Neal Stephenson cover photo for conversation on the metaverse

Neal Stephenson on the Future of the Metaverse | a16z Podcast with Steph Smith

Check out the Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • It’s important to differentiate between the singular “metaverse” and plural “metaverses”
  • The metaverse can be an incredibly diverse range of experiences, but Neal understands it to be a singular metaverse with a wide variety of experiences and not multiple metaverses  
  • Games are the closest things we have to metaverse-like experiences, such as Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft 
  • Controversy in the gaming-crypto nexus arises from friction between the ideological crypto bros’ desire for interoperability with the game developers’ appreciation for engineering and aesthetics 
  • “We absolutely do not need AR and VR in order to build the metaverse.” – Neal Stephenson
  • About 5-10% of people experience motion sickness when using state-of-the-art VR; imagine trying to popularize television in the 1950s with the caveat that 5-10% of people will throw up into a waste basket within the first 30 minutes of watching
  • A good way to think about the metaverse is it as a communications medium, and any communications medium is trying to reach the broadest possible audience
  • The question of intellectual property when it comes to things like DALL-E is an ethical question that will need to be sorted out eventually 
  • The right of refusal must exist in the metaverse; creators must be able to dictate what their IP can and cannot be used for 
  • People are endlessly creative in both good and bad ways; technology will continue to be used for good and for evil 
  • Neal made his blockchain a proof-of-stake chain because it would have been weird to launch a carbon-intensive chain just after publishing a book centered around climate change 
  • “I think the two most important things are carbon and the polarization of society.”Neal Stephenson 

Intro 

  • Neal Stephenson (@nealstephenson) is a best-selling author of several books, including Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and Baroque Cycle. He wrote about the metaverse thirty years ago and inspired many of the technologies that are being created today. You can find all of his work at NealStephenson.com.  
  • In this conversation, Neal Stephenson and Steph Smith discuss Sci-Fi’s influence on the tech industry, the metaverse, interoperability, incentive alignment with crypto and game developers, immersion, why AR and VR are not needed to build the metaverse, VR engineering challenges, artificial intelligence, intellectual property, the value chain, good and bad tech, fighting the free model, building Lamina1, Snow Crash, carbon removal, and what the future may hold 
  • Check out these Podcast Notes from Neal’s conversation with Lex Fridman  
  • Host – Steph Smith (@stephsmithio

Science Fiction Novels 

  • “Science-fiction novelist is the highest-impact job position in the tech industry.”Francois Chollet  
  • Sometimes, a science fiction novel can serve as a more effective template for a company than some corporate communication strategy 
  • Tremendous amounts of energy are burned just keeping the various departments up to speed on what the other departments are doing; many PowerPoints and endless meetings can be replaced if everyone just reads the book that the project is based on

What Is The Metaverse? 

  • In general, people are talking about the next thing that’s coming along when they refer to the metaverse
  • It’s important to distinguish between the singular “Metaverse” and plural “metaverses” 
  • Neal Stephenson questions people who speak about multiple metaverses 
  • There is just one metaverse in Neal’s book Snow Crash 
  • The metaverse can be an incredibly diverse range of experiences, but Neal understands it to be a singular metaverse and not multiple metaverses  

Interoperability 

  • There won’t be one top-down entity that forces all the metaverse companies to work together; there will be ad hoc arrangements between them that enable interoperability 
  • Games are the closest things we have to metaverse-like experiences, such as Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft 
    • There are people running around in a space, all experiencing the same space at the same time
  • Neal suspects that people at Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft are discussing how they can build bridges so users can jump from experience to experience without leaving the metaverse 

Incentive Alignment 

  • The incentives of game developers and crypto bros don’t always align when it comes to interoperability 
  • From the perspective of the game developer, people suggesting extraneous features are completely ignorant of how the engineering of games actually works, in addition to ruining the aesthetics of the game 
    • So people are going to bring lightsabers into Assassin’s Creed?
  • It’s reasonable for game developers to be insulted by such suggestions
  • Games like Fortnite are more conducive for interoperability and creative mash-ups because that is consistent with the creativity palate of the game 
  • The mash-up vibe in Fortnite is a similar mash-up vibe that is present in Snow Crash 
  • Interoperability will not be mandatory; walled gardens will still exist, and the people who love those walled gardens will be happy that they do
  • Controversy in the gaming-crypto nexus arises from friction between the ideological crypto bros’ desire for interoperability with the game developers’ appreciation for engineering and aesthetics 

