It seems that the intoxicating days are a thing of the past. The markets noticed it. Last week marked the end of the worst month for the technology-heavy Nasdaq since 2008. On Friday 29 April alone, this index fell more than 4%, extending the month’s loss to more than 13%. Netflix, one of “FAANG’s” lovers just a few months ago, saw its shares plummet more than 30%, after an earnings report showed that the movie streaming company had lost subscribers. In Friday’s carnage, Amazon shares fell 14%, the biggest one-day drop since 2006, after the company reported its first quarterly loss in 7 years. The FAANG group of Facebook, Apple Amazon, Netflix and Google lost more than $ 1 trillion in market value in April alone.
Big Tech is starting to transform. The former Facebook Inc, now renamed Meta Platforms Inc., is trying to transform into everything virtual, but is struggling to get started. He is building virtual reality glasses called Nazare, but the project has been characterized by cumbersome custom chip development efforts and a piece of material amounting to thousands of US dollars. Nevertheless, the hype surrounding the “metaverse” has begun, just as serious research work in this new space has begun. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (also known as FIG or Future Interfaces Group) have discovered how to make users feel sensations in their lips, tongues and teeth that mimic a real-world kiss.
As bizarre as it may sound, there are early adopters to everything. Futurism.com reports that a Japanese man who married a hologram can no longer talk to his life partner due to a software bug. Instead of liking the words in soft tones, he got a “network error”. Akihiko Kondo had married a hologram in 2018. The hologram is a depiction of a popular Japanese virtual star called Hatsune Miku. Gatebox is a machine that allows users to interact with and chat with fictional holographic characters. According to the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi, the startup that makes Gatebox had only made a “limited production model” of Hatsune Mike. At the height of the pandemic, the startup announced it was shutting down its virtual Miku service, leaving Kondo deprived of his life partner.
Nazare, the Miku hologram, and Carnegie Mellon’s new FIG “fuck machine” are just early, silly versions of what Metaverse has in store. I shudder to think of what might happen as the meta-verse evolves, and scientists and large technology companies find other ways to introduce us to such applications of virtual reality.
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have long tried to use the alibi that they are just “free speech” platforms. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter could further strengthen this alibi. He has gone so far as to call himself an “absolute freedom of speech”. I think he’s having a hard time handling his new toy. Managing freedom of speech on one platform is a very different (and significantly more difficult) proposition than making drums, and then there is the question of whether funding is sustainable. If last week’s share departure were to drag on, the debt financing he uses by providing his Tesla share as collateral could suddenly become much more expensive for him (provided, of course, that the financing becomes a reality).
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter do not have journalistic standards. Any user can say anything at any time about any topic without regard to the truth. Everything is an opinion, but not clearly marked as such. Therefore, many of the “news” available on these platforms are biased. The unscrupulous sale of users’ personal information and interference from hostile foreign regimes could even potentially affect the election result. Even worse, spreading fake and malicious news can give rise to short-term violence.
With Facebook and others now betting their future on the metaverse, the “we just offer a platform” defense will not cut it. Today, it is only freedom of speech. Metaverse virtual clothing, like the previously mentioned kissing equipment, will inevitably expand. What’s just a problem with hate messages on social media platforms can turn into a world where users can actually commit physical violence against other users. Anyone can guess what the effects of this might be.
In my opinion, Big Tech companies have already proven time and time again that they can not control themselves properly. Even when they come up with grand public announcements, such as the removal of face recognition technology in 2020 in response to protests that the technology routinely discriminates against people of color, these are in response to public pressure. In any business, profit is always the motive. It is clear to me that the regulation of virtual reality is necessary and rapid. Physical interactions cannot be robotized without strict control.
Siddharth Pai is the founder of Siana Capital, a venture capital fund management company focusing on deep science and technology in India