Those intoxicating days seem to be a thing of the past. Markets noticed. Last week marked the end of the hi-tech Nasdaq’s worst month since 2008. On Friday, April 29 alone, the index fell more than 4%, extending its losses for the month to more than 13%. Netflix, a darling of “FAANG” just a few months ago, saw its shares plunge more than 30% after an earnings report showed the movie streaming company lost subscribers. In Friday’s carnage, Amazon shares plunged 14%, the biggest one-day drop since 2006 after the company reported its first quarterly loss in 7 years. The FAANG group made up of Facebook, Apple Amazon, Netflix and Google lost more than $1 trillion in market value in April alone.
Big tech companies are starting to shift. Former Facebook Inc, now renamed Meta Platforms Inc, is trying to switch to all things virtual, but it’s struggling to get off the ground. It builds virtual reality goggles called Nazare, but the project has been faced with painstaking efforts to develop custom chips and a slate of materials running into thousands of US dollars. However, the hype around the “metaverse” has begun, as well as serious research work in this emerging space. Researchers from the Institute for Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon (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 strange as it may sound, there are those who embraced everything early on. Futurism.com reports that a Japanese man who married a hologram can no longer talk to his partner due to a software glitch. Instead of liking words with soft undertones, he got a “network error.” Akihiko Kondo married a hologram in 2018. The hologram is a depiction of a famous Japanese virtual star named Hatsune Miku. Gatebox is a machine that allows users to interact with and chat with fantasy 3D characters. According to Japan’s The Mainichi newspaper, the startup that makes the Gatebox only made a “limited production model” of Hatsune Mike. At the height of the pandemic, the startup announced that it was shutting down its virtual service Miku, leaving Kondo deprived of her life partner.
The Nazare, Miku hologram, and Carnegie Mellon’s new “Curse Machine” are just early, goof versions of what the Metaverse has in store. I shudder when I think about what might happen as the metaverse evolves and scientists and big tech companies come up with other ways to introduce us to such uses of virtual reality.
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have always tried to use the excuse that they are merely “freedom of expression” platforms. Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover may further this pretext. He has gone so far as to describe himself as the “absolute of free speech”. I think he will find it difficult to deal with his new game. Managing free speech on the platform is a very different (and significantly more difficult) proposition than playing the drums, and then there is the question of whether or not its funding will stop. If the stock rout continues last week, the debt financing he’s using by providing his Tesla stock as collateral could suddenly become more expensive for him (assuming, of course, that the financing materializes).
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter do not have journalistic standards. Any user can say anything at any time about any topic with little regard for the truth. Everything is an opinion, but it is not clearly described as such. Therefore, much of the “news” available on these platforms is biased. The unscrupulous sale of users’ personal information and interference from hostile foreign regimes could potentially affect the outcome of the election. Even worse, spreading false and malicious news can fuel violence in the short term.
With Facebook and others now betting their future on the metaverse, the “we’re just offering a platform” defense isn’t going to cut it. Today, it’s just free speech. Metaverse virtual clothing, such as the previously mentioned method of kissing, will inevitably expand. What is just a problem with hate messages on social media platforms can turn into a world where users can actually commit acts of physical violence against other users. Anyone can guess what the effects of this might be.
In my opinion, the big tech companies have proven, time and time again, that they can’t control themselves properly. Even when they make huge public announcements, such as removing facial recognition technology in 2020 in response to protests that the technology routinely discriminates against people of color, it’s a response to public pressure. In any business, profit is always the motive. It is clear to me that organizing virtual reality is necessary and quick. Physical interactions cannot be automated without strict control.
Siddharth Pai is the founder of Siana Capital, a venture capital fund management firm focused on deep science and technology in India