Immersion Requirements 

  • “We absolutely do not need AR and VR in order to build the metaverse.”Neal Stephenson 
  • Neal assumed that the metaverse would be “all about goggles” when he wrote the book 30 years ago, but a lot has changed since then 
  • Today, billions of people access three-dimensional spaces through rectangles on two-dimensional screens 
  • Keyboards are a Victorian technology, and yet the human brain is so adaptable that the keyboard is a perfectly useful way to navigate around 3D spaces 

VR Engineering Challenges 

  • Neal estimates that 5-10% of people using state-of-the-art VR will still experience motion sickness 
  • Latency must continue to improve to drive that percentage to zero 
  • Imagine trying to popularize television in the 1950s with the caveat that 5-10% of people will throw up into a waste basket within the first 30 minutes of watching  
  • Neal prefers to be in a completely immersive experience for no longer than 45 minutes

Skeuomorphism 

  • There will have to be some understanding around the size of avatars in a plausible metaverse 
  • A good way to think about the metaverse is it as a communications medium, and any communications medium is trying to reach the broadest possible audience, paraphrasing Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly

AI and Gaming 

  • When you open source AI code and make AI engines open to the world, emergent behaviors materialize in ways that you least expected them to
    • DALL-E is a perfect example 
  • AI will help make the environment in a virtual space feel more realistic to the user

The Value Chain 

  • “Who owns the IP” is an ethical question when AI models are trained on various datasets
  • Who owns the IP if you prompt DALL-E to paint a picture of a dog in the style of Van Gogh?
    • Should Van Gogh’s estate get a cut of the profits, or was it the creative genius of the person who engineered the prompt that created such a work of art? 
    • Does Emad Mostaque of Stability AI deserve a cut for creating the Stable Diffusion AI that made the whole process possible? 
  • Neal would like to see the IP waterfall structure used for revenue share in Hollywood film projects be replaced or augmented by smart contracts 

The Right of Refusal 

  • The right of refusal must exist for creators in the metaverse 
  • For example, measures must be implemented that prevent a certain type of avatar from being used in XYZ experience
    • Perhaps there are third-party auditors that evaluate how a creator’s IP is being used, and the creator can make decisions based on their findings 
    • Or a rating system is developed for a certain experience using the IP in a particular way 
  • The next wave of NFTs may include some of these IP features (or bugs, depending on how your perspective) 

Good and Bad Tech 

  • People are endlessly creative in both good and bad ways; technology will continue to be used for good and for evil 
  • Snow Crash is a dystopian novel, but it also makes fun of dystopian novels 
  • The revenue model of a given system is where bias seeps into otherwise neutral tech 

Fighting “Free”

  • The saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” applies to social media companies 
  • The attraction to free stuff is so powerful for users that it can be hard to fight

Building Lamina1 

  • Lamina1 is a new attempt at creating the base layer for the metaverse 
  • Building upon an existing chain puts you at the mercy of the people that run that chain, such as Vitalik and Lubin 
  • Starting your own layer one chain allows you to control it 
  • There are many layers to crypto’s use case in the metaverse; money is just the most basic layer   
  • Most of the big players in the gaming industry are avoiding crypto and blockchain for a variety of reasons:
    • Brand risk 
    • Administrative headaches 
    • High switching costs  
  • Minecraft has been outspoken about not wanting to have crypto stuff on its platform
  • “There are specific things that we could do with a new chain that could be valuable for people in this space.” – Neal Stephenson   
  • Some of these specifically include:
    • Value chains 
    • Better payment systems 

Neal Stephenson’s Design Decisions

  • Neal designed the chain that he controls to be carbon neutral 
  • Right before launching Lamina1, Neal published a novel called Terminal Shock, which is all about global warming and climate change 
  • It would have been weird to launch a carbon-intensive project just after publishing that type of book, so Neal chose to launch a proof-of-stake blockchain 
  • To operate a Lamina1 node, you must prove that you’ve bought a certain number of carbon credits from a legitimate company 

Inspiration for Snow Crash 

  • Neal tends to have some contact with the actual technology that he writes about in his books
  • You can put a new twist on old stories by sowing in new technologies and themes

Looking Ahead from 2022

  • “I think the two most important things are carbon and the polarization of society.” Neal Stephenson 
  • The polarization we observe in society is being weaponized by bad actors who benefit from it  
  • The solution to polarization is not obvious 
  • Trying to stay ahead of current internet trends is impossible for science-fiction writers; by the time you complete the book, everything about the technology has already happened 

Carbon Removal

  • Some technologies are enabling carbon to be removed from the atmosphere and converted into synthetic fuels
  • Neal believes that energy consumption is only bad if it’s energy produced from burning fossil fuels 
  • The energy produced by renewables sources, like photovoltaics, isn’t hurting anyone, according to Neal Stephenson
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Notes By Stan Rizzo

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