“The Metaverse in 2040”: Experts predict the future of presence-evoking technologies

[The post below is a mashup of Elon University’s summary of a new Pew Research/Elon report about the possible futures of presence-evoking technologies, and the introduction to the extremely long full report from the Pew Research website. See the original versions of either or both sources for many more details about the methods, participants, findings and quotations from the report. –Matthew]

The Metaverse in 2040

Hype? Hope? Hell? Maybe all three. Experts are split about the likely evolution of a truly immersive ‘metaverse.’ They expect that augmented- and mixed-reality enhancements will become more useful in people’s daily lives. Many worry that current online problems may be magnified if Web3 development is led by those who built today’s dominant web platforms

By Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie
June 30, 2022

Interest in the idea of the metaverse leaped in 2021-2022, prompted in part by Facebook’s decision to rebrand itself as “Meta.” The word was coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in 1992 in his novel “Snow Crash.” In today’s terms, the metaverse is the realm of computer-generated, networked extended reality, or XR, an acronym that embraces all aspects of augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality (AR, MR and VR). At this point in time, the metaverse is generally made up of somewhat- immersive XR spaces in which interactions take place among humans and automated entities. Some are daily interactions with augmented-reality apps that people have on their computers and phones. Some are interactions taking place in more-immersive domains in gaming or fantasy worlds. Some occur in “mirror worlds” that duplicate real-life environments.

While extended-reality gaming and social spaces have been in existence for decades, early 2020s technological advances and societal transformations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed the development of the metaverse to the forefront, inspiring tens of billions of dollars in new investments and prompting predictions that the metaverse is “the future of the internet” or “the next internet battleground.”

Proponents of XR and the development of more-advanced and immersive, 3D, online worlds say its rapid evolution is likely to benefit all aspects of society – education, health care, gaming and entertainment, the arts, social and civic life and other activities. They believe the infusion of more data into people’s experiences, progress in artificial intelligence (AI) assistive systems and the creation of entirely new spaces and experiences for tech users could enrich and expand their lives. Of course, as with all digital tech, there are concerns about the health, safety, security, privacy and economic implications of these new spaces. This has spurred a great deal of speculation about what the maturing of XR and the metaverse will look like and what that means for society.

This heightened interest and investment in extended reality prompted Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center to ask hundreds of technology experts to share their insights on the topic. In all, 624 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists provided open-ended responses to a question seeking their predictions about the trajectory and impact of the metaverse by 2040. The results of this nonscientific canvassing:

  • 54% of these experts said that they expect by 2040 the metaverse WILL be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally.
  • 46% said that they expect by 2040 the metaverse WILL NOT be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally.

These experts were asked to elaborate on their multiple-choice answers in an open-ended question that invited their views about both the positive and negative aspects of the digital world to come. Two broad themes emerged in those written remarks. First, a notable share of these experts argued that the embrace of extended reality in people’s daily lives by 2040 will be centered around augmented-reality and mixed-reality tools, not in the more-fully-immersive virtual reality worlds many people define today as being “the metaverse.” Second, they warned that these new worlds could dramatically magnify every human trait and tendency – both the bad and the good. They especially focused their concerns on the ability of those in control of these systems to redirect, restrain or thwart human agency and stifle people’s ability to self-actualize through exercise of free will, and they worried over the future freedom of humans to expand their native capacities.

The key themes these experts voiced in their written responses are outlined in the three following tables. The first table outlines further details tied to the two broad themes mentioned above. The second describes the five most-mentioned reasons that the metaverse is likely to be much more advanced and more broadly adopted by 2040. The third describes the five most-mentioned reasons it will not be.

TABLE ONE: Two overarching insights about the future of the metaverse

These themes anchored many experts’ predictions as they considered the metaverse in 2040:

  • Augmented- and mixed-reality applications will dominate over virtual-reality advances: Some argued that the most-popular technological enhancements will be tied to augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) systems. They said people will find those advances particularly appealing because they will expand upon real-world experiences and improve users’ daily lives by making reality more understandable and interesting. Most of these experts said they expect that broader adoption of virtual reality (VR) will be limited to enthusiastic but smaller user bases, especially gamers and entertainment seekers and in select business, medical, education and training settings.
  • The next-generation networked-knowledge ecosystem can be built in ways that better serve people than the current web does: A share of these experts argued that coming tech advances in metaverse technologies will magnify all human activities, including the problems now associated with the current Web 2.0 environment. They said the immersive properties of the metaverse could raise significant threats to human agency and human rights as “surveillance capitalism” expands and authoritarian governments take advantage of these new technologies.

