The Metaverse is a point in time, and artificial intelligence will play a key role along the way: Why and how Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse bet could work out.
In 2017, Google's CEO Sundar Pichai announced a change in direction from "mobile first" to "AI first." The company had already been relying on machine learning for years in its core search engine business, for recommendations on YouTube, and had launched Google Assistant a year earlier.
In the following years, Google increasingly integrated artificial intelligence with its software and hardware. Today, almost all Google services rely on AI - from Google Maps, YouTube and Camera to the automatic transcription of the Recorder app. The latest Google smartphone Pixel 6 also relies on a chip optimized for AI calculations, which is supposed to execute numerous AI functions faster.
Google is also conducting basic research, developing new translation systems, a new generation of dialog systems or AI systems for medical diagnostics. Meanwhile, its sister company Deepmind is bringing artificial intelligence to biology, mathematics, materials science or plasma physics.
In short, Google's successes as a search engine, as a hardware producer and as a provider of the largest mobile operating system and the Android software platform are based in large part on its successful use of artificial intelligence.
Facebook wants to be more than an app
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also recognized the potential of artificial intelligence early on, hiring AI researcher and Turing Prize winner Yann LeCun in 2013. LeCun helped build the diverse web of Meta's AI basic research, AI product development, and AI infrastructure development.
Initially, Facebook's AI ambitions seemed to be limited to automated moderation systems, chatbots and AI translation. An attempt to bring Facebook to smartphones as a kind of home screen via Facebook Home in 2013 failed. But it showed even then that Zuckerberg was trying to lead Facebook out of its role as a social network and marketing platform.
The purchase of Oculus VR a year later and the decision to create a closed ecosystem with the VR hardware again made clear that Zuckerberg's corporate strategy goes beyond social media. Now it's becoming clear where Facebook could apply the combination of AI with software and hardware exemplified by Google on an impressive scale: in the Metaverse.
Facebook becomes Meta Platforms
Many probably underestimated just how serious Meta is about the Metaverse - until October 2021, when Facebook became Meta Platforms at the Facebook Connect XR conference, which usually receives little attention.
Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp remain services run by Meta, but Zuckerberg sees the future in the Metaverse. Is this just a move to avoid negative headlines, regulation, or a breakup? No, because the bet is too big for that, and failure is too costly. So what is this Metaverse for Zuckerberg - and why is he betting his company's future on it?
The metaverse is a point in time
There are numerous definitions of the metaverse term. All have an element of immersive experiences in 3D digital worlds.
In a recent interview with podcaster Lex Fridman, however, Zuckerberg explains the Metaverse not as a construct of connected virtual places. Instead, the Meta-CEO describes the metaverse as the point in time when we do and spend large portions of our everyday digital work and leisure in immersive 3D environments with VR and AR glasses.
So the Metaverse comes into existence as we work, socialize, consume media, create, and play in these virtual environments. As it grows, the metaverse concept will sooner or later become the successor to the mobile Internet or its evolution.
Zuckerberg's definition likely stems from a tweet by former Twitch manager Shaan Puri: "The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life," Puri wrote in late October 2021, following Facebook's Meta-transformation.
Artificial intelligence as the foundation for the metaverse
Until that time, many advances in software and hardware are needed, especially in immersive technologies. "Key to many of these advances are advances in AI," Zuckerberg said recently at Meta's first AI conference, "Inside the Lab." Artificial intelligence is perhaps the most important technology to enable the metaverse, he said.
In addition to universal translators and a builder bot for the Metaverse, Meta also announced the first version of a new generation of AI assistance. In the future, these systems will accompany us through real and virtual worlds and, thanks to the glasses perspective, be able to discover them through our eyes.
"When we wear glasses on our face, an AI system will be able to really see the world from our perspective for the first time," Zuckerberg said. For example, Meta showed an assistant at the conference that gives advice while cooking via AR glasses.
As smart devices become better at understanding and anticipating what we want, they will become increasingly useful. "I expect these trends to intensify in the future," Zuckerberg says. Meta wants to be part of that very future - at the very least.
Meta wants to lead instead of follow
Zuckerberg believes in the Metaverse as the successor to the mobile Internet, the future of digital work and digital life. Facebook has missed out on entering the mobile market, smart speakers and wearables - and with it the lucrative world of app sales, microtransactions, and software subscriptions.
Everything is now supposed to be different in the Metaverse: The contents of its AI conference show that the company will attempt to become a central player in the next phase of digital transformation with the symbiosis of AI, software, and hardware familiar from Google.
Metas Horizon is just one of countless worlds that will subsidize Meta-hardware on our noses. Money will be made by the company as a metaverse marketplace: with advertising, fees for app sales, NFTs, and many other offerings. Meta's assistant will accompany us in the virtual and real world, tying us to its ecosystem.
When the Metaverse hits, Meta will be the new pioneer
Meta is currently the leading manufacturer of VR glasses with Meta Quest 2 and the already announced next VR glasses, Project Cambria, which will serve the social aspect of VR more through additional sensors for eye and face detection. The company is also working on collaborative software, has created a self-sustaining VR ecosystem with Oculus, is researching AR glasses, and has spent nearly a decade building AI divisions.
In LeCun, Meta also has an AI pioneer at the helm who believes in his vision: At the "Inside the Lab" conference, he reiterated the role of self-supervised learning for AI development and presented an architecture for "autonomous AI".
Meta is superbly positioned to play a pivotal role in the Metaverse era and to expand its own role in the Big Tech competition. The crucial question for Meta's future destiny is: If the metaverse is a point in time - did Meta get the timing right?