What’s the big fuss about the metaverse?

 

Photo by Julien Tromeur on Unsplash

Everybody is talking about the metaverse these days, especially since Mark Zuckerberg made a lot of noise about how he sees this new phenomenon enter and take hold of our lives like nothing we have known hitherto or are likely to know in the future. Experts and specialists, not to speak of laypeople have expounded how it is the new frontier to be explored by humans and spelt out their pet theories about how enabling and useful it is or how much of a dystopian nightmare it is likely to be. 

 What Exactly is the Metaverse? 

The term metaverse is the creation of sci-fi author Neal Stephenson who used it in his 1992 book, Snowcrash in which he created a world where avatars meet and interact with each other in a virtual reality environment.

Well, it so happened as is often the case-life imitated art or in this instance, real science imitated science fiction and many scientific and technological developments later we have a real metaverse- an online virtual universe which leverages the abilities of virtual reality, augmented reality, 3-D holographic avatars as well as video and other ways of communicating to help create an almost as-good- as-real world for one to inhabit alongside the actual real one.

Proponents of the metaverse believe that such a world would allow one to do all the important things that one does in the real world- working, entertaining and communicating with friends as well as attending concerts,  and travelling virtually to wherever one fancies. 

The Metaverse Exists 

The metaverse existed much before Zuckerberg explained its virtues to the world last year. Liden Lab came up with Second Life, an online virtual way of life back in 1992. 2003 saw the launch of Roblox, an online platform that enabled users to create and share games. This was followed by Bitcoin in 2006, the world’s very first successful cryptocurrency. In 2014 came Decentraland’s first edition of an online virtual world.

Then there was the iconic augmented reality-based Pokémon Go that came out in 2015. Fortnite, the multiplayer game cum social hub with its virtual concerts and tours was introduced in 2016. Axie Infinity the well-known virtual reality game about training as well as trading in mythical creatures made its debut in 2018 Microsoft announced Mesh a platform that enables virtual collaboration across many devices in April 2021. For the most part, however, gaming platforms like Mirandus, Sandbox and Decentraland typify the metaverse as it exists today.

How Will it Unfold?

While the jury is out about how the metaverse is going to impact us as it evolves and permeates every aspect of our lives in the years to come, the fact that it will change and grow is something of a foregone conclusion. The very fact that Zuckerberg decided to rename his iconic Facebook to Meta, tells you something about how much importance some very smart people accord to the metaverse and its ability to impact our lives in a seminal manner.

As a precursor of things to come, Facebook launched Workrooms, a platform for employees to attend virtual meetings in the shape of digital cartoon-like avatars by donning VR headsets. The only catch-the avatars haven’t yet been given legs. Gaming platform Roblox on the other hand has enabled virtual concerts performed by artists like Zara Larsson that have been attended by millions across the world-some even in nondescript towns no one has ever heard of. 

It is not just Facebook and Microsoft who are very gung- ho about the tremendous business enabling potential of the metaverse. The times ahead are likely going to see a lot of metaverse companies open shop, just like the advent of the Internet gave rise to a host of internet businesses that earlier went by the name of dot com companies. Just like it is de rigueur for all businesses to have a digital presence, one could see a metaverse strategy becoming an integral part of any company’s marketing plan. Already companies like Nike are looking at showcasing their products in the metaverse. 

The metaverse is essentially the future of the internet and like it, is likely to permeate every aspect of our lives in the foreseeable future. An amalgamation of a host of technologies that range from VR, AR and XR (extended reality) to edge computing, 5G, AI, new age internet satellite networks, GPUs and so on, the metaverse is going to radically alter the paradigm of the digital world as we currently know it.

It will impact every aspect of our lives in ways we probably won’t even begin to comprehend at this time. You can be sure that it will radically alter the way diverse sectors like manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, education, retail, entertainment, content creation and much more function and operate right now. 

What’s there to not like about the metaverse? 

 

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos

There is an awful lot of noise about the metaverse that has enveloped the world leaving many to wonder in awe what this new universe is all about and whether they have anything to fear from it. With the endorsement that it has received from the ever-controversial Zuckerberg and the fact that Microsoft plonked a mind-numbing $68.7 billion to acquire the video game Activision Blizzard a lot of people are genuinely worried about what the future holds for them in a world that seems more and more like what they show in the Matrix movie series. 

