artifical intelligence · Big data · Computer Science · Culture · Economics · Fiction · Film · Learning · Psychology

Ready Player One: a vision of the future

If you haven’t watched it, stop now, go and rent it, and watch Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One“ (RPO).

The movie is set in “the Stacks”, a high density city of container homes situated in Columbus Ohio in 2045. It is a world where everyone spends most of their time online in Virtual Reality world called the Oasis. It centres on a group of video gamers including our hero Parzival (Wade Owen Watts in the real world), who spend their time playing different computer games in this virtual world. The Oasis was created by a geeky tech programmer, James Halliday and has made his company, Gregarious Games, the world’s most valuable business.

It always surprises me how little known this film seems to be beyond the circles of science fiction fans. And yes, for science fiction fans it’s a great film. But I think it’s more than that: I think it is a prescient vision of what the real future may well look like. I am not talking about the storyline itself or the fairytale ending, but about the vision of how our future world might operate socially and economically.

I am going to describe how and why I think this film is such a prescient a picture of our online future.

I will structure this as 3 sections

1. Why is Ready Player One a likely vision of our social future?

2. The idea of online virtual economies, and some of my own speculations of how these might develop in future

3. The interaction between those online virtual economies and real world economies

1. The vision of a virtual social future

Let me state my hypothesis: that an online virtual world is going to be the future of the majority of our social interaction.

Already some of our children spend more time interacting with friends that they meet online, than they do with the friends from their own school.

Why? Because those friends they meet online have by definition the same interests: they are playing the same game. It’s unlikely you are going to find 5 people in your local neighborhood with the very specific interests you have, but online you can find your “tribe” of 50,000, amongst the millions of players out there all brought together by the phenomena of online social gaming.

For many it is easier to connect in the virtual world. In the words of James Haliday: “I created the Oasis because I never felt at home in the real world. I just didn’t know how to connect with the people there.”

Just like in the movie, the beauty of online is that your avatar can be whoever you want – you can choose how you want to portray yourself to the world. The ultimate version of “how you choose to identify” in an age of gender fluidity. You can choose to identify as a beautiful girl when in reality as H says, “‘she’ could be a 300 pound dude who lives in his moma’s basement in suburban Detroit. And her name is Chuck.”.

In this online world you will gladly pay real world dollars to buy a fashionable cloak or “skin”, and to get the upgrades and artefacts. Just like real world fashion, this is the price to be “in” with your tribe, to communicate who you are and provoke the envy of your peers.

In the words of Parzival, “People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be”

Beyond the ability to self identify, why are virtual worlds so alluring? In psychology, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is “self actualisation”. This is what we most aspire to as humans. Online games offer an quick way to a superficial level of “self actualisation”: players learn new skills as they master a game; they create new art and architecture in Minecraft. They post a video of it that is admired by many on YouTube, and if it goes viral they get their 5 minutes of fame. These are things that give people a sense of value and contribution and potential aspiration. And anytime they get bored, there is always the option of starting on some new game.

The film depicts an evolution from today’s gaming, which we are already starting to see: it is not about a single game, it’s about a virtual online platform on which many games are hosted. These different games are available on the platform, perhaps created by different developers. Players can jump around between games in the same virtual environment.

It’s not just computer games that will be hosted in this virtual world. Think of the real world places that we go to socialise such as bars: would you members of the Curiosity Club fancy having our next meeting at the Moss Isley Bar on Tatooine, or the Distracted Globe in the Oasis?

It will also host real world events like concerts, and music festivals. Hopefully you had the chance to Have a look at the recent virtual music concert by US rapper Travis Scott, attended by 12.3 million people live, simultaneously on the Fortnite platform. Compare that to the largest physical concert ever, by Jean Michel Jare, in Moscow in 1997 with an estimated 3.5m live audience. Having watched the music show, you can now buy a Travis Scot “skin” for only 2500 V Bucks in game, real world price $25.

Beyond social interaction we are also likely to see many real world business services in these online worlds. Healthcare consultations, meeting your insurance broker or banker, may all be far more efficient than meeting face to face in the real world.

So the future of our social interaction it seems, will be predominantly virtual!

Which brings us to point 2, the economies within these virtual worlds

What is particularly interesting to me is that these games are creating online economies. These virtual gaming economies are already exhibit many, but not all, of the characteristics of a real world economy.

In RPO people are out to collect coins, and artefacts (clothes and weapons), which they can lose if something happens to their avatar in a game.

At the moment most games have some form of currency. Just like Fortnites VBucks. This virtual currency is typically earned through game play, or purchased with real world dollars in order to speed up game play and enjoyment.

Players can get paid for work they are prepared to do. In RPO, H is building an Iron Giant and repairs other peoples broken artefacts. He has skills that are valued and paid for in the virtual world.

Games like Minecraft already enable players to work with each other , and for each other, in virtual worlds. My son will often offer to help out some other player building an “iron golem farm” (don’t ask) on a Minecraft server, in exchange for some online compensation like “enchanted diamonds.”

In Online Minecraft servers, the prices of virtual commodities like “red stone”, “wheat” and “enchanted diamonds” fluctuate with supply and demand created by other players. You can execute sophisticated real world strategies to make “money” in these games. For example, my son has figured out, entirely on his own, time zone arbitrage: buying goods cheaply in the morning in Britain when there are fewer players and less demand, selling the same thing more expensively in the evening when the American players come online and demand increases. In real world financial markets, arbitrageurs routinely engage in these sorts of strategies across time zones.

And there are all the real world characteristics that come with this virtual commerce: both the good: creativity, deals, alliances, productivity, and altruism, and the bad: cheating, reneging on promises, and stealing.

So all of this already exists today. If you will permit me, here are some of my speculations of how these online economies might develop in future:

I anticipate we will start seeing forms of virtual currency being created that are interchangeable between games.

Just like in the real world perhaps different games on the same platform exchange different currencies, and there are exchange rates between the currencies of the different games. Exchange rates set not by the game developer but by the community of players based on supply and demand.

And more importantly there will also be two way exchange rates between real world and virtual currencies. Thats when it starts getting really interesting economically speaking: When you can quantify the value of an hour of virtual world work in real world dollars.

How do these virtual economies differ from real world economies?

One of the challenges in these virtual economies is that the game designer is god. They could at any point modify the rules of the game, and reset everything. That could be unfair both for players and for any businesses that develop in the ecosystem around the game. I anticipate that in time there will need to be governance systems developed for these online virtual worlds in order to keep users and virtual businesses engaged, invested and protected.

Successful real world economies are built on a sense of “trust” in the governance of the economic system. How can this be created in these virtual worlds? More sophisticated games in future will no doubt allow the formation of virtual legal contracts between players, or between players and virtual businesses (including the games creators), for the delivery of virtual goods or services.

Block chain technology (the technology behind cryptocurrency like BitCoin) could be part of the answer. This technology could be used to guarantee ownership, to manage currency creation and secure other other forms of contracts in these virtual worlds. This might form the equivalent of “rule of law” in an online economy, creating the necessary framework and stability for a flourishing of these economies.

Might we see virtual independent central banks that have power over the supply of virtual currency to these worlds? There will quite possibly be a virtual world reserve currency… perhaps that will be Bitcoin?

3. Finally what about the real world Economic implications of these virtual economies?

Economically speaking, in the real world the biggest beneficiary of course will be the owner of the platform.

The gaming platform can create new virtual goods at zero marginal cost, target demand and charge real world money for your latest invisibility cloak or light sabre. All of this supported by AI algorithms that are designed to exactly optimize these experiences based on realtime feedback from millions of users, for that perfect dopamine hit; to keep us predictable human beings coming back for more and more and more…

We are already starting to see the idea of gaming platforms hosting multiple games with the likes of TenCent providing a gaming platform for developers and companies like Epic Gaming, the creators of Fortnite talking about making it into an online platform that hosts different games.

The power of social network platforms is the size of the social network. Network economics are exponential. The more people using one network, the more people are drawn to using that network, the more powerful it becomes. As they say in RPO ”Except for eating, sleeping and bathroom brakes, what ever people want to do, they do it in the Oasis. And since everyone is here, this is where we meet each other, this is where we make friends”.

So it’s very natural that there will be only a handful of dominant companies like james Haliday’s aptly named Gregarious Gaming, and Innovaitive Online Industries, their rivals.

Just as Facebook, Google, Alibaba and TenCent are dominant in today’s world because they have the network effect and they own the data. It’s not the AI algorithms that are valuable, it’s owning the data of the network on which they operate.

I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to future real world employment. I think AI automation is going to replace a lot of menial jobs, and a whole lot of not so menial jobs. We will need coders, data scientists and medical scientists and so forth, but they are not going to be needed in such volumes as to replace the jobs lost in the real world. Even tasks like computer programming are going to become far more automated.

There will be many new jobs created in these online worlds and a new generation will find their job opportunities in these virtual worlds. Just as today Search Engine Optimisation has become a career option, virtual world optimisation will likely be a career choice in the future. No doubt many new online businesses will be created in these virtual worlds, making their creators wealthy.

The challenge is going to be the exchange rate between the real world and these virtual worlds. It’s very unlikely, in my opinion, that an hour of work in a virtual world is going to provide anything like minimum wage in the real world.

These platforms are built around classic network effects. A handful of gamers, or artists, gather the largest followings and are our future celebrities. They live in symbiosis with the platform. They get huge publicity, and their real world wealth builds as they get more followers, endorsements and marketing power. Just as in today’s social networks, the wealth is distributed across a very steep exponential pyramid, with very few at the top getting fabulously wealthy, a few more behind that making a decent living and a multitude beyond that being hopeful but earning only a pittance.

Given the diversity of special interests across the globe, there is plenty of opportunity for smaller chieftains to emerge, people who become the leaders of special interest groups because of their passion and their ability to sell themselves online as an expert or influencer to the 50,000 people interested in “that one thing”. But in every tribe the structure is the same, a few at the top of the exponential pyramid reaping relatively large rewards compared to a large base of fans who put in more than they get out.

To illustrate: my younger son explained his calculations to me this week: Mumbo Jumbo, his favourite Minecrafter, gets about 1.5 million views per video, he posts two videos a week, and therefore earns, from YouTube, between £2000 and £4000 per week. This all seems to be common knowledge for today’s 11 year olds. “So you can make a lot of money being a YouTuber”. My reply to him was, “yes you can, and you and approximately 1.5million other kids watch and want to be Mumbo Jumbo twice a week. That’s a lot of competition for that top spot…”

So as in RPO, in the real world we might end up living in a distopian world, with very large swathes of the population scraping together what they can in the real world from very low paying virtual world jobs. Their aspiration may we’ll be to afford just enough to buy that new VR headset or suit that allows them to experience their next virtual vacation.

In this virtual world we will see all the same tendencies and deviancies we see in the real world, but amplified in this online world.

Those with compulsive gambling tendencies are sure to be easy targets for AI algorithms, as demonstrated by Rick, Aunt Alice’s loser boyfriend who bets all their home deposit savings on upgrades for a game he was sure to win if he just had the right pair of gloves. People are likely to be met with scammers and charlatans. Policing, fairness and justice will all be big challenges.

Here I hope that RPO is not a prescient vision of the future. In the movie many people work for IOI in “loyalty centres”. They are forced to work to repay loans advanced by IOI to them. IOI also make money in the movie by selling Virtual Reality hardware (haptic suits, gloves, omni-directional treadmills) to people in the real world; but as our evil arch nemesis Nolan Sorento says in the movie “debt services dwarfs hardware”. And of course they make their money like our tech giants do, “selling up to 80 percent of a players visual field [to advertising] before inducing seizures”.

One of the things I am very concerned about is the burden of debt in this future world. In a world where real world income is shrinking, debt will be the killer.

In the movie it is Art3mis’s dad who, having borrowed gear, built up debt, got sick and could not afford to pay off his debt. He died in an IOI loyalty centre trying to work off those debts. Then IOI purchase and consolidate all of Art3mis’s (Samantha’s) debt and remand her to an IOI loyalty centre until her debts are paid off.

Just as in RPO, many individuals in the real world will likely have substantial debt burdens, from student loans, credit cards, medical bills and possibly, in game obligations. Add to that governments that are currently as heavily indebted as at any point in history, made even worse by the recent COVID19 crisis, will need taxes to pay that off. All of that Real world debt needs to be paid for with real world income.

Already as society we are starting to see a questioning of whether the tech behemoths are contributing to society fairly for the profit they extract. It’s likely that tax changes will occur to ensure that both these companies and the wealthy few who benefit from them pay a substantial portion of the tax burden. Solutions will have to be found to tax where revenue is generated in these global ecosystems.

Another possible development is the idea of a Universal Basic Income: a social safety net whereby everyone receives a certain minimum income from the state, presumably afforded by taxing the tech companies. Andrew Yang, one of this years early Democratic presidential candidates in the US, championed the idea of UBI as an antidote to automation lead job loss.

On a bleak note, I am afraid I don’t expect to see RPOs fairy tail ending. In particular I think it’s relatively unlikely that we will end up with a benevolent “High five” set of idealistic gamers in charge of the greatest profit generating business in the world. And I don’t anticipate that they will close it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We are going to have to find the will power within ourselves to tear ourselves away from the virtual world.

So in summary, my speculations are

1. In future the majority of our work and social interactions will happen in online virtual worlds

2. Those virtual worlds will have virtual economies and there will be exchange rates between the virtual world currencies and real world currencies. They may have to develop forms of governance and virtual legal contracts to enable those virtual economies to flourish.

3. Because of automation and the pyramid nature of the online world we might see even more inequality in society with large swathes of the population enjoying themselves in the virtual world but scraping together a minimal income in the real world. How will society adapt to these challenges?

Is it all doom and gloom?

The luddites beleived technology would destroy jobs and they were wrong. The Prometheus myth has always instilled the fear that steeling fire (inventing new tech) will draw the wrath of the gods destroying human-kind but it’s never been the case. On that basis these fears may be overblown, perhaps we just don’t have the imagination to know how we will adapt to this new world.

All is not lost: In the words of James Haliday at the end of the movie: As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal.

And that’s not about to change any time soon.

Because like James Haliday said, “Reality is the only thing that’s real.”

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