Meta – the parent company of social media giant Facebook – has released a new technology called the Metaverse with the goal of connecting people in a more immersive online setting. However, critics have raised concerns about whether our computers or the environment could support such a project. What are the environmental implications and energy consumption of the Metaverse?
First Impressions of the Metaverse
The Metaverse is a virtual world where users can enter as avatars and interact with each other inside a three-dimensional simulated environment. It relies on artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), which require costly data processing.
Facebook’s emissions have slowly climbed as new and improved data centres came online. The company’s electricity usage jumped from 3.4 to 5.1 terawatt-hours from 2018 to 2019, but it also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 59% during the same time frame.
The company officially reached 100% renewable energy in early 2021, so it has made impressive strides in recent years. The Metaverse could be the project that puts Facebook over the edge as a fully sustainable social network.
If successful, the Metaverse could greatly limit travel emissions on both a local and global scale. White-collar labourers could work in the Metaverse instead of commuting to work every day. Air travel for events like concerts and sports games would all but disappear. However, critics have raised some valid concerns.
According to a 2019 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, one AI language processing model’s estimated carbon footprint and electricity cost was over 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. Based on that number, the Metaverse energy consumption and emissions would be through the roof.
Moreover, analysts at Intel believe our global computing infrastructure needs to be 1,000 times more powerful to comfortably sustain the Metaverse. We all would have to switch to cloud-based gaming software with higher resolution capabilities.
Plus, with approximately 4.93 billion people using the internet, these seemingly minor factors would quickly add up and create more security breach opportunities.
With these factors in mind, one could conclude that the Metaverse will do more harm than good for the environment. The market certainly doesn’t seem too keen on the idea, as Meta’s stocks have tanked in recent weeks and resulted in a $230 billion loss. However, the leaders in big tech still have some tricks up their sleeves.
Eco-Friendly Innovations in Big Tech
Big Tech, recognising the need for more sustainable computing, has unveiled some plans to help offset new technologies like the Metaverse.
For starters, Meta committed to zero-net emissions in its value chain by 2030. To achieve this goal, Meta has made a new wind farm in Altoona, Iowa, its largest energy source as part of the Great Pathfinder Wind Project. Switching to more renewable energy sources will help support the Metaverse in the long run.
Microsoft has also committed to using renewable energy for its cloud platform, Azure, by 2025 and going zero-waste by 2030. Apple wants to make its products carbon-neutral by 2030 as well. To achieve these lofty goals, they must find more eco-friendly ways to build their products and create virtual realities.
We might have the hardware for a sustainable virtual reality with new algorithms and software improvements. Intel has confirmed the release of a new GPU that supports advanced AI and 4K video resolution.
We have also witnessed a transition from virtual reality to augmented reality, such as Meta’s Oculus Quest device. Augmented reality (AR) is a more sustainable form of VR that adds digital elements to a real setting, rather than creating an entirely new environment from scratch.
A small-scale version of the Metaverse might already exist with blockchain technology and NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Blockchain is a highly secure digital transaction system that makes it difficult for users to access or change information in the system. NFTs are tokens that represent anything with a unique identity, including avatars and gaming items.
The Metaverse could use these technologies to create a more streamlined and secure augmented reality, but the most pressing question remains: do we have the power? Big Tech conglomerates have to do a lot of foundational work for our computers to support a global Metaverse.
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How Should Consumers Respond?
Big tech experts are usually optimistic about advancements in the industry, so their criticisms of the Metaverse energy consumption should concern the average consumer. There doesn’t seem to be any way that Meta, Microsoft, Apple, and other tech giants can reconcile their environmental goals with the creation of a fully immersive Metaverse.
As long as the Metaverse remains in its developmental stages, we can only guess how it will achieve net-zero emissions. In the meantime, we should continue to focus on our own efforts to use technology more sustainably in the following ways:
- Take care of our electronics and use them longer.
- Avoid binge-watching and overconsumption.
- Use cloud storage in moderation.
- Properly recycle e-waste.
- Buy electronics second-hand.
- Watch content in a lower video resolution while using VR or AR.
The Future of the Metaverse Remains Uncertain
Unless we see some significant upgrades in computer software capabilities in the next five years, the future of the Metaverse remains uncertain. Big Tech’s long-term sustainability goals also don’t have a clear path towards success, though switching to renewable energy sources is a good start. For now, we can only speculate on whether the Metaverse will be successful and overcome its dubious environmental prospects.
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