by Jamais Cascio
The four worlds of the
Metaverse Roadmap could also represent four pathways to
a Singularity. But they also
Singularity" may be the answer.
The people who have
embraced the possibility of a singularity should be
working at least as hard on making possible a global
inclusion of interests as they do on making the
singularity itself happen, says Jamais Cascio.
Originally presented at
Singularity Summit 2007,
September 8, 2007.
I was reminded, earlier this year, of an observation made by polio
vaccine pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk. He said that the most
important question we can ask of ourselves is,
"are we being good ancestors?"
This is a particularly relevant question
for those of us here at the Summit.
In our work, in our policies, in our
choices, in the alternatives that we open and those that we close,
are we being good ancestors? Our actions, our lives have
consequences, and we must realize that it is incumbent upon us to
ask if the consequences we're bringing about are desirable.
It's not an easy question to answer, in part because it can be an
uncomfortable examination. But this question becomes especially
challenging when we recognize that even small choices matter. It's
not just the multi-billion dollar projects and unmistakably
world-altering ideas that will change the lives of our descendants.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, profound consequences can arise
from the most prosaic of topics.
Which is why I'm going to talk a bit about video games.
Well, not just video games, but video games and camera-phones and
Google Earth and the myriad day-to-day technologies that,
individually, may attract momentary notice, but in combination, may
actually offer us a new way of grappling with the world. And just
might, along the way, help to shape the potential for a safe
Earlier this year, I co-authored a document that I know some of you
in the audience have seen: the Metaverse Roadmap Overview
(metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix "meta" - meaning "beyond"
- and "universe".)
In this work, along with my colleagues
John Smart and Jerry Paffendorf, I sketch out four
scenarios of how a combination of forces driving the development of
immersive, richly connected information technologies may play out
over the next decade. But what has struck me more recently about the
Roadmap scenarios is that the four worlds could also represent
four pathways to a
Not just in terms
of the technologies, but - more importantly - in terms of the social
and cultural choices we make while building those technologies.
metaverse worlds emerged from a
relatively commonplace scenario structure. We arrayed two spectra of
possibility against each other, thereby offering four outcomes.
Specialists sometimes refer to this as
the "four-box" method, and it's a simple way of forcing yourself to
think through different possibilities.
This is probably the right spot to insert my first disclaimer:
scenarios are not predictions, they're provocations. They're ways of
describing different future possibilities not to demonstrate what
will happen, but to suggest what could happen. They offer a
way to test out strategies and assumptions - what would the world
look like if we undertook a given action in these four futures?
To construct our scenario set we selected two themes likely to shape
the ways in which the Metaverse unfolds:
the spectrum of technologies and
applications ranging from augmentation tools that add new
capabilities to simulation systems that model new worlds
the spectrum ranging from
intimate technologies, those that focus on identity and the
individual, to external technologies, those that provide
information about and control over the world around you
These two spectra collide and contrast
to produce four scenarios.
The first, Virtual Worlds,
emerges from the combination of Simulation and
These are immersive
representations of an environment, one where the user has a
presence within that reality, typically as an avatar of some
sort. Today, this means World of Warcraft, Second Life, Sony
Home and the like.
Over the course of the Virtual Worlds scenario, we'd see the
continued growth and increased sophistication of immersive
networked environments, allowing more and more people to
spend substantial amounts of time engaged in meaningful ways
The ultimate manifestation of
this scenario would be a world in which the vast majority of
people spend essentially all of their work and play time in
virtual settings, whether because the digital worlds are
supremely compelling and seductive, or because the real
world has suffered widespread environmental and economic
The next scenario, Mirror
Worlds, comes from the intersection of Simulation
and Externally-focused technologies.
These are information-enhanced
virtual models or “reflections” of the physical world,
usually embracing maps and geo-locative sensors. Google
Earth is probably the canonical present-day version of
an early Mirror World.
While undoubtedly appealing to many individuals, in my view,
the real power of the Mirror World setting falls to
institutions and organizations seeking to have a more
complete, accurate and nuanced understanding of the world's
transactions and underlying systems.
The capabilities of Mirror
World systems is enhanced by a proliferation of sensors
and remote data gathering, giving these distributed
information platforms a global context. Geospatial,
environmental and economic patterns could be easily
represented and analyzed.
Undoubtedly, political debates
would arise over just who does, and does not, get access to
these models and databases.
