Andreas Kaplan serves as Dean of ESCP Business School Paris. His research interests social media and artificial intelligence. His recent research findings include Rulers of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence, Siri, Siri in my Hand, who is the Fairest in the Land? On the Interpretations, Illustrations and Implications of Artificial Intelligence.
Andreas Kaplan: The exponential growth of the “Metaverse”
In this issue, we invited Andreas Kaplan for an exclusive interview on Metaverse. He serves as Dean of ESCP Business School Paris. His research interests social media and artificial intelligence. His recent research findings include Rulers of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence, Siri, Siri in my Hand, who is the Fairest in the Land? On the Interpretations, Illustrations and Implications of Artificial Intelligence.
After Covid-19 global health crisis, a series of Internet applications, such as virtual social world and online education, have developed exponentially due to the implementation of epidemic prevention and control policies such as quarantine and city closure. The “Metaverse”of science fiction is no longer so far away. In response to this phenomenon, we conducted an exclusive interview with Professor Andreas Kaplan to learn his views on the development of the “Metaverse”.
I would describe the Metaverse simply as a virtual world, i.e., a three-dimensional virtual environment where its users, in the form of personalized avatars, or in other words, graphical representations of a user's persona or character, meet and speak with each other in real-time, make friends and develop their social network, even work and earn money. More precisely, the Metaverse falls into the category of virtual social worlds (in contrast to virtual game worlds), with most of its (future) users considering it as an extension of their real lives (and not merely as a game). In my opinion, this description of the Metaverse depicts well Mark Zuckerberg's vision and his idea of it.
Facebook's choice of calling its envisioned virtual world the "Metaverse" is all but trivial. Already Neal Stephenson, the famous US science fiction writer, applied the term metaverse, a combination of meta, meaning beyond, and the universe, to design his fictive virtual world in his 1992 novel "Snow Crash." In this bestseller, Neal Stephenson tells the story of Hiro, a guy who physically lives in Los Angeles, California, but who passes most of the time in the virtual Metaverse. Some people like the Metaverse so much that they prefer living there on a permanent basis, spending their real, physical lives in some sort of storage units, surrounded only by the technical infrastructure and equipment needed to enter this increasingly popular virtual environment.
While I am convinced that Mark Zuckerberg does not have Neal Stephenson's Metaverse in mind when talking about his company's version of the Metaverse, unfortunately, nobody can be sure what the actual outcome will be. Advances in artificial intelligence, increased automation, and digitalization will leave a significant proportion of unemployed people surviving on some sort of universal basic income. One can question how people without a job on a long-term basis will fill their days? Some of the research I did on virtual worlds approximately a decade ago already showed that some users preferred their virtual over their real lives.
With a much-improved and augmented virtual environment made in Facebook, might not more people prefer permanently transitioning into the Metaverse? How far away are we from a world like the one illustrated in Stephenson's novel? What would such a development mean for our society, and would this be desirable for human civilization? How best should humanity prepare for such a possibility? These are just some of the questions to which societies around the world urgently will have to find answers, with the Metaverse seemingly just around the corner.
First of all, one has to note that universities and business schools alike have started to enter virtual worlds more than ten years ago. To my knowledge, IE Business School was the first institution worldwide to deliver virtual online classes. As early as 2007, the Spanish business school taught courses on Online Communities within the well-known virtual social world "Second Life." Also Insead, i.e., the Business School for the World, has made ample use of Second Life by holding in-world lectures, maintaining virtual research laboratories, and inviting prospective students or potential employers to connect with the institution. Finally, Milano-based Bocconi Business School used its Second Life presence to enhance its executive education by simulating and explaining the teamwork dynamics of virtual teams.
While these early initiatives were merely done for PR purposes, online education has seen exponential growth due to the ongoing Covid-19 global health crisis. The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have fueled people's desire and availability to learn new skills. Many of them experienced online education for the first time as they participated in online courses from their home offices and living rooms. This exposure to distance learning not only changed the learners' attitudes toward digital classes but also the mindsets of teachers and institutions across the globe. Large-scale online education is here to stay, also in the post-pandemic period.
Instead of participating in an online course via Zoom, Google Meet, or alike, the Metaverse might provide a more realistic course experience where you co-learn and listen to your professor (in the form of an avatar) within a three-dimensional virtual environment. Therefore, I think that making use of virtual worlds and virtual reality will further develop, accentuate, and accelerate online teaching and learning in the future. Just take a look at French business school Neoma, which, in cooperation with Laval Virtual, launched its digital campus in a very timely manner amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since face-to-face courses and actual on-campus experience were impossible, creating the virtual world enabled Neoma to simulate the atmosphere of their real-life campus, providing the most gratifying and authentic experience likely possible in the context of distance learning. Once connected, students have access to a virtual building where they can meet with the School's career service team, go sit in the (virtual) library or enter Neoma's incubator. Furthermore, they have access to virtual classrooms where they participate in their online courses or virtual break-out rooms that they can use for teamwork and group discussions.
Interviewer: Li Yuxuan
Interview date: November 28, 2021
Collator: Li Yixiang, Jiang Xingyu