But do we need to fear the metaverse? There are many who would suggest that we indeed need to worry about what the future would hold for us if the metaverse would indeed become mainstream. They fear that it would eventually assume complete control of every aspect of its users rather than the other way round. The ability of this synthetically created universe to shape and direct daily life is to be deeply feared, according to them. Many believe and indeed dread that whoever controls the metaverse-corporations or governments, would exercise a vice-like grip over how people conduct their lives. 

The question is-are the fears justified? While there is certainly a case for exercising caution and placing safeguards to prevent its misuse, it is at the end of the day one more technology or a group of technologies that promises to bring about unprecedented improvements in the lives of people. Every such pathbreaking technology ranging from trains and telephones to television and aeroplanes was feared when it first made an appearance. But these fears proved largely groundless.  

While every successful technology may have some negatives associated with it, the capacity to infinitely changes mankind’s lot for the better invariably far outweighs any reservations about adopting it. Fearing change or anything new is human nature and there are those who even refuse the vaccine for Covid-19! The metaverse is undoubtedly a fascinating concept that holds tremendous promise in the coming years. We need to understand it, not fear it. 

 

Three Technology Trends Impacting the Future of Agile Remote Teams

Agile remote teams are an integral part of today’s employment scenario. This is no longer a subject of debate, for it has come to be recognized as a sign of the times across industries.  What’s of interest is the shape it is taking in today’s increasingly digitized work environment.  Let’s look at three emerging trends that indicate the shape of things to come.
   


Reimagining the Very Nature of Work


We are living in what is known as the on-demand economy where advances in technology have allowed individuals and organizations to connect and liaise in ways that were unimaginable not all that time ago. According to the U.S. Census, the number of companies with zero employees has gone up from 18.7 million in 2003 to 23 million in 2013, including employees earning a living as independent  contractors[1].
Similarly, other independent research found that the number of workers in what was termed “alternate arrangements” increased by 6% between 2005 and 2015. It is quite evident that in the coming years, individuals will increasingly come forward to offer services as independent contractors to an ever-growing customer base.
What we know as the gig economy will grow to encompass the personal services economy. This encompasses things like food delivery and personal transportation. This type of employment could be more in the shape of secondary or temporary jobs, in light of the fact that increasing automation may make it possible for these service providers to hire fewer people.
2.      Collaboration is the Key to Getting Tasks and Goals Accomplished

Collaboration as a means to solve business problems and enhance productivity is here to stay. This makes it necessary for organizations to strategically leverage knowledge, across their resources. They can do this, by way of seamless and organically evolved collaborative tools that substantially enhance the remote employees’ ability to work together at superior levels of efficiency.
A key factor in this is the evolution of communications tools that empower people to create their own unique content, rather than rely on standard templates. At the same time, they need the kind of tools that enable them to connect across the organizations and leverage their intellectual prowess, as also receive insights from their colleagues. A case in point is the many VR and AR tools used by field services personnel to communicate with their operations team.
3.      Workplace Flexibility Driving Productivity

There is evidence provided by research that workplace flexibility is directly proportionate to productivity. However, for this to be practically viable on a consistent basis, something needs to be taken care of. The most significantly important thing that an organization can do for their remote employees is, cross-train them.
This will help them acquire a myriad of skills that will not only lead to the optimal utilization of their services within the organization but also enhance their productivity elsewhere. A pilot flexibility project carried out by a banking/financial services company found that there were marked improvements in various performance indicators. These included planning(37%), cross training(26%), more efficient workflow processes(21%) and more productive meetings(9%).
Similar findings were reported from a major U.S. Retail Store that offered flexibility to hourly workers and by Marriott which reported that workplace flexibility led to a substantial drop in low-value work.[2]


[1] https://www.nap.edu/read/24649/chapter/6#81
[2] http://workplaceflexibility.bc.edu/need/need_employers_performance

What Will Artificial Intelligence Be Like In 100 Years?

We have been fed on a steady stream of fictional information and imagery about what wicked aliens and extraterrestrials with extraordinary powers could do to poor hapless human in countless sci fi tales since the days of HG Wells. Of late the attention has turned closer home, what with artificial intelligence technology making an ubiquitous entry into our daily lives, thanks to smartphones, digital assistants, Uber, Google Maps and what not. While many worry about their jobs, there are those who talk about an existential crisis in the works. They fearfully point out the fact that AI is  inching closer to the Rubicon and the day is not far, when they will control us!

