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It’s a utopian vision and a looming dystopia. A science fiction promise only just beginning to cross the fuzzy boundary into reality.
Welcome to the metaverse.
In October of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his plans for the next phase of the digitized human experience. It would be immersive in a true sense – a virtual world accepted to have realness in its own right, where people live rather than simply plugging in.
In his 2021 Founder’s Letter to stakeholders, Zuckerberg wrote,
“The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence – like you are right there with another person or in another place.”
But what does this mean from a practical perspective, exactly? The metaverse will blur the lines between mundane and virtual realities by leveraging VR and AR technologies.
Once the architects of the future build the metaverse, residents will be able to move through, engage with and socialize within digital spaces just as they would in real life.
Needless to say, people have opinions about it, and much of their conversation stops at the theoretical. The metaverse is for now a far-off idea. However, there’s little doubt that Pandora’s Box will eventually open.
As we’ve seen time and time again, humans are too curious to leave the potential for innovation unexplored. The building blocks for this new world are barely defined – let alone ready to stack. The architects of the future are missing one of the core tools they’ll need to assemble the metaverse – accessible randomness.
Understanding randomness’s role in metaverse construction
As Rabindra Ratan and Dar Meshi neatly summed up in an article for Bright Think,
“Web 3.0 will be the foundation for the metaverse. It will consist of blockchain-enabled decentralized applications that support an economy of user-owned crypto assets and data.”
Randomness is a core aspect of cryptography, which in turn underlies many technologies that will be foundational to metaverse construction – most notably, blockchain.
Blockchain’s functionality hinges upon cryptographic features such as randomly generated public-private key pairs and the application of nonce (number used once) in proof-of-work validation.
For a simple example, we can turn to crypto wallet keys. These public-private key pairs are randomly generated to prevent a malicious actor from guessing them and gaining access to users’ hard-earned crypto.
Without randomness to provide security, a single lucky guess from the hacker could lead to crippling financial losses for the user.
As Henrique Centiero noted for Level Up in mid-2021, random numbers,
“remove the reasoning and predictability of generating numbers, making it hard for an attacker to access the information. The attacker will have no way or mechanism to reason how those numbers were generated, making it harder to hack and discover how the cryptographic keys were created.”
Keys require randomness to be secure – and since they already have it, welcoming users to the metaverse should be a simple matter, right?
Wrong. While blockchain currently offers key security, it falls short on privacy. When users leverage blockchain technologies, they can rest assured that every transaction will be secure, auditable and transparent.
However, transparency cuts both ways – without further privacy measures, a user who makes a purchase using blockchain leaves themselves open to uncomfortable scrutiny.
Think of it this way. If you stopped at a local coffee shop before work, would you want the barista to see your personal banking history as he makes your cappuccino?
If the metaverse is to be a world people can live in, it needs to offer the comfort of privacy. Every feature within every attraction of every digital hub needs to leverage randomness to provide a truly secure and private experience. Otherwise, people may not even visit, let alone choose to take up residence in the metaverse.
If some DApps decide not to prioritize privacy ahead of the metaverse launch, users might become wary as they traverse digital worlds, worrying every time they enter a new hub that their privacy may be compromised.
Thus, we can understand that randomness is fundamental to constructing a universally secure, trustworthy and private metaverse. Just as real-world contractors require bricks and mortar to build stunning skyscrapers, so too do metaverse architects need randomness generators to make their visions a (virtual) reality.
The problem is that randomness isn’t exactly easy to achieve – and some architects are more fortunate in their access than others.
In the metaverse’s earliest days, accessible randomness is an equality imperative
Achieving randomness at scale is a challenging task. According to DappRadar’s 2021 report, the number of unique active wallets connected to DApps topped 2.7 million by the end of the year, and blockchain virtual worlds achieved a record market cap of $3.6 billion.
The sheer demand associated with privacy-preserving randomness generation is high now and will only grow as the need for more DApps, virtual spaces and metaverse experiences increases.
So, what are the architects of the future to do? Theoretically, each DApp development team could create its own randomness generator. However, doing so would take up a great deal of time, effort and resources.
For some players, the investment will be feasible. Wealthy corporate players like Meta, Microsoft and Google have deep pockets and considerable motivation to stake their claim on the metaverse. They can sink resources into randomness acquisition and not think twice of the expense.
But for independent developers who don’t have the advantage of corporate wealth, obtaining the tools necessary for metaverse construction simply isn’t that easy.
At best, such architects might be slow to start construction. At worst, they’ll be reduced to wandering worlds derived from corporate imagination, always knowing that they could have built something special if they only had the chance.
This cannot come to pass. The metaverse is meant to be a place of infinite potential. From a philosophical standpoint, the only limits placed on metaverse architects should be those of imagination.
If a person can dream it, they should be capable of building it. However, when randomness – a core ‘building block’ for the metaverse – isn’t universally accessible, only those with deep pockets will have the chance to build.
Corporate dominance would set the groundwork for a modern fiefdom. Industry giants might see the metaverse as an opportunity to expand their symbolic domination and increase their profits.
These players could attempt to monopolize the digital landscape, expand their brand’s identity into the virtual world, and claim the metaverse as corporate property.
But to reduce the metaverse to a playground for commercial giants would be to utterly degrade its founding spirit. People should have the right to be free from centralized control and build their worlds in the metaverse, limited only by the constraints of imagination.
Thus, we come to the only conclusion – that to live up to the metaverse’s promise, we need to make randomness universally accessible.
A universally-accessible and decentralized randomness generator could empower metaverse visionaries to ensure honesty, fairness, transparency and privacy as they construct their own virtual worlds.
Opportunities will no longer be restricted to wealthy corporate players. Individual builders can work unhindered, build a community and develop a metaverse playground that welcomes and supports everyone – not just tech behemoths.
The metaverse isn’t much more than a dream at the moment. However, accessible randomness will empower digital architects to start building the first structures of the metaverse and deliver the digital worlds we imagine into (artificial) reality.
Yemu Xu is a co-founder of ARPA and Bella Protocol, and founding partner at ZX Squared Capital.