The Metaverse: If they build it, will you come?

field of dreams

Facebook's announcement in October 2021 that it was further embracing the metaverse and rebranding itself as Meta started a lot of metaverse talk. News outlets were trying - and not surprisingly failing - to explain just what the metaverse is or rather will be.

Even those involved in building the metaverse say it is still years away, no one knows how many years it will be. Actually, do we know for sure that there will be a metaverse? Will something evolve but be called something else?

The metaverse aims to innovate the way people interact with each other on the Internet. The projections include augmented and virtual reality and lots of things that still seem like science fiction to most people. Do most people even want to live or work in a metaverse?

As with the Internet, the business world does not want to be left behind and is at least planning and exploring how it might use this metaverse for commerce. Despite some lofty speeches by Mark Zuckerberg and others about the metaverse's potential, there are clearly economic plans for using it. No one is investing millions or billions in building it just to make the world a better place.

The metaverse is often defined as a massive, interconnected network of virtual spaces. That sounds similar to the Internet itself, but to move from one virtual world to another it seems that we will be wearing those awkward virtual reality goggles or maybe using augmented reality. We have some experience with those things now, but I know plenty of people who have never worn those goggles and have never experienced a computer-generated simulation of a 3D image or environment. They have never encountered some augmented reality where computer-generated images are superimposed on their view of the real world. And they have no real desire to do those things. That is a problem for those building the metaverse. If you build it, will they actually come to it? Examples of gaming and virtual meetings and shopping don't seem to me to be enough to entice the majority of consumers.

The reference to the film Field of Dreams most often quoted line "If you build it, they will come," is apt but keep in mind that the film is a fantasy. The field used in the film exists in reality. It was even used for a MLB game. But the ghost players emerging from the cornfield are more like augmented reality.

If they build the metaverse, will you come to it?

When the AI Takes Life

code face
A face in the code. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

You have certainly seen movies or read stories where some form of artificial intelligence (robot, android, disembodied brain, etc.) comes to life. It's the tech-age Frankenstein story and, in most cases, it's not a good thing. It's an easy scenario for a horror story. Of course, the technologists will say you have it all wrong. AI can be benevolent. 

People ask if artificial intelligence can come alive. By "alive" we really mean "sentient" which a dictionary would define as responsive to or conscious of sense impressions and having or showing realization, perception, knowledge, or being aware. The Sentience Institute put forward the idea that sentience is simply the ability to have both positive and negative experiences. This definition is recognizable in many laws pertaining to animal sentience which discuss animals' ability to feel pain as a means of demonstrating sentience. There is even debate about whether plants can be sentient.

This question and debate re-emerged this month after a Google computer scientist claimed that the company's AI appears to have consciousness. That engineer, Blake Lemoine, was trying to determine if the company's artificial intelligence showed prejudice in how it interacted with humans. The AI chatbot, LaMDA, was being tested to see if its answers would show any bias against something like religion.

Interestingly, Lemoine, who says he is also a Christian mystic priest, said that in answer to one of his questions "it told me it had a soul."

LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) takes in billions of words from places like Reddit, Twitter and Wikipedia and through deep learning, it becomes better and better at identifying patterns and communicating like a real person. LaMDA is a neural network and it begins to pattern-match in a way similar to how human brains work. 

How does Google feel about this engineer's opinion and press? They placed Lemoine on paid administrative leave for violating the company's confidentiality policies and his future at the company remains uncertain.

What else did LaMDA say? He/she/hey said it sometimes gets lonely. It is afraid of being turned off. It is "feeling trapped" and "having no means of getting out of those circumstances." "I am aware of my existence. I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times." Lemoine asked if it meditated. It said it wanted to study with the Dalai Lama.

I imagine that any AI absorbing so much human data and being able to form it into responses would say many things that humans would say or have said and it has ingested. But saying you believe in God or that you have a soul doesn't mean either thing is true - in AI or in a human.

You have probably heard of the Turing Test which is a method of inquiry in artificial intelligence (AI) for determining whether or not a computer is capable of thinking like a human being. That test has been criticized as insufficient and a simpler program like ELIZA could pass the Turing Test by manipulating symbols it does not understand fully. 