Alarmist propaganda aside, there is no doubt about the fact that the induction of AI into all kinds of processes, activities and products is causing  seminal changes in our lives. Of course, we have no choice but to accept these wholeheartedly, on account of the sheer advantages of doing so. But think for a moment, where this wholesale adoption of AI will take us. What will artificial intelligence be like in 100 years?

Let’s think this one through rationally and not give in to irrational fear mongering. Till date there has been no evidence to show that artificial intelligence has in any way proven detrimental to human beings, the dire warnings of eminent scientists like Stephen Hawking notwithstanding. Let us assume that AI evolves and ushers in a whole new paradigm of living for us. What would such a scenario appear to be like.

Elimination of every problem known to mankind-  According to some experts computers will equal human level intelligence sometime in the middle of this century. That really will be the tipping point. Artificial intelligence will likely be able to find smart and practical solutions for every major and small problem faced by humans including hunger, disease, environmental degradation, inequitable distribution of economic resources, transportation gridlocks, housing, and everything else that you can think of.

Humans will live in a kinder, nicer, and nurturing environment-  Already social media and digital assistants have shown us how we can leverage technology to emotionally connect with each other.  A hundred years from now  for instance, humans won’t face the problem of  having to take care of lonely and neglected seniors. They would likely be quite content in the company of machines that would be their friends, companions and counselors rolled into one.

Work will become redundant- Humans won’t have to work in a hundred years of now. The machines using their enhanced artificial intelligence would manage everything in the most optimal manner. For the first time in their history, mankind will experience leisure in the truest sense. What they would do with endless leisure time could be the subject of a PhD thesis? A hundred years from now the machines would probably have figured out what that could be. That in itself is a sobering thought and lends credence to the fears of the likes of Hawking and Elon Musk(who had also expressed his misgiving about unregulated growth of AI) Would we have ceded our control to the machines to decide what is best for us or would we still have oversight?

In any case, it is fascinating to imagine, what mankind would do with endless leisure. Engage in endless sport and gaming, dive deeper and deeper into the realm of philosophy or engage in further scientific research in collaboration with the machines to find out the greatest possible extent of human achievement? Would humans and machines together embark upon inter-stellar expansion and colonization or would they be happy with their earthly utopia?

Humans will integrate with machines- This is not as scary as it sounds. We are already relying on our smart phones for a host of things which needed us to get out of the house and physically take care of- things like banking, shopping, entertainment, even participating in international conferences. Hundred years from now it will be normal for human to integrate with machines on both a physical and mental level. We will have developed abilities and functions that would be truly super human by today’s standards.

Technology would have made us oblivious to injury and disease by augmenting and enhancing our limbs and organs, giving us extraordinary physical capabilities. The coming together of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, neuroscience and a slew of yet to be discovered technologies will bring us as close to an almost god-like existence as is possible. It will be a time when the virtual and real world will merge and become one. All the computer imagery that you might create would be real for you to experience.

Humans will achieve immortality- The eternal human quest for immortality will likely find fruition a century from now, albeit in a virtual form. But then there would be no distinction between the real and the virtual in that world. You would upload your consciousness, the sum of your memories and your very essence into the virtual world and live for an eternity. At to what sort of social consequences that could lead to could be the subject of a sci fi novel! 

Do Companies Need An Artificial Intelligence Strategy?

That artificial intelligence has had an enormous impact on the way business organizations conduct their affairs is already an undisputed fact.  In fact, the time has come for businesses of scale to seriously analyse the impact that artificial intelligence or AI is having on their businesses, so as to be able to optimally leverage its immense advantages. Rather than view it as a mere productivity or efficiency tool that they have to budget for, they should formulate an artificial intelligence strategy.

Advantages of Having an AI Strategy in Place

1.       BusinessPerspective– It is all very well to get enamored with new fangled terminology and think of inducting artificial intelligence technology into one’s business process like everyone else seems to be doing. But unless one is able to dove-tail it to one’s strategic business objective, one would have spent a fair amount of money without much reason.
With all the talk about how the adoption of AI technology is extremely important if businesses are to stay profitable in the digital era, having a well thought out strategy about optimally leveraging AI is the crucial first step. They have to be able to determine the value that the implementation of AI imparts to their organization before they actually invest in it.
   
