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Metaverse and Interoperability Challenges

Photo: Pixabay

One point of discussion during the Economist and Meta panel at the Dubai Metaverse Assembly was interoperability. Interoperability is defined as the ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information. There are many levels of interoperability. I am recapping a few below. I have more questions than answers, but this is an excellent place to start. Also, most companies that outsource will face problems if they don't have their own in-house experts or need huge budgets to pay for maintenance contracts and legal fees, and reputation management for unintended side effects or lack of governance.

1. Hardware compatibility

Is your hardware compatible? This level of compatibility may require industry standards, or you might find yourself looking for plug-point adaptors and connectors, voltage stabilizers, or you may be searching for internet connectivity. It is the hardware in your WIFI that converts data into radio signals! The cloud is a physical data storage facility you can access via the internet. Most of our data (99%) travel worldwide through 378 optic cables. Satellites can also transmit data quickly (but in smaller volumes), and it requires a large number of satellites to be placed around the world (SpaceX wants to put 30,000 satellites around the world). Estimates are that we have 5 out of 8 billion people that can connect to the internet, but this is not the great connectivity needed for the metaverse experience. Further, we can experience connectivity problems when cables break or satellites lose the ability to transmit (can be natural reasons, software or hardware malfunctions, or sabotage). Further, the metaverse needs experiences to be curated and almost become seamless with the real world. This experience may mean more cameras and sensors (IoT), which also means a resource challenge (in sourcing and recycling). Which country do you buy your hardware from? Who manages security and tests for hardware backdoor entry?

2. Software compatibility

This is more challenging. First, there are many types of programming languages. Many of the newer languages are built on layers of older languages going all the way to the 1960s. These languages communicate through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which are software codes that mediate to improve functionality between one software system and another. The issue is if one of these layers changes, you need to work on the APIs or software of the others (think updates). If not managed well, it can create vulnerabilities that can impact security. Many of the experiences curated by the metaverse will require digital payment. For cryptocurrency or tokens, this will need software compatible across devices for payment. As people invest more in virtual properties (virtual lands, NFTs, cryptocurrency), the management and interoperability of these will also raise challenges. For example, can you wear your virtual high fashion NFT dress in another virtual world for a party?

3. Data interoperability

This is tough as the metaverse will be global. At the simplest level, we ask – what does it mean, or is there a shared meaning (semantic interoperability)? So understanding that pounds in the UK refer to currency, but in the USA, it refers to weight becomes critical in finding insights! The format that data is stored in is a starting point. Who sets this format? Unfortunately, most data is unstructured, so perfecting data formats becomes restrictive as it will change constantly depending on current affairs and culture. Recently, a service provider assumed that since I am Indian, I spoke fluent Hindi and sent messages in that language (The Indian constitution recognizes 22 languages). I have no idea how the service provider decided my conversational speech for me. Regional or cultural trends may not be captured at a global level if the metaverse is too local. Finally, there are challenges around intellectual property, privacy, territorial jurisdiction, and laws. Since we create such giant data footprints, would this belong to the individual or the company that collects it? How long (in case of death)?

4. Identity interoperability

This is not new, but the question is, as systems get integrated, do we need identity interoperability? Should I be able to take my valid physical world identity, authenticate my possessions associated with that identity and take them across the various platforms in the metaverse where I have kept an anonymous identity? When does privacy become significant? Right now, my identity on virtual platforms is fragmented. The metaverse needs seamless transitions between the real world and other extended reality worlds. For example, can I send an email as an avatar tapping into the primary email I use to present myself in the physical world, but how do we manage this? Also, where does national jurisdiction end and begin here? Who can access the data associated with my identity, and should I know when someone does? Estonia has some great examples that may help governments and policymakers think of regulations, but the metaverse is or should be a global platform. Is it the company (often private sector) that has jurisdiction in that case? What of international citizens?

5. Systems interoperability

This interoperability is about how seamlessly the system works together. It means understanding how human decision-making also influences the system. There is an organization team factor (how do they plan, design, develop, deploy, monitor, and use feedback to manage the systems better). And there is the co-creation issue. The metaverse will have not only agents (bots) but also humans co-creating experiences, and this may tip the system in directions that may not be favorable. Management also needs to decide on circuit breakers and human-in-the-loop for decision-making.

No easy answers, but let us start the discussion so we can build a safer, more inclusive, and more beneficial metaverse.

Picture courtesy @Economist - with Melanie Norohna, Senior Manager, Policy & Insights at Economist Impact; James Hairston, Director of Policy, Reality Labs at Meta, and Sunder Jagannathan, Co-founder PropVR.

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