New South Wales Chief Data Scientist on ways we’ll use the metaverse

Video interview
April 2023


  • 2:22 - When we start thinking about things like a digital driver’s license or a digital birth certificate and you can interact with that in a new and interesting and intuitive way and interact also with those digital equivalents of not only physical assets but digital equivalent of services, digital equivalent potentially even of rights, then we really start to talk about something interesting.
  • 8:04 - In New South Wales, the building commissioner has developed a blockchain-based system to track where every component of a building has come from. So, the building itself is modeled but also the provenance of all the components is now modeled and that develops a trust index.
  • 16:49 - I think we’re still running an experiment as the human race to see what the implications of constantly on, constantly accessible, and constantly connected really means to people.

VISION by Protiviti interviews Dr. Ian Oppermann, the New South Wales Government’s Chief Data Scientist working within the Department of Customer Service and expert on the future impact of technology on society, about how we’ll use the metaverse in the future. Dr. Oppermann is also an Industry Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and served as CEO of the New South Wales Data Analytics Centre from 2015 to 2019. Dr. Oppermann is interviewed by Ghislaine Entwisle, a Managing Director at Protiviti Australia and co-leader the IT Advisory practice.

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New South Wales Chief Data Scientist on ways we’ll use the metaverse

Joe Kornik: Welcome to the VISION by Protiviti interview, where we look at how big topics will impact global business over the next decade and beyond. Today, we’re talking about the metaverse. I’m Joe Kornik, Editor-in-Chief of VISION by Protiviti, and I’m happy to welcome in today Dr. Ian Oppermann, the New South Wales Government’s chief data scientist working within the Department of Customer Service. He is an industry professor at the University of Technology Sydney, heads the government’s AI review committee, and is considered an expert on the digital economy. I’m happy to turn over the interviewing today to my Protiviti colleague, Ghislaine Entwisle, managing director and a leader in the technology consulting and business performance improvement practice at Protiviti. Ghislaine, let me turn it over to you to begin.

Ghislaine Entwisle: Thanks, Joe. Welcome again, Ian. It’s such a pleasure to spend some time with you again and ask some questions about the metaverse.

Ian Oppermann: Great to be here.

Entwisle: So, the metaverse has had its ups and downs over the last few years. It’s been everything from the next big thing to an overhyped gaming platform and anything in-between. Where do you stand on the metaverse, its potential and eventual impact?

Oppermann: Yes. Thanks, Ghislaine. It is really the question for today. The metaverse is being, as you said, described in a number of different ways, and the demonstrations and what’s being shown broadly looks a little bit game-y. It looks a little bit like Second Life. It looks a little bit like just a different way of interacting with the whole series of different sort of meeting environments or even actual game environments. The potential for the metaverse is what’s really exciting. The opportunity to engage with things in a digital space, to engage with digital versions of real things is actually quite important. The concept of building information models has been around for some time but the extension of those sorts of ideas, where you’ve got a digital equivalent of a physical asset that you can engage with, you can test, you can plan with, you can compare to a real object is where it starts to get interesting. It really gets interesting when we start to put valuable things into that digital environment.

So, when we start thinking about things like a digital driver’s license or a digital birth certificate and you can interact with that in a new and interesting and intuitive way and interact also with those digital equivalents of not only physical assets but digital equivalent of services, digital equivalent potentially even of rights, then we really start to talk about something interesting. So, I think we’re kind of on the on-ramp to something important but we’re just not there yet.

Entwisle: Yes. Given that, when do you envision the metaverse becoming mainstream? I mean, how far off do you think is that day and what do you think still has to happen before we can actually get there?

Oppermann: The metaverse will become mainstream when important things start to appear in the metaverse. I mentioned just a moment ago things like digital driver’s license or a digital birth certificate. At the moment, it still seems a little bit nonintuitive. Still, you have to accept that you’re going to go into a slightly cartoonish environment. Now, that doesn’t matter unless we’re expecting this to be a realistic 3D experience. People are prepared. I mean, we’re having a video call right at the moment. We accept that there is a loss of fidelity. We accept that there are some issues associated with it—a sort of two-dimensional projection of ourselves into each other’s space. A three-dimensional version of that, great. It takes a lot more computing. It takes a lot more bandwidth, but if we accept that that’s part of the experience then that’s all good.