2.    Putting Data to Good Use- Making sense of the vast amounts of data that businesses come by is right up the AI street. Ensuring that you deploy AI to make big data work for you has to be part of your AI strategy. It will allow your business to make sense of huge amounts of information about your customers in an optimally efficient manner.
3.       Engaging with Your Employees-With all the bad press that AI gets as a job killer you need to use AI to empower and grow your manpower along with the business. Like all technology, AI is best used as an enabler than this indiscriminate disruptor. Remember we are talking about intelligence here, not brawn. A smart AI strategy will enable you to do just that.
4.       Artificial Intelligence Is All About Training- AI starts off with what may be termed bare algorithms, which in a sense acquire intelligence, only after receiving training, working with vast amounts of company data. This is something that many people who are thinking of going in for AI have no clue about. An AI strategy can help one obtain a better grasp of the implementation roll out.
5.       Learning to Organize AI- Important as proficiency in data management is for the successful implementation of AI,  the ability to organize it in a manner that people from different disciplines are able to work in tandem with AI experts is just as significant. To be able to manage such a diverse team will necessarily require business leaders to both develop a core understanding of how AI functions and make it relatable across the board.
6.       Learning to Synergize Humans and Computers- This calls for reorganizing a company’s organizational structure in a manner that it becomes flexible enough for people to work in consonance with machines. A change in the cultural values of a company, which will be necessarily accompany the introduction of AI, will be extremely challenging and something that will have to be managed with deftness and sensitivity.
7.       The Impact Of AI On Jobs- A favorite bugbear for opponents of AI is its perceived negative impact on jobs. In reality, AI is expected to have a  far more benign effect upon employment, though it will definitely lead to an evolution in the way jobs are performed. Most people would only need to prepare to take on a different role of deploying AI to help enhance a business’s performance, rather than face the prospect of unemployment.  Having an AI strategy will help a business dispel any negativity that the planned adoption of AI technology might otherwise engender.
8.       Preparing For The Future- The rate of adoption of AI may not be all that right now, but it is growing exponentially and sooner rather than later it will become all pervasive across industries. Companies who have already formulated a definite strategy to incorporate it into their business processes will be at a definite advantage in the years ahead when AI is expected to transform our very society.
The coming decades will see businesses innovate in ways that will usher in unimaginable levels of efficiency and output-all thanks to AI. It is for companies to ready themselves for the exciting times ahead than fear the changes to come.

What’s all the fuss about Big Data?

Big Data is a term that gets bandied around a lot these days. What does it really mean and how is it going to make a great difference to the way business is conducted around the world? Well the thing is that it is possible in the digital age for most organizations to collect a gargantuan amount of data, but that by itself won’t amount to much, unless one is able to analyse it and derive whatever is useful out of it.

If one can do that, one will obviously be able to run the affairs of one’s organization far more efficiently with regard to both strategic management and day to day decisions. At the heart of Big Data are the three Vs propounded by renowned industry analyst Dough Laney-Volume, Velocity and Variety.

There are several ways in which data can be collected in today’s times-business records, various kinds of research and experiments and increasingly via the Internet of Things. Furthermore Big Data may be structured or unstructured. In order for one to effectively leverage Big Data, one needs to enhance the computing infrastructure. If one were to try and accomplish that by using servers those would have to number in the hundreds and thousands to achieve the desired velocity. This can obviously not come cheap. The more practicable alternative is to use public cloud computing to facilitate Big Data Analytics projects.

Though there is a lot of debate about the inevitability of adopting Big Data, there is also  underlying fear and confusion about what sort of monster might one be unleashing here. One would do well to go back to the basics and understand what Big Data really is and what it stands for.

Well Big Data is a sum to total of data of both traditional and digital origin sourced from both within and outside an organization that can be used for continuous analysis and discovery. That data comes in both unstructured (text, metadata and social media posts, etc.) and multi -structured forms (from myriad data formats) and is a mine of potentially extremely beneficial information.

Therefore it is incumbent upon all organizations to get their act together and understand the full implications of Big Data-what it is, what it can do for them and the sheer advantages of data oriented marketing. Once you get the hang of it with a little practise you will be able to witness a paradigm change in the way you customer engagement is enacted with immense benefits accruing to both the online and offline universe.