Thirdly, Augmented Reality
looks at the collision of Augmentation and
Such tools would enhance the
external physical world for the individual, through the use
of location-aware systems and interfaces that process and
layer networked information on top of our everyday
Augmented Reality makes use of the same kinds of
distributed information and sensory systems as Mirror
Worlds, but does so in a much more granular, personal
way. The AR world is much more interested in depth than in
flows: the history of a given product on a store shelf; the
name of the person waving at you down the street (along with
her social network connections and reputation score); the
comments and recommendations left by friends at a particular
coffee shop, or bar, or bookstore.
This world is almost vibrating
with information, and is likely to spawn as many efforts to
produce viable filtering tools as there are projects to
assign and recognize new data sources.
Lastly, we have Life-logging,
which brings together Augmentation and Intimate
Here, the systems record and
report the states and life histories of objects and users,
enhancing observation, recall, and communication. I've
sometimes talked about one version of this as the
Here, the observation tools of an Augmented Reality
world get turned inward, serving as an adjunct memory.
Life-logging systems are
less apt to be attuned to the digital comments left at a bar
than to the spoken words of the person at the table next to
you. These tools would be used to capture both the practical
and the ephemeral, like where you left your car in the lot
and what it was that made your spouse laugh so much. Such
systems have obvious political implications, such as
catching a candidate's gaffe or a bureaucrat's corruption.
But they also have significant
personal implications: what does the world look like when we
know that everything we say or do is likely to be recorded?
This underscores a deep concern that
crosses the boundaries of all four scenarios: trust.
"Trust" encompasses a variety of key issues:
protecting privacy and being
information and transaction
critically, honesty and
It wouldn't take much effort to turn all
four of these scenarios into
The common element of the malevolent
versions of these societies would be easy to spot: widely divergent
levels of control over and access to information, especially
personal information. The ultimate importance of these scenarios
isn't just the technologies they describe, but the societies that
So what do these tell us about a
Second disclaimer time: although I worked with John and Jerry on the
original Metaverse scenarios, they should not be blamed for any of
Across the four Metaverse scenarios, we can see a variety of
ways in which the addition of an intelligent system would enhance
the user's experience. Dumb non-player characters and repetitive
bots in virtual worlds, for example, might be replaced by virtual
people essentially indistinguishable from characters controlled by
Efforts to make sense of the massive
flows of information in a Mirror World setting would be
enormously enhanced with the assistance of sophisticated machine
analyst. Augmented Reality environments would thrive with
truly intelligent agent systems, knowing what to filter and what to
emphasize. In a life-logging world, an intelligent companion
in one's mobile or wearable system would be needed in order to
figure out how to index and catalog memories in a personally
meaningful way; it's likely that such a system would need to learn
how to emulate your own thought processes, becoming a virtual
None of these systems would truly need to be self-aware,
self-modifying intelligent machines - but in time, each could lead
to that point.
But if the potential benefits of these scenaric worlds would be
enhanced with intelligent information technology, so too would the
dangers. Unfortunately, avoiding dystopian outcomes is a challenge
that may be trickier than some may expect - and is one with direct
implications for all of our hopes and efforts for bringing about a
future that would benefit human civilization, not end it.
It starts with a basic premise: software is a human construction.
That's obvious when considering code
written by hand over empty pizza boxes and stacks of paper coffee
cups. But even the closest process we have to entirely
computer-crafted software - emergent, evolutionary code - still
betrays the presence of a human maker: evolutionary algorithms may
have produced the final software, and may even have done so in ways
that remain opaque to human observers, but the goals of the
evolutionary process, and the selection mechanism that drives the
digital evolution towards these goals, are quite clearly of human
To put it bluntly, software, like all technologies, is inherently
ven the most disruptive technologies, the innovations
and ideas that can utterly transform society, carry with them the
legacies of past decisions, the culture and history of the societies
that spawned them. Code inevitably reflects the choices, biases and
desires of its creators.
This will often be unambiguous and visible, as with digital rights
management. It can also be subtle, as with operating system routines
written to benefit one application over its competitors (I know some
of you in this audience are old enough to remember "DOS isn't done
'til Lotus won't run").
Sometimes, code may be written to
reflect an even more dubious bias, as with the allegations of voting
machines intentionally designed to make election-hacking easy for
those in the know. Much of the time, however, the inclusion of
software elements reflecting the choices, biases and desires of its
creators will be utterly unconscious, the result of what the coders
deem obviously right.
