Microsoft and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, have their own visions for a virtual world called the metaverse — but an alternate, open-source vision from Seattle science-fiction author Neal Stephenson is gathering steam.
And while Stephenson may not have billions of dollars at his command, he has a selling point that the tech heavyweights can’t match: He’s the guy who came up with the concept of the metaverse for a 1992 sci-fi novel titled “Snow Crash.”
The venture co-founded by Stephenson and digital currency pioneer Peter Vessenes, known as Lamina1, aims to take advantage of blockchain, a technology that’s just as buzzy as the multiverse. The plan is to develop a Layer 1 (in Latin, “Lamina 1”) blockchain platform that content creators can take advantage of as they build out their corner of the metaverse.
According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.
“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”
He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.
The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.
One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.
“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”
Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.
Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.
“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.
Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.
“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”
Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.
I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”
“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”
Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.
“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”
Singapore-based SpaceChain has been ramping up its activity over the past year, highlighted by the launch of two nanosatellite-based blockchain nodes into orbit aboard Chinese Long March rockets in February and October of 2018.
After months of financial uncertainty, the Planetary Resources asteroid-mining venture says its assets have been purchased by the Brooklyn-based ConsenSys blockchain venture.
In a news release, Planetary Resources said its CEO and president, Chris Lewicki, and general counsel Brian Israel have joined ConsenSys in connection with the acquisition. ConsenSys will operate its space initiatives out of Planetary Resources’ former facility in Redmond, Wash.
Further details about the transaction are confidential, Planetary Resources spokeswoman Stacey Tearne told GeekWire in an email.
ConsenSys is a production studio that creates enterprises in a wide range of business areas based on the Ethereum platform for cryptocurrency and other blockchain applications. It has spawned 50 ventures, or “spokes,” including an online poker site, a legal services site and a “transmedia universe integrated with blockchain technology” called Cellarius.
The company’s founder is Joe Lubin, who co-founded Ethereum. Today, Lubin paid tribute to Planetary Resources for its “world-class talent, its record of innovation, and for inspiring people across our planet in support of its bold vision for the future.”