The mainstream element of it is when I really need to or when it’s much more convenient for me to engage with this digital environment that it needs me to go to, a counter, or it is to call someone or it is to actually walk into a shop front. So, we still got quite a few things around what we’re willing to accept, how realistic it feels, how intuitive and how natural it feels, and a whole lot of people are just not going to be comfortable with hopping into a metaverse environment. The same sort of people who don’t have frequent flyer cards or who don’t have loyalty cards or who really struggle a little bit with the idea of digital engagement. So, there are few human, legal, technical and practical issues that we still have to deal with.

Entwisle: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we know it took several years for Web 1 and Web 2 to mature from a concept to reality and part of that was the maturation of the technology and, of course, the devices that enabled it. They kind of had to catch up with the end user. So, where do you think we’re at on that technology continuum when it comes to the metaverse and what are disruptors in the space as well?

Oppermann: Yes. The technological aspects of it, I think, still have some ways to go. At least everything I’ve seen still looks just a little bit like you're entering a Second Life scenario. So, the fidelity of a representation in a 3D environment, we either have to accept a lot more compute, a lot more bandwidth, really a lot more effort goes into realistic rendering, a further realistic rendering of you or a table or an object you interact with, or we accept it’s cartoonish or it’s a wireframe or it’s an avatar, which is just—it’s not quite realistic but we can accept that. We still got quite a long way to go in that space. When we all went online at the beginning of COVID back in 2020, we all accepted that anything was better than nothing. We all accepted that whatever we had was better than the reality of not being able to go to meetings or not being able to interact.

Over time, bandwidth has improved, network infrastructure has improved, processing power has improved, the reliability of network has also improved. Just those simple things, just the reliability aspect of everybody demanding more at the same time is a really big engineering undertaking. So, it’s not just what we have at home. It’s a whole lot of infrastructure that needs to come along. If you multiply that now by not just projecting an image of yourself but interacting with realistic and dense models in a digital environment, which really has to be processed somewhere, there’s a lot of digital infrastructure and engineering that still needs to be done in order to support that. So, we still got a way to go and the mainstream nature of it is really a nontrivial undertaking. To move from an experiment, which looks and feels good, to everybody doing it is really quite a dramatic shift.

Entwisle: Yes, absolutely. A long way to go, a great potential. So, what are you most excited about then when you think about the metaverse future? Where do you see the biggest potential impact and which sectors do you think will thrive and which industries or jobs may transform?

Oppermann: That’s a really good question. I mentioned earlier building information models and they really were revolutionary for the construction sector, not just for construction but for every phase in a building’s life cycle, from concept to planning, to detailed planning to construction, and then even to operation and maintenance. It’s true whether or not we’re talking about literally a building or whether we’re talking about a new rail line or any sort of major piece of infrastructure. The fidelity with which you can model and represent the digital twin of a piece of infrastructure or building is really quite remarkable. Standards have helped to create a deal in that space. The effort that goes into planning it once means that you can carry it all the through the life cycle of the asset, and as the asset changes in the real world, you can update your model with real information.

The richness of those models is really already quite amazing and it’s getting better all the time. The next big step though is when you’re not just interacting with the model of a physical object, but you’re interacting with a digital equivalent of something which you can interact with from a perspective of, where do all the parts of this building come from? What’s the provenance of all those pieces? In New South Wales, the building commissioner has developed a blockchain-based system to track where every component of a building has come from. So, the building itself is modeled but also the provenance of all the components is now modeled and that develops a trust index, specifically thinking about the potential for flammable aluminum cladding, but there’s also a lot of other ways you can think about how you would use the provenance of the components.

So, that’s a different way of engaging with that model. But imagine now that you’re fire rescue and you now have the provenance for all those different components and you want to assess the building for its fire-ready and fire risk. All of a sudden, you can interact with that model in a very, very different way from just thinking, “This is where the components are.” If you all then are thinking about how to optimize heating, ventilation and air conditioning, you can engage with that differently, but imagine this is now a Service New South Wales or a Service Victoria, or Service Australia Office, and you can access services from that digital environment, you would have the choice of, if you like that gamified way, interacting with that building and getting your service, getting your driver’s license, getting your—if you’re work with children, check renewed, or of course, you can just interact with that in a different digital way which doesn’t have that attempt to replicate the physical world but all of a sudden, you’re interacting with this model in a very different way. And it would potentially then carry your interaction, your service with details about your licenses and your rights and the things that you’re credentialed for, that can extend to any system, and it can extend to any process that happens in the real world, which is digitizable, can also be brought into the same space.

So, the potential is not just objects but interacting with those objects in very, very different ways, from that testing perspective, from that modeling perspective, but then all the services that wrap around that we traditionally think about needing to go somewhere for or the digital equivalency needing to go somewhere for, can all of a sudden start to come together in one place. If you’ve got things like driver’s licenses and if you’ve got things like identity and you’ve got things like digital birth certificate all in this space, appropriately, securely being interacted with, that creates such an incredible richness that it starts to become very compelling to say, “We can interact with the metaverse, which has systems, processes and objects embedded in the digital world.”

Entwisle: And that’s so exciting. Really, we want it to almost tomorrow with that level of excitement of the possibilities. So, with all that excitement, are there any concerns that you have or things that sort of give you pause for that future?

Oppermann: Well, whenever you bring lots of different data and digital services together you create a cyber security risk, and that’s something we have to take very, very seriously. So, if we build out a metaverse by bringing together the data and datasets and information about people and credentials and licenses and rights in a way that we would do it traditionally, we create a honeypot, then we create something which is really attractive for someone who wants access to that data. We create a cyber risk or cyber hazard. So, what we need to do is think differently about identity. We need to think differently about how we bring datasets together and there’s some really innovative thinking which is underpinning what’s behind the World Wide Web 3 model, Web 3.0 model, which says, “Don’t bring it all together. You keep your own data and you allow me, as the government, to ask questions with that data. I don’t need to see the whole data itself, but I can ask the question, ‘Are you old enough to go into this establishment? Do you have a valid, responsible service or alcohol license?’ rather than saying, ‘Show me your driver’s license? Tell me what your date of birth is.’” It’s just asking the question of the data without seeing the underlying data. That’s part of it.

There’s also a really important part about inclusion and accessibility. If we create a digital world which is not accessible or if create a digital world which is not inclusive, then we create a real digital barrier, a digital divide. So, there may be people who just don’t want to engage in a digital world, or there may be people who don’t feel comfortable engaged in a digital world or actually feel marginalized or excluded. One of the ideas early on was that in the metaverse, you can be whatever you want. You don’t have to be you. The avatar version of you could be a pirate if you want it, or you could have outrageous hair or outrageous clothes, but in practice, what we see is that people’s social norms get reflected in most digital environments we engage in. So, when we started doing Zoom early on in COVID, people have outrageous backgrounds, but they all kind of normalized to the point where it’s business professional or it’s appropriate social. Even in that simple little experiment, that equivalent could map into the metaverse very, very quickly. So, conservatism and some of the biases and some of the discriminatory behavior that we exhibit in the real word may just as well manifest in the metaverse. So, issues around people wanting to engage, issues about people feeling comfortable to engage, issues about people feeling that they belong in the metaverse or don’t not belong in the metaverse are human issues that we really need to think about, that they have little to do with technology and a lot more to do with social norms and social behaviors and describing what’s appropriate to do in the metaverse. So, we have a little way to go in terms of working up the rules of the game.

Entwisle: Yes. That makes sense. A few concerns to navigate along the way. Of course, security is always in the mix there as well as that diversity and inclusion element that is always so important. Lastly, as you look out to 2035, tell me what role the metaverse will play in our daily lives, our working lives, our personal lives? Will it be a better world in 2035 because of the metaverse?

