Already used by many businesses, the metaverse has also come onto International Geneva’s radar, both in regulating the virtual tool and in using it to enhance its own operations.
Taking to the stage last February at the Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona, Amandeep Singh Gill, the United Nations’ tech envoy, closed his intervention with a call for more responsibility in the industry involved in developing technologies for the metaverse.
His final questions to the audience attending the digital and tech world’s biggest event resonated like a wake-up call for an industry often in awe over its “move fast and break things” motto.
“When you are spending X dollars on hardware, software, platforms and user interfaces, how much of that X are you going to spend on governance and safeguards?” he queried.
Reminding the audience about the profound societal implication of the metaverse, he invited them to involve ethics, behavioral science, psychology and child psychiatry experts during its development phase.
And to challenge the gospel of tech solutionism, he then closed his speech with the following questions: “When you are going to put something on the metaverse, can you please ask yourself, is it really necessary? Is that a problem that needs to be solved on the metaverse? Can it be solved differently?”
The metaverse is a fusion between immersive technologies like augmented reality (AG) and virtual reality (VR), and the web. It creates a 3D virtual world in which people use avatars – a digital image of oneself – to engage in activities such as games, business and even to undergo surgery.
According to the global consultancy firm, McKinsey, more than $120 billion were invested in the metaverse in 2022, more than double the $57 billion invested in 2021. Gartner, a technology research firm, predicts that by 2026, 30 per cent of real-world businesses will be able to offer metaverse-related goods and services. The sector is expected to contribute to the global economy up to $5 trillion by 2030, equivalent to the size of Japan's economy.
While the metaverse's infrastructure is still under construction, international Geneva is already paving the way to harness its potential as a global, interconnected, immersive and real-time online space, capable of merging the physical world with augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences. Researchers, educators, policymakers, and digital designers are taking part in discussions at the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) newly established working group on the metaverse, seminars at the World Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo) and the World Economic Forum's own initiative.
As part of the UN’s 75th anniversary, member states identified the acceleration of digital cooperation as one of its 12 agreed commitments, making it the first time digital moved to the front of the international policy agenda.
UN secretary general António Guterres' subsequent report dubbed Our Common Agenda ushered the idea of a Global Digital Compact to set the common principles for the future of the digital world. While underlining the importance of the digital space, he stresses the need for protection in that space and to bolster governance.
Public consultations on the initiative are currently being led by tech envoy Singh Gill’s office till 30 April, before presenting it at the UN’s Summit of the Future due to take place in New York in September 2024. The compact, which should address frontier technologies like AI, intelligent networks and virtual reality, will be a governance instrument that is not legally-binding.
A virtual international ecosystem?
Meanwhile, Unitar, the Geneva-based UN agency that provides training to least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), has begun to experiment with the metaverse. For its 60th anniversary at the end of 2023, it plans to blow out the candles in both the physical world and the metaverse. It plans to set up a virtual art gallery, displaying artwork backed by NFTs – uniquely digital certificates that confirm ownership and authenticity –, with sales proceeds to fund UN sustainability projects.
“Democratisation of accessibility is our guiding principle,” Juliana Cossa, Unitar’s head of digital innovation told Geneva Solutions following a panel at the recent World Summit on the Information Society Forum, one of the largest annual information communications technology gathering for the development sector.
“We are not creating a metaverse as a learning centre for now. We're using the metaverse as a digital extension to the physical event to support countries unable to come to Geneva, where we can learn what's happening in countries and can have the key facts and figures about Unitar,” Cossa explained. “Because some people are not aware of what we do.”
Aid groups too have begun to venture into this tech realm. The medical humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has begun using a 360-degree environment VR programme to train nurses and medical doctors. Since 2019, the tool has been used in a number of African countries, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Niger, Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon and Nigeria.
“VR is an immersive experience in a safe and secure environment, allowing for trials and errors,” Marie Clarisse, MSF's pediatric nurse trainer and learning designer told Geneva Solutions. She explained however that the VR programme was not meant to be used on its own, but intended to complement existing training programmes. “It is a helpful tool to practice simulation, as we can also do it with mannequins and scenarios, which are common in medical learning.”
Experts agree with the need for agencies to gradually proceed into the metaverse. “International organisations should experiment with these technologies but should not expect important results in the short term,” said Anthony Masure, associate professor at the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD). But he warned it was just “the beginning of a ten-year process of improvements of these technologies. We have to be careful.”
Challenges and issues ahead
The vast volume of data used in the metaverse has nonetheless raised numerous data protection and security concerns. Twenty minutes spent in a virtual reality environment may yield two million data points about the user.
An exponential increase in data acquisition, transmission and storage will need substantial investments in digital infrastructure, particularly in developing nations.
For Bilel Jamoussi, chief of the study groups at the ITU’s standardisation office, the metaverse offers a “new frontier” with interesting applications in training and capacity building. But he added that a challenge will prevail for developing countries, particularly in LDCs which still lack basic connectivity.
“Having the conversation around the metaverse and other applications is going to be important to help guide the implementation and the connectivity of those countries so that they are not left behind for basic digital services and take advantage of what the metaverse will offer,” he said.
Jean-Marc Seigneur of the Medi@LAB of the University of Geneva, shared the concern. In the poorest countries, the availability and the high cost of devices like VR headsets can also contribute to widening the digital gap, he said. But these devices may not be the only option, with smartphones, laptops and other future technologies also offering a way to interact with the metaverse.
Another challenge is how the technology could be used for harmful purposes. In a recent report, Europol detailed how the metaverse can be used for example to commit crimes against children, harass victims, spread false information, counterfeiting, radicalise people, or conduct mass surveillance.
Survival through the virtual world
The future success of the metaverse lies in the ability to find solutions to these problems while leveraging metaverse-based solutions that may have a positive impact on communities.
For some small countries, the metaverse is proving to be an innovative tool to raise awareness of their problems and offer services to their citizens living abroad.
At the Cop27 climate summit in November, Tuvalu announced that it was seeking alternative methods to safeguard the country's cultural patrimony from rising sea levels caused by climate change. One is through duplicating the island in the metaverse. During high tide, up to 40 per cent of the South Pacific island nation's capital district is submerged, while the entire nation is predicted to go underwater by the end of the century.
Barbados, the Caribbean island nation, decided in 2021 instead to open an embassy on the metaverse, without replacing physical ones. “The embassy is a small thing. The big thing is what governments can do together when land is no longer physical land, and limitations are no longer part of the equation,” said Gabriel Abed, Barbados' ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
“A lot of the items are still sort of science fiction in the metaverse but they are rapidly moving into reality,” said Jamoussi from the ITU’s standardisation unit.
“I want to put caution around the hype of the metaverse as we're still in a nascent phase. It’s important today to have an open platform for dialogue. By doing that, I think we will be able to make good use of the metaverse to achieve the SDGs.”