We can imagine parallel examples of the ways in which metaverse
technologies could be shaped by deeply-embedded cultural and
the obvious, such as
life-logging systems that know to not record
digitally-watermarked background music and television
the subtle, such as
augmented reality filters that give added visibility to
sponsors, and make competitors harder to see
the malicious, such as
mirror world networks that accelerate the rupture between
the information haves and have-nots - or, perhaps more
correctly, between the users and the used
and, again and again, the
unintended-but-consequential, such as virtual world
environments that make it impossible to build an avatar that
reflects your real or desired appearance, offering only
virtual bodies sprung from the fevered imagination of
So too with what we today talk about as
The degree to which human software
engineers actually get their hands dirty with the nuts & bolts of
AI code is secondary to the basic condition that humans will
guide the technology's development, making the choices as to which
characteristics should be encouraged, which should be suppressed or
ignored, and which ones signify that "progress" has been made.
Whatever the degree to which
post-singularity intelligences would be able to reshape their own
minds, we have to remember that the first generation will be our
creations, built with interests and abilities based upon our
choices, biases and desires.
This isn't intrinsically bad; emerging digital minds that reflect
the interests of their human creators is a lever that gives us a
real chance to make sure that a "singularity" ultimately benefits
us. But it holds a real risk. Not that people won't know that
there's a bias: we've lived long enough with software bugs and
so-called "computer errors" to know not to put complete trust in the
pronouncements of what may seem to be digital oracles.
The risk comes from not being able to
see what that bias might be.
Many of us rightly worry about what might happen with "Metaverse"
systems that analyze our life logs, that monitor our every step and
word, that track our behavior online so as to offer us the safest
possible society - or best possible spam. Imagine the risks
associated with trusting that when the creators of emerging self-
aware systems say that they have our best interests in mind,
they mean the same thing by that phrase that we do.
For me, the solution is clear.
Trust depends upon transparency
Transparency, in turn, requires
We need an Open Singularity
At minimum, this means expanding the
conversation about the shape that a singularity might take beyond a
self-selected group of technologists and philosophers. An "open
access" singularity, if you will.
Dr. Kurzweil's books are a solid first
step, but the public discourse around the singularity concept
needs to reflect a wider diversity of opinion and perspective.
If the singularity is as likely and as globally, utterly
transformative as many here believe, it would be profoundly
unethical to make it happen without including all of the
stakeholders in the process - and we are all stakeholders in the
World-altering decisions made without taking our vast array of
interests into account are intrinsically flawed, likely fatally so.
They would become catalysts for conflicts, potentially even the
triggers for some of the "existential threats" that may arise from
transformative technologies. Moreover, working to bring in diverse
interests has to happen as early in the process as possible.
Balancing and managing a global diversity of needs won't be easy,
but it will be impossible if democratization is thought of as a
bolt-on addition at the end.
Democracy is a messy process. It requires give-and-take, and
an acknowledgement that efficiency is less important than
We may not have an answer now as to how to do this, how to
democratize the singularity. If this is the case - and I suspect
that it is - then we have added work ahead of us. The people who
have embraced the possibility of a singularity should be working at
least as hard on making possible a global inclusion of interests as
they do on making the singularity itself happen.
All of the talk of "friendly AI" (AI
Artificial Intelligence) and "positive singularities" will be
meaningless if the only people who get to decide what that means are
the few hundred of us in this room.
My preferred pathway would be to "open source" the singularity, to
bring in the eyes and minds of millions of collaborators to examine
and co-create the relevant software and models, seeking out flaws
and making the code more broadly reflective of a variety of
interests. Such a proposal is not without risks. Accidents will
happen, and there will always be those few who wish to do others
But the same is true in a world of
proprietary interests and abundant secrecy, and those are
precisely the conditions that can make effective responses to
looming disasters difficult. With an open approach, you have
millions of people who know how dangerous technologies work, know
the risks that they hold, and are committed to helping to detect,
defend and respond to crises.
That these are, in Bill Joy's
term, "knowledge-enabled" dangers means that knowledge also enables
our defense; knowledge, in turn, grows faster as it becomes more
This is not simply speculation; we've
seen time and again, from digital security to the global response to
SARS, that open access to information-laden risks ultimately makes
them more manageable.
The metaverse roadmap offers a glimpse of what the next
decade might hold, but does so recognizing that the futures it
describes are not end-points, but transitions. The choices we make
today about commonplace tools and everyday technologies will shape
what's possible, and what's imaginable, with the generations of
technologies to come.
If the singularity is in fact near, the
fundamental tools of information, collaboration and access will be
our best hope for making it happen in a way that spreads its
benefits and minimizes its dangers - in short, making it happen in a
way that lets us be good ancestors.
If we're willing to try, we can create a future, a singularity,
that's wise, democratic and sustainable - a future that's open.
The shape of tomorrow remains in our
grasp, and will be determined by the choices we make today.