In conversation with BW Businessworld, Rakesh Ravuri (CTO, SVP Engineering at Publicis Sapient) delves deep into the topic of Metaverse and its impact on humanity at large. During the conversation, Ravuri also discusses the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in metaverse and how regulations could play a big part in ensuring that the technology is developed, used in a way that benefits the public and not monopolised.
What kind of impact can we expect economically with metaverse in the picture? Could you give us some numbers and statistics?
There are several reports to suggest the socio-economic impact metaverse will enable globally. According to a recent report by Gartner, by 2026, 30 per cent of the organisations in the world will have products and services ready for metaverse.
The way I see it, the economy at the end of the day is built on the foundation of making transactions.
When trade began in ancient times, we evolved from a barter system, to using gold as currency, and then introducing paper money, and finally introducing a digital economy. As barriers to these currencies began to thin out, economic activity flourished even more as a result. Similarly, in metaverse, there will be a monumental increase in the transaction of goods and services that were previously constrained by the physical world.
Set to become the third largest economy by 2030, India has a population that is young, digitally connected and ready for metaverse. This will naturally increase economic activity and spur growth.
Do you see metaverse having specific use cases that would work for India well?
Yes, definitely. As a country with second largest population in the world, there will be considerable activity in the metaverse from Indian audiences, which in turn will widen economic activity.
Metaverse could be used to deliver immersive and engaging educational experiences, which could help bridge the digital divide and make education more accessible to students in rural areas. For example, virtual classrooms and interactive simulations could be used to teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. It could also be used to deliver remote healthcare services, including telemedicine consultations, virtual therapy sessions, and remote monitoring of patients. It could potentially improve access to healthcare in remote areas and reduce the burden on overburdened healthcare systems. However, it is important to ensure that these experiences are accessible and inclusive, and that they are designed in a way that benefits all members of society.
What role will AI play to bring forth the era of Metaverse?
I like to call metaverse the equivalent of multi-verse. It’s immersive and dynamic nature has potential for application of many technologies. When we envision the metaverse, we immediately think of bulky headsets, giant VR goggles and more. But to make it a seamless experience, metaverse devices will need to have an interface more akin to minority report where you are not necessarily wearing them, but the devices around you adapt to the environment to enable virtual interactions. From that perspective, AI could very well be the most predominant technology to power automation and scalability.
I foresee AI being leveraged in multiple ways, but it stands to add most value in enhancing user experience and improving the functionality of virtual environments. The level of personalisation you can accomplish with AI in metaverse makes a compelling proposition where it can analyse user data and behavior to tailor recommendations and responses. Using generative AI with intelligent prompting can ensure seamless continuity in the metaverse and create navigation scenarios.
Picture this – how would your avatar interact with objects in your room in the metaverse? How do you create adaptive behaviors based on patterns learnt with increased use? The environment around us is constantly changing and evolving. Taking a cue from the world of gaming, NPCs (non-player characters) are taught to respond to stimuli through deep learning mechanisms. Similarly, think of this in a much larger universe consisting of impeccably real versions of cities, vegetation, architecture, and other spaces.
Another interesting aspect that makes the metaverse promising is creating equitable experiences that may not be possible on real life. For example, in a physical conference, people do not have a say in seating arrangements. In the metaverse you can dynamically configure seats, depending on the attendees, and create equitable experiences. The application of AI in this space presents significant scope and opportunity, as long as you can imagine.
What kind of computational upgrades would the world require to bring metaverse into the largescale?
Bringing the Metaverse into large-scale implementation, while ensuring a seamless experience would require significant upgrade in computational power and infrastructure given to the need to create and render complex virtual environments. The underlying hardware will need powerful processors, graphics cards, and storage systems. It will also require high-speed, low-latency networks to deliver immersive and interactive experiences – something that can be potentially accomplished as 5G attains more maturity to enable increased bandwidth, reduced latency, and improved network reliability.
Application of AI and machine learning algorithms will help create more realistic and engaging virtual environments and interactions. For metaverse to be truly mainstream, it needs to be persistent, social, limitless, reactive, interoperable, decentralised, and user defined.
Do you see metaverse technology getting controlled by the big techs, as it typically happens often in the tech sector?
Monopolies have long existed around us. Even during the dawn of the internet, the idea was to create an open and inclusive platform, and many tried to build walls. As with any new technology or innovation, there will be players who will want to create walled gardens.
In the tech sector, large companies have a history of dominating markets and controlling key technologies, and it is possible that this trend will continue in the metaverse space. Dominant players in this space could end up controlling access to key technologies or data, limit competition, or engage in anticompetitive behavior. There is also the possibility that they may prioritise profit over public interest, which could have negative consequences for users. If and when this happens, there may be a need for regulation to ensure that the technology is developed and used in a way that benefits the public.
