Enter the Matrix: the metaverse will help solve Earth's big problems

A brain-powered virtual world could harness our collective intelligence for good - or evil

The Matrix is here. I’ll pull some strands together and I think you’ll agree.

Exhibit 1: the metaverse. That digital space where much of our lives may be lived is becoming a reality. In due course, built by technology giants like Facebook (sorry, Meta), Tencent, Snap and Microsoft, the metaverse will combine digital with virtual reality. Things like non-fungible tokens, digital currencies and experiences will be available to buy from the corporations from which we regularly buy goods and services in the "real" world. Nike, for example, indicated its intent to make and sell virtual branded sneakers and apparel in a recent trademark application.

Exhibit 2: neural interfaces. I have written about these before. These are technologies that connect our brains to digital devices. There have been massive strides relatively recently as well-funded private sector startups have joined the field and made significant progress in connective hardware and our understanding of parts of the brain. Some of such startups were acquired by established tech players. Specifically, Facebook purchased Ctrl-Labs in late 2019. Separately, US-based scientists reported in early October their success in mapping all of the brain cells associated with movement – the motor cortex.

Exhibit 3a: our bodies. These can be understood as a neural interface – a device that allows our brains to interact with the world. It is a biological interface, capable of taste, touch, hearing, smell and vision. In due course the neural interfaces from Exhibit 2 should plug straight into our brains and be capable of replicating the sensations of the functions of the body.

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We could pause our consuming and gas-emitting bodies only to re-awaken them in a world where solutions were found and implemented.

Exhibit 3b: our brains. It appears that neurons, which fire the brainwaves to produce our thoughts and feelings, do not age quite like the rest of us. In 2013, neuroscientists at Yale University demonstrated that mice's brains were able to live twice as long as their bodies. Our own minds, scientists suspect, can also survive far longer than our bodies.

Pulling these exhibits together, it is not difficult to see how, in decades or centuries to come, our brains alone, without the need for bodies, are fully connected to a life-like virtual world.

With my sci-fi cap on, it’s not hard to imagine a battery of jars housing our connected brains. The space to hold the sum total of humanity’s brains would not need to be that much, either as each jar would need to be less than 20 centimetres on each side.

Just imagine: with good enough neural interfaces, we would not even know that we were body-less, because all experiences feel so “real”. This, moreover, would be quite an ecological solution to life, while allowing our lives to be so much longer.

Our life as a metaverse-connected-brain-in-a-jar would not be passive.

We would work, code, harvest, produce and consume, as much as we are now and billions of times more. But without the commute. Our interaction with AI and software would be much closer and more seamless, as there would be parts of the metaverse maintained and serviced by programmes. We might not even know they were programmes, so good is their probability-driven, machine-learning-based, rational decision-making.

But, most importantly: would we want that? Is this imagined way of life a dystopia or a utopia?

Consider this: given the choice, none of us would have decided 20 years ago to want to interact with one another onscreen, be exposed to divisive fake news or really care about some influencer’s opinion about hedgehog-flavoured crisps.

Dystopia is only possible if we make it so – and I acknowledge we appear more than capable.

But the brain-powered metaverse could also be a form of collective intelligence used for good. We could come together to solve problems that affect all of humanity. We could pause our consuming and gas-emitting bodies only to re-awaken them in a world where solutions were found and implemented. Virtual reality and remote machine operation would be our tools and means to improve the world and fix what’s broken. People – their brains – could be kept safe until the world is a better place. It could be like landing on a new planet that’s fit for living.

I am not advocating a collective move to living in a jar. Far from it.

In keeping with the mandate of the Dubai Future Foundation, I am saying that we need to anticipate technologies that may have an impact on our lives. We must anticipate the combination of emerging technologies: the metaverse will not exist in isolation, like neural interfaces will co-exist with other technologies.

I see these coming together and I see the opportunity and the obligation to provide a steer towards the common good.

We live in an era of stupendous innovation and today’s reality is unfamiliar to people of two generations ago. We are not on autopilot to a future decided by tech developers. We can shape the future to our needs and a radically different future ahead, that of ditching our bodies and unleash our brains to solve the problems of the planet, may be one of the options ahead.

There is always the option of settling on another planet, shipping ourselves there and hoping that it will sustain us long enough. But there surely must be a better, third way, which may simply mean that we will anticipate the implications of the Matrix and decide against developing it altogether. Developing a technology that has no clear social benefit, and doing so simply because we can profit, should not be reason enough.

Published: November 9th 2021, 5:00 AM
Patrick Noack

Patrick Noack

Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation