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A green and pleasant Metaverse?

The 1999 film, The Matrix, dystopian vision of a future where machines exploit human energy by keeping people perpetually comatose in pods, while placating their minds with a continuous simulated reality, was (cinematographically) famous for its use of the colour green. A green filter was used on all the scenes shot in the Matrix to give it an otherworldly feel, as though it was being viewed through a computer monitor.

But how green will the Metaverse be? The creation of a boundaryless, persistent, immersive, hyper-realistic virtual world, that is available to everyone on the planet, is going to consume a lot of energy, with a corresponding environmental impact – while it’s easy to promise a carbon neutral Metaverse through renewable means, the recent war in Ukraine has shown how fickle the presumptive transition to green energy really is, with countries looking to coal as an alternative to Russian oil and gas.

The big internet companies are already acutely aware of their impact on the environment (and the accompanying reputational impact) and have committed to having all of their activities powered by renewable sources. However, according the International Energy Agency, global data centre electricity use in 2020 was 200-250 TWh1, or around 1% of global electricity demand. A not insignificant contribution to global warming that is only set to increase in order to meet our growing demand for digital services.

If we consider senior vice president and head of Intel's Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics, Raja Koduri position, in a December 2021 opinion piece titled “Powering the Metaverse”, that: “Truly persistent and immersive computing, at scale and accessible by billions of humans in real time” will require “a 1,000-times increase in computational efficiency from today’s state of the art”, then, assuming we don’t manage to increase our computational efficiency a thousand-fold in the time it takes to realise the Metaverse, we’re looking at a serious increase in energy demand.

But what about the energy that the Metaverse will save? The promise of the Metaverse is a hyper-realistic virtual world close to, if indistinguishable from the real world. This means a natural and significant reduction in travel. According the International Energy Agency, transport has “the highest reliance on fossil fuels of any sector and accounts for 37% of CO2 emissions from end‐use sectors.” In a world where the Metaverse has been fully realised, why would anyone spend hours travelling when we can experience hyper-realistic ‘face-to-face’ engagements. Covid has quickly taught us to adapt to Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and the Metaverse will be a natural extension to this.

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