is “the realm of computer-generated, networked, extended reality (XR).” XR is an acronym that embraces all aspects of augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality—AR, MR and VR. The report is an analysis of more than 600 experts’ opinions. While some were quite enthusiastic about its future, many said the metaverse isn’t likely to become high-functioning nearly as soon as some tech entrepreneurs were predicting back in 2021 and early 2022.
Kornik: What were some of the key takeaways from the Metaverse in 2040 report?
Anderson: In the survey, we received feedback from 624 tech experts on whether a sophisticated, fully immersive metaverse will be a key part of the daily life of a significant portion of the global population by 2040. The vote was split quite evenly: About half said they believe, or at least hope, that a well-functioning and fully immersive metaverse will be an aspect of daily life for many people around the globe. From this group, these three themes emerged:
- Profit motives will drive huge investment in the rapid development of extended-reality spaces, access and tools, and the metaverse.
- The technology could be possible by 2040—that includes the software, hardware, user interfaces and network capability to create a broadly adopted, fully immersive metaverse.
- By 2040, the metaverse is likely to be developed enough to be a truly useful place in people’s daily lives in many new settings beside gaming and entertainment.
The other half disagreed, and a number of those went as far as to declare that the metaverse was, in a word, “overhyped.” From this group, these three themes emerged:
- The metaverse is neither available nor affordable. The necessary software, hardware, user-interface and network improvements and capacity will not be available or affordable by 2040.
- Most humans generally will continue to prefer real life rather than full-immersion VR; they’ll expect VR to remain a niche space for gamers, entertainment seekers, training and education.
- Fully immersive spaces could further magnify all of the problems arising out of digital life today. Further, people may avoid engaging in spaces that are operated in the service of surveillance capitalism and open to abuse.
Experts on both sides mostly agreed on two big ideas: First, AR and MR applications will be embraced more broadly than immersive VR advances in the next decade or two. Second, they argued that the next-generation networked-knowledge ecosystem must be built in ways that better serve the public good, unlike the current business-oriented and highly extractive iteration of the internet.
experts argued that the next-generation networked-knowledge ecosystem must be built in ways that better serve the public good, unlike the current business-oriented and highly extractive iteration of the internet.
Kornik: Do you think the metaverse’s ultimate impact will be revolutionary, or are those skeptics who call it overhyped correct?
Anderson: Based on my knowledge as a digital consultant, revolutionary impact could be possible, but only if things come together to make the metaverse a better place for human agency and human rights than the internet is right now. I don’t know when or if that might happen. The research-and-development breakthroughs and truly effective industry agreements and business-practice modifications that are necessary to make it an enhanced, human-centered and humane place might not all successfully emerge in the next 10 to 20 years. If that doesn’t happen, the metaverse may not become part of most people’s daily lives by 2040, except for those most involved in gaming, taking action in mirror and alternate worlds, or working from home.
That said, I believe that the metaverse could definitely be revolutionary in many positive ways if progress is made in at least three of four important areas that will greatly influence the outcome of humanity-plus-tech: artificial general intelligence (AGI), quantum computing, materials science and governance of digital tech.
- AGI: Some experts estimate that we could see the arrival of early forms of full artificial general intelligence (also known as human-level AI) within a decade, and Our World in Data reports that more than half of the experts responding to three recent surveys say there is a 50% chance that human-level AI will be achieved in the next decade or beyond.
- Quantum leaps: Some experts believe that quantum computing, which could supercharge machine learning, could take a few leaps forward soon.
- Advances in the materials that make up our tech: Potential materials science achievements may allow for breakthroughs such the further advancement of Moore’s law and achievement of trillion-transistor chips. This could accelerate things significantly across all tech by 2035–2040.
Breakthroughs in these three areas could revolutionize everything, including future communications networks and the metaverse.
But the final point—better governance—is possibly the most difficult and unlikely to achieve: There’s still a need for the world to confront the widespread social, political and economic problems arising from flaws in the design and uses of the current internet and web. Despite calling 2023 “The Year of AI,” many prominent voices are now focusing on the potential negatives of its rapid, unregulated and accelerating influence. It’s going to take widespread global engagement to address the challenges of evolving a safer, more trusted AI and the networks/systems it runs on, including the internet and the metaverse.
From the report:
“To be so successful by 2040, [the metaverse] must be many things to many people, enrich or make better their everyday lives. It must go beyond games and entertainment to provide what each and every person needs. The first, and the biggest, step will be to instantiate and regulate the metaverse as a public benefit/utility, so the greatest number of people can access and benefit from it."
- Jacquelyn Ford Morie, VR pioneer and chief scientist at All These Worlds
Kornik: The metaverse has had some pretty strong headwinds blowing the last 18 months or so. What happened?
Anderson: I think a reckoning has arrived with regard to metaverse expectations. Massive corporate losses on metaverse investments and a large-scale withdrawal of funding and personnel for metaverse-specific projects are making headlines now, along with more widespread calls for technology-platform companies to put people ahead of profit. Why did the hype balloon burst? I think there are a few reasons:
- People came to realize that it’s not currently technologically possible to make simultaneous, fully immersive, real-time experiences available to millions of users online on multiple VR immersion platforms. That was the promise Meta seemed to be selling in its Super Bowl ads in February 2022.
