Global efforts to speed up the development of the metaverse are kicking off, and the UAE had the vision to be a first-mover and now finds itself at their forefront. This week, the potential of this technology, possibly the most transformative to be developed thus far in the Internet Age, was fleshed out at the Dubai Metaverse Assembly, a gathering of 500 experts, members of the metaverse community, government officials and private sector representatives.
The metaverse concept is essentially a parallel, virtual and augmented universe. Proponents of the digital world think that developing it could change humanity forever. Some say it has already started to do that.
It has influential backers, notably Mark Zuckerberg, of what was formerly Facebook, and now, in a nod to new priorities, Meta. The company will launch its enhanced VR headset, needed for accessing the metaverse, later this year.
Some governments, including the UAE's, are also taking note. Dubai has announced a metaverse strategy, which aims to create 40,000 jobs and add $4 billion to the emirate's economy.
With such a radical idea comes great variety. At the Metaverse assembly, topics up for discussion ranged from the technology's potential role in aviation, to the possible creation of a Barbados Metaverse Embassy. For those who couldn’t make it in person, there was even the option of attending in the metaverse.
Beyond hosting meetings, the Emirates is pushing development by encouraging government departments to think about how the technology could help them. The UAE Ministry of Economy unveiled its new headquarters in the metaverse, or a "third address", at the forum. It is supposed to complement the work of physical offices. Dubai has even said it will start to measure "GMP", gross metaverse product.
With all this in mind, the potential is awe inspiring. But the UAE is also using its position at the heart of the technology to have more practical conversations, too. For example, it has set up a Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority and often hosts discussions on the role of governments and regulators in these sphere.
However, globally much work remains to be done. Accessing the metaverse will require an internet connection, and a good one at that, too. The IMF says that: "half of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet, either through a mobile device or through fixed line broadband." If the metaverse becomes so powerful, global inequality will only be driven if it is the reserve of a lucky few.
There are also safeguarding issues. The internet's development is an important lesson in the need to not only get caught up in the optimism of innovation. The web has enriched our lives, but there have been and still are terrible instances of abuse, and the world often is forced to play catch in clamping down on them. A key theme at the forum was regulating the brave new world of Web 3.0, which is upon us.
None of this is a reason to block progress, which, frankly, is inevitable and can be an important force for good. It is instead a call for those who have the ambition and foresight to start having these important conversations now, so that the metaverse can be rolled out with as much safeguarding in place as possible.
At the forum, the UAE is demonstrating it aims to be one of these central countries. It is preparing itself for a long, exciting and profitable journey. One speaker at the event describe the current state of the field as "the early 90s in internet terms". Thinking about the metaverse today, therefore, could hardly be a better long-term investment.