Oppermann: I was with you until that last bit. I think by 2035, it will just be pervasive. So, we think nothing now of jumping on a Zoom call or a Teams call or whatever your favorite platform is. In fact, quite often, you have to check, is it an in-person meeting or is it an online meeting or is it a hybrid? So, this for example, this interaction is very, very comfortable. We’re very, very used to it and we think nothing of doing it. Whereas once upon a time, people really felt the need to come together. I think increasingly, this sort of engagement, an enriched version of this engagement, will just be ubiquitous. It will be everywhere. The infrastructure, the technology will all improve and it will be everywhere. And it will become increasingly normal to engage with really important interactions, the equivalent of online banking but taking into a more comprehensive environment. The equivalent of online gatherings will be just normal.

Will it be a better place? That’s a really, really good question, and some of that has to do with the rules of the game. So, we really need to understand the long-term implications of creating this digital environment, which is incredibly powerful that some people don’t want to access. And so that separation between what you can do if you're willing to engage versus what you’re not willing, or what you miss out on if you’re not willing to engage, is a really important one. We also need to understand really the implications of all the data that we’re effectively giving away about ourselves when we interact with this world. We reveal not only information about ourselves, we reveal information about where we are and when we are, who we’re talking to, what things we’re engaging with. So, all the issues we have at the moment around revealing personal information or personal identifiable information get scaled up massively when we have more and more ways of engaging at higher and higher velocity and with greater volume.

So, it’s the big data challenge turned inside out and amplified. The inside out part is we’re revealing so much about ourselves in so many ways and just put that on steroids, and that’s one of the other challenges. So, we need to think about what on earth we mean by privacy in, really, the hyperconnected version of the world we live in now. We’re already pretty connected but we can still turn it off if we think of enough ways, enough things to turn off, but if we’re really genuinely enmeshed with that digital universe, then we really have to rethink what we mean by privacy.

There are couple of other implications associated with it. What are the long-term consequences of just so much engagement with so many different entities and people and objects compared to how we have evolved to this point? Rewind back a hundred years, there was no such thing as even the conversation we’re having now. The best you could do is the very early telephone. I think we’re still running an experiment as the human race to see what the implications of constantly on, constantly accessible, and constantly connected really means to people.

By 2035, we probably would have sorted that out but we might have a better idea. We might have some new names for new conditions or new ways of dealing with not being connected, the anxiety of not being connected. But I think that experiment will still be running. So, will it be a better place? It will be more convenient. It will be more accessible. It will be more efficient in many, many different ways, but that’s not all we want as people, but certainly, it will help a whole range of different things that we do try to optimize and achieve.

Entwisle: Yes. That’s certainly very exciting, but as you say, we’ll wait and see how that actually shapes up, but great conversation today. Thank you again for the generosity of your time. Always a pleasure to speak to you, Dr. Ian Oppermann. Thank you.

Kornik: Thank you for watching the VISION by Protiviti interview. On behalf of Dr. Ian and Ghislaine, I’m Joe Kornik, and we’ll see you next time.

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Dr. Ian Oppermann is co-founder of ServiceGen, a firm that helps global governments achieve digital transformation. He is an Industry Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is considered an expert on the digital economy. Prior to co-founding ServiceGen, Oppermann was Chief Data Scientist for the New South Wales government working within the Department of Customer Service. He also headed the NSW government’s AI Review Committee and Smart Places Advisory Council and is considered a thought leader in the area of the digital economy. Ian is a regular speaker on the topics of big data, broadband-enabled services and the impact of technology on society.

Dr. Ian Oppermann
Co-founder, ServiceGen
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Ghislaine Entwisle has over seventeen years of experience in the Professional Services industry. She has undertaken a wide range of business consulting, IT consulting and IT audit assignments during this time. Ghislaine has broad experience across industries and within both the public sector and private sector. She has provided business and IT consulting and IT audit services for a number of international clients and local clients including a number of large private sector clients.

Ghislaine Entwisle
Managing Director, Protiviti Australia
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