- Today’s user interfaces are also a problem: The headgear is clumsy, being in VR makes many people feel awkward and it still makes some people feel ill; the gear is expensive—thus, it’s not consumer-friendly enough yet, and making it so will take a lot more development.
- The case for massive capital investment to flow into metaverse development has pretty much vanished. This is a big one! If the public outcry demanding that corporate and government powers make Web 3 and the metaverse a better, safer, more equitable and more trusted place actually accomplishes such a change, those eyeing the metaverse as even more lucrative than the internet in its current surveillance-capitalism model worry that they may not be harvesting the billons in profits they had imagined. This has cooled the investment frenzy quite a bit.
All this has led to what some are calling the metaverse winter, as the tech industry and consumers alike have switched their focus to a slower and steadier XR evolution. In 2023, the focus is on the wearable AR/MR/VR headgear space—including an entry from Apple.
Experts overall expect AR and MR to gain much more usefulness and popularity in the next decade or two because a lot of the tech is becoming more compact and consumer-friendly. The public prefers using simple tech that affordably allows them to make their lives easier, more interesting and more fun while allowing them to keep at least one foot in real reality. AR and MR will evolve to become quite popular soon if that public expectation is achieved.
Kornik: I typically ask people to go out a decade and tell what’s next, but you’ve already been to 2040 and back, so I’m just going to ask if you can share whatever you’d like to about the metaverse future.
Anderson: Yes! At the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, we are always thinking very far into the future. As far as the metaverse and the future, I’ll pick up where I just was: I think it is generally expected that in the future, our movement between various XR opportunities and real life will feel fairly seamless. People, perhaps, will not feel as if they are “entering a metaverse” when they play a game, attend an Ivy League course or enjoy a virtual concert while fully immersed online. They may seamlessly shift their attention without a thought as they walk from room to room in a home, school or office while carrying on an in-person conversation, speaking on a video call, gaining an education or competing in a game in a full-immersion situation.
From the report:
“By 2035 people will laugh at images of the 2020s that show people walking down the street staring down at a phone, necks bent, thinking it looks awkward and primitive. The metaverse will evolve in two directions at once – the virtual metaverse (fully simulated worlds) and the augmented metaverse (layers of rich virtual content overlaid upon the real world with precise spatial registration). The virtual metaverse will increase in popularity but will always be restricted to short-duration applications – mostly for gaming, socializing, shopping and entertainment, and it will have powerful business and education uses as well. The augmented metaverse, on the other hand, will replace mobile phones as our primary gateway to digital content."
- Louis Rosenberg, CEO of Unanimous AI
Because of this, some tech experts are saying that the word metaverse will pass out of use fairly soon. They expect that all tools of digital life will be accessible in all connected spaces, fully immersive or not, and most members of society will live IRL—in real life—part of the time while also easily making use of AR, MR and VR as needed throughout the day, deciding how, why and when parts of their lives are best enhanced by those tools and accessing what they need.
We just completed some research that will be out later this year that looks at the potential future societal impact and implications of unstoppable digital change. We asked a group of experts: “What are the best and most beneficial changes, and which are the most harmful or menacing changes you expect in digital life by 2035?”
More than a third (37%) said they are more concerned than excited about the change they anticipate, and 42% said they are equally concerned and excited. Only 18% said they are more excited than concerned.
The upcoming report will carry literally thousands of predictive comments of digital life by 2035, including:
Great expectations for positive overall impact of digital advances across all aspects of life, especially in research and knowledge-advancement collaborations in science, healthcare and education
Excitement and worry about generative AI, spurred by the emergence of somewhat improved but still “hallucinating” AI like ChatGPT
Fears that automation may cause millions of people to become unemployed
Concerns over growth in digital crime, blanket surveillance and destroying the information atmosphere with deepfakes, misinformation and harassment — all enabled by the unstoppable speed and scope of digital tech
Worries over the current flawed primary revenue model for online life due to its serious unintended negative societal consequences
Anger about the overt concentration of global wealth and power in the hands of the founders and leaders of a few large corporations.
In a nutshell, the forthcoming report sums up both the positives and negatives of a digital future. While most agreed that humanity will have the opportunity to find wonderful ways to grow healthier, happier and more knowledgeable thanks to advances in digital tech and systems, they also expressed their deep concerns in regard to the potential of these tools and systems to degrade, diminish and even cause loss of human lives across the world—all while educating and entertaining billions and making a very small percentage of humanity extremely wealthy.
From the report:
"There is a real possibility that those who are ‘plugged in’ will become increasingly untethered from the world around them. Future waves of pandemic disease and the effects of climate change will allow those with means to spend more time in virtual worlds. Will we become more willing to let conditions worsen around us because we can escape to an alternate reality? Meanwhile, those on the other side of the digital divide will struggle to access resources, connections and opportunities."
- Toby Shulruff, senior technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence