The idea that tomorrow’s big supercomputers could revolutionize our technological environment has a somewhat 1960s feel to it. But despite that, the arms race to build the metaverse is anything but in the past.
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If the metaverse’s most hopeful projections come true, it will be due to a bunch of good old-fashioned processing power.
Consider the enormity of the technological challenges imposed by a metaverse: A theoretically infinite number of users engaging in real time in a continually changing virtual world.
In an extensively circulated blog post this year, Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who launched a fund of metaverse-related equities, claimed that it will demand “the greatest ongoing computational requirements in human history.”
In a December essay, Intel VP Raja Koduri stated that “a 1,000-times increase in computational efficiency” is required.
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This has real-world ramifications. Even a small version of the metaverse would result in a massive increase in demand for chips, networking power, and device manufacturing advancements. As a result, the competition to develop a virtual world could become a serious issue of physical competitiveness.
“The metaverse has a lot of economies of scale waiting to happen,” said Pedro Domingos, a University of Washington professor emeritus of computer science and engineering. “And every one of the big tech companies comes to it with different motivations and different DNA.”
Consider the chip scarcity, a seemingly faraway concept that affected Americans’ wallets hard during the pandemic. Today’s internet businesses recognize that, short of a general conversion to Luddism, depending on Taiwanese manufacturers would no longer suffice in terms of generating “economies of scale.”
And constructing the metaverse will necessitate a lot of concrete hardware: Meta has already constructed a large AI supercomputer capable of processing massive amounts of data. Nvidia and AMD are competing in the chip market. (Networking is also a hardware issue: The Wall Street Journal reported this week on Apple’s plans to manufacture its own modem chips in the hopes of developing always-on augmented reality technology.)
Chip production has become a geopolitical concern, which has heightened rivalry. Despite overwhelming odds, Intel CEO Patrick Gelsinger has undertaken a fight to decrease America’s reliance on Taiwanese-made chips, while businesses like Samsung and Texas Instruments have lately expanded their manufacturing capacity in the United States.
Washington is fully aware of the situation: A bipartisan agreement aimed at increasing America’s tech competitiveness is nearing completion and includes $52 billion for semiconductor production in the United States.
However, even the most powerful hypothetical chips may not be adequate to fulfill the tech industry’s wildest dreams, implying that the metaverse may end up fueling advances that go beyond today’s hardware wars.
“Moore’s law is not going to go on forever,” said Domingos. “The limits are not enough to realize something like a full-blown metaverse.” Advancements in optical computing, or quantum computing, he said, might be engines for metaverse development, as well as the development of new integrated circuits tailored to the technology.
The idea that tomorrow’s big supercomputers could revolutionize our technological environment has a somewhat 1960s feel to it, which makes it hilarious that this technology is being created with an eye toward what amounts to a worldwide chat room.
Consumer items, on the other hand, are often the source of significant, and sometimes surprising, innovation: Consider how the desire for fast, ubiquitous internet connection fueled the 5G transformation. Even the graphical engines that would power the metaverse are primarily the result of a decades-long arms race between video game hardware developers.
Of course, the United States is not exclusively rushing to the future. Tencent and ByteDance, two Chinese internet corporations, are rushing to buy the technologies that will power the metaverse, making this one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats agree (hence the House and Senate competitiveness bills). The metaverse may not be issue 1A in Washington, but it is precisely the kind of lofty aim that drives the worldwide race for technological superiority.
The US government’s infatuation with quantum computing grows: The Biden administration is promoting a number of new technology initiatives.
The first is an executive order that will bring the National Quantum Initiative, an office that consults on quantum research and development, under the White House’s control — and thus nearer to actual politics, demonstrating the administration’s desire to increase global tech competitiveness.
Second, and more specifically, the president is signing an official memo that will direct NIST to start a project to explore the landscape of cryptography in a quantum computing future, among other things. Cryptographers believe that a sufficiently powerful quantum computer might crack virtually any existing coding, making quantum computing a huge national security concern in the future.
Which raises an intriguing question: how do you protect yourself from a technology that does not exist yet?
During a Tuesday briefing for reporters on the projects, a senior administration official said, “you don’t need a quantum computer to make quantum-resistant cryptography.” “You can design new classical algorithms that work on the routers and networks we have today that are resilient to a future quantum computer.”
The official was alluding to NIST’s current competition for cryptographers to design a demonstrably quantum-proof code, the winners of which will be announced “very soon,” according to the official. (As a condition of the briefing, the official demanded anonymity from reporters.)
Then comes the difficult part: actually deploying it to vulnerable systems and training people on how to use it, even while security experts continue to try to close gaps in our current, non-quantum digital environment.