TABLE TWO: Five insights from those who predict the metaverse will be significantly advanced by 2040

Half of the expert respondents to this canvassing said extended-reality (XR) applications and the networking needed to facilitate their broad adoption will advance significantly by 2040. They expect that extended reality will be much more sophisticated by then due to these factors:

  • Profit motives are driving significant investment in advancing these technologies: The primary force driving investment in technological development has always been the opportunity for people to profit from its success. Expect rapid development of XR because of its massive commercial potential.
  • Compared with today, far more people will find the metaverse useful enough to access it daily: Those who expect XR to advance significantly by 2040 believe it will be broadly adopted in many realms in addition to its current niches. As with any technology, the use cases include positives and negatives.
  • The technology to create an immersive universe is possible by 2040: Yes, software, hardware, user interfaces and network capability could be advanced enough within the next 18 years to make a much-improved, more broadly adopted metaverse possible.
  • The pandemic gave XR development a big boost: Experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated demand for and investment in new and improved online tools, especially in health, business and educational settings.
  • There are any number of potential positive and delightful uses of XR: These experts highlighted a wide-ranging number of activities and services that could be offered in metaverse spaces, including rich learning experiences; remote medical procedures; disaster-response flexibility; creation of new kinds of communities; expanded venues for commercial exchanges; a flowering of creativity in the arts and fashion; fully automated encounters with smart agents handling such things as accounting, professional training and mental health counseling; interactions with famous people; playing-field experiences with prominent athletes; and travel to exotic and fun locales (e.g., archeological digs, mountaintops, historic scenes, beaches, museums, far-off galaxies and other-worldly places).

TABLE THREE: Five insights from those who predict the metaverse will not advance significantly by 2040

About half of the expert respondents said advances in full-immersion XR settings will not come to widespread use in people’s daily lives by 2040. They made these arguments:

  • It will not be seen as useful in daily life: A portion of these experts pointed out that quite a few immersive augmented and/or virtual spaces already exist and are only attracting niche participants. They contend the considerable majority of people will not see enough life-enhancing use cases in the prospects of fuller XR to want to become more fully immersed.
  • The technology needed to reach a lot more people will not be ready in 2040: Upgrades in software, hardware, user interfaces and network capability will not be advanced enough to lure mass audiences into fuller immersion by 2040. The gear is likely to remain less than user-friendly, large spaces are required to maneuver in VR, and there will continue to be problems with network latency and bandwidth.
  • People prefer living in layers of ‘real’ reality: Most people will continue to find full immersion in VR unappealing – not just due to clunky equipment, high cost or bad connectivity, but because they don’t want to be immersed, preferring being mostly absorbed in the real world.
  • Public worries about the impact of surveillance capitalism and abuse by authoritarian regimes will slow or stop adoption: A number of these experts predict that people will not be willing to invest their time and energy in virtual spaces in which they can be further manipulated and surveilled by corporate and/or authoritarian interests.
  • There are any number of threatening and harmful uses of XR: These experts noted a number of problems that may worsen or arise in metaverse spaces, including reductions in autonomy and people’s ability to control their lives; worsening digital divides; amplified discrimination; new forms of harassment, bullying and hate; new menaces to public safety, especially around sexual violence and exploitation; more avenues for misinformation (especially tied to clever fakes); deeper levels of addiction to metaverse activities; distractions that dissociate people from real life and induce loneliness (or worse); new threats to users’ personal data; and further commercialization and further monetization of basic human activities.

Among the most intriguing predictions from those canvassed were the following:

  • Avi Bar-Zeev said digital systems will perform ever-more-sophisticated analyses of how people think and feel about people and other elements of their lives, their private political and spiritual thoughts, their emotional triggers. “We’ve turned people into data mines and no longer truly free-thinking individuals.”
  • Glynn Rogers predicted virtual extraterrestrial travel based on imagery constructed from a multitude of spacecraft sensors, “in which virtual craft can be flown, driven or sailed through environments in which humans could exist only with the most extraordinary aids.” And Gary Arlen noted that alternative cyber environments will allow people to virtually go inside humans, animals or machines.
  • Jim Spohrer noted that “digital twins” will often function as people’s alter egos in multiple worlds. And Melissa Sassi noted that having a digital twin in health care will be incredibly powerful when it comes to predictive modeling of diseases and sharing patient data across healthcare providers.
  • Barry Chudakov said he expects that immersive mirror-world environments may raise enough psychological issues that “psychiatrists and counselors will be called in to help people cope with multiple-self syndrome.”
  • Gina Neff called for a redrafting of fundamental social contracts about trust and democracy, noting that powerful narratives in the metaverse will combine new ways of experiencing social connection with new forms of “trustless trust” from the hundreds of little contracts and exchanges people are asked to enter into every day.
  • Stephen Downes predicted that in 2040 it will not be possible for most people to distinguish between avatars representing humans and artificial intelligences, adding that there will be “convincing impersonations and worse.”
  • Rahul Saxena said he expects a “Super-Metaverse” of tech enhancements that help people augment their work, for instance using imaging and actuators to perform surgeries. But some will choose to live in a “Fantasy-Metaverse” that “prefers gullible consumption over critical thinking,” and he warned that “the shifts to the Fantasy-Metaverse will be like the unleashing of an opium super-epidemic.”
  • Alexander B. Howard warned it is possible that a “metaverse could empower authoritarians to track, control and coerce billions of humans in silicon prisons ringed by invisible barbed wire, governed by opaque algorithmic regulation and vast artificial intelligences.”


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