Are regulators ready for the metaverse?
Before we dive into the regulatory aspects of the metaverse, let us take a step back and understand what metaverse truly entails. There have been various definitions of the term metaverse – from Meta’s take on immersive social experiences, to a few ambitious ones that deem metaverse as the new reality. To me, metaverse is a world beyond the one we live in. While many believe it to be far-fetched, the reality is that metaverse has already arrived. Hardcore gamers may point out that it has been around for a while, and it is gaining scrutiny now as it becomes more mainstream.
These immersive and dynamic virtual environments are still evolving, which makes it difficult to introduce governance as regulators need to wait till it reaches a wider adoption to identify areas that need to be regulated. The fact that these are vast, boundaryless universes, which are not really region specific, adds to its complexity. The preamble to implementing any regulation is to understand the timing so that it is well mapped in the interest of greater good.
Take e-commerce for example, regulators were quite late to arrive at the scene when it came to protecting consumers, ensuring fair competition, and promoting growth and sustainability before the industry took off. Between AI and metaverse, the former is fairly matured in relative terms, and yet, there are no regulations introduced when it comes to monitoring bias, ethics, and other similar factors. Essentially, introducing regulations need to be timed with the maturity of a certain industry, such that regulators can assess the pulse of the landscape before taking any steps.
Do you think Metaverse will alter the human social interactions in the longer run?
It is interesting to note that technology and innovation have impacted social interactions since time immemorial. Before the advent of transport, people interacted within a set, familiar environment. With the introduction of travel, people began moving farther distances. With the birth of internet and social media, we started to have interactions that were not governed by distance and boundaries.
The metaverse is not going to be any different and is certainly going to transform social interactions. The question remains whether this transformation will be for the better or worse. I am an optimist and continue to look at the bright side of things. For example, in the metaverse, people can create avatars to represent themselves in the virtual world, and they can use these avatars to communicate with others. This can be especially helpful for people who have disabilities or live in remote areas, as it allows them to interact with others in a way that may not be possible in the physical world.
That said, if the Metaverse is not inclusive and accessible to all, it could perpetuate existing inequalities and reinforce social hierarchies. There are also concerns around its potential for addiction and the impact on mental health, as people may spend more time in the virtual world and less time in the physical world. Like most things out there, metaverse can have both positive and negative impact on social interactions, and it boils down to individual choices.
Does metaverse bring sustainability in play?
Metaverse promises a pixelated distraction from the real world and one way it accomplishes this is by replicating digital twins. In the context of metaverse, digital twins can be used to create more realistic and immersive virtual environments that replicate real-world spaces or objects.
One potential use case of digital twin in the metaverse is in architecture and urban planning. Imagine your favorite clothing store being replicated in the metaverse in its precise layout, look, feel, and experience. Would you still travel miles from home to shop at this store or would you immerse yourself in the very same experience from the comfort of your home? By choosing not to commute, you are invariably contributing positively to sustainability.
Let’s take another example of large-scale events – concerts, expos, industry conferences, and festivals. These events generate tonnes of waste each year. When you recreate the exact same experiences in the metaverse, you are essentially saving on fuel and energy consumption, electricity, extensive wastage, and more.
On the other hand, if the metaverse outweighs the consumption of physical resources, then arises the question of long-term sustainability. Whether operating on cloud, or on a set of machines, there is a need to assess the expense of running a physical unit versus a fully digital one. The infrastructure used to power the metaverse could also very well lead to digital and computational waste, energy consumption of data centers, and servers that host these virtual environments, all of which can ultimately contribute to carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. As with any technology, it is important to consider both the potential benefits and drawbacks when assessing its impact on sustainability.
What is Publicis Sapient’s vision for the metaverse?
Publicis Sapient was built on our founder’s vision to enable businesses to leverage the internet as they believed it was going to be a true disruptor for businesses. The vision holds true even today as we look at the next in the evolution of digital. We are constantly exploring new ways to create value for customers and create impact by keeping digital at the core.
The metaverse is a natural evolution towards what we are already helping our clients accomplish. We are committed to enabling our clients in their foray into the metaverse and we have started the journey by helping them create solutions in the metaverse by building our own internal platforms. We recently partnered with BUXOM Cosmetics to launch BUXOM PlumpVerse in the virtual world of Decentraland. It allows users to explore, interact, and participate in a six-month long gamified experience. Users will be able to unlock unique monthly rewards, virtually try on newly launched BUXOM products leveraging an AR Filter, and more.