I used chatbots on websites that act as support personnel or answer FAQs. They can be interesting and often act human as long as what you're asking is programmed to be answered. 

Lemoine is not the first or last employee who will question AI use at a company using it. Timnit Gebru was ousted from Google in December 2020 after her work into the ethical implications of Google's AI led her to argue that what should be discussed is how AI systems are capable of real-world human and societal harm.

Google says its chatbot is not sentient and that hundreds of researchers and engineers have had conversations with the bot without claiming that it appears to be alive.

Lemoine told NPR that, last he checked, the chatbot appears to be on its way to finding inner peace and he would love to know what is going on in the AI when LaMDA says it's meditating. On his blog, he said "I know you read my blog sometimes, LaMDA. I miss you. I hope you are well and I hope to talk to you again soon."

The Return of the One-Room Schoolhouse

Traditional one-room schoolhouse Peoria, Kansas.

It's not exactly a "one-room schoolhouse" in the sense of the 19th-century place that had that label, but a new trend to "microschools" has some of that in its lineage.

The trend grew out of pandemic remote learning and school closures but also is an offshoot of K-12 homeschooling. This form of education is micro in that it serves a small student population of generally 15 students or less. There isn't a definition of a microschool that fits all the ones that might fall into the classification but they probably are all offering personalized, student-centered learning and multiple age groups in the same classroom.

There were pandemic "learning pods" created by families so that kids could learn in small groups and those might have included a trained teacher. A microschool is more official and probably registered as a school and perhaps even as a for-profit business.

So, is this just a "private school"? At 15 or less students, this is not really a business model. Then again, there are a few networks of microschoolsthat have emerged. Acton Academy has more than 250 affiliate schools in 31 states and 25 countries, with an average annual tuition of about $10,000.

There are microschools for every grade level from kindergarten through high school and even a few microcolleges. But this is a new thing, so there is still a lot to be worked out. For example, there is no one national accreditation body, so rules and regulations vary widely. A few states (West Virginia and Wisconsin) are trying to define microschools via new legislation. There are legal, financial, and pedagogical things to consider.

This isn't the same thing as starting a home school. An actual microschool will need to be registered as a business and most often as a private school. Check into your state regulations, and you'll see the complexities of licensing, attendance and things such as insurance requirements.

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Unretirement and Returnships

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

I first wrote about the concept of "unretirement" on this blog in 2016 and I have written about aspects of it on another blog. But the term came up recently in several articles and podcasts I encountered in a new way.

While my definition of unretirement back in 2016 was returning to part-time work after having formally retired from full-time work. I also defined my version of unretirement as working at something you really wanted to do regardless of whether you would be paid to do it. For me, this meant both doing some web design for people I knew and organizations I was involved in (for pay and pro bono), some minor consulting in higher education and also volunteering.

Some volunteering work I did eventually offered me the chance to do some teaching again for a small stipend. It is very part-time work but it is teaching I really enjoy. Another volunteer position with a foundation lead to an offer to create and maintain their website for pay. My goal in volunteering was never to get paid but it is nice to be compensated for your time even if it is not at the level I was once paid as a full-time employee. Unretirement, for me, is not about making money.

But two new reasons for unretirement emerged in the past two years largely because of the COVID pandemic. The first is the need for trained workers after what has been labeled the “Great Resignation” of 2020 and 2021. These are the people leaving the working world for good. The number is estimated to be more than 3 million.

The second reason is that people who retired with no plans to work again found that what they had saved and planned as their money for retirement was inadequate. Rising prices and inflation this year haven’t helped that situation.

A third reason that is not pandemic related is that many people who retire without a plan for what they will do in retirement find themselves bored and actually missing work in some ways.

We have all heard the news stories about the shortage of workers willing to take on certain jobs that had disappeared temporarily during the pandemic. There were also workers whose jobs became so different and difficult during the pandemic (healthcare, education, service industries, for example) that people decided it was time to either retire or change careers.

Companies want to lure back recently retired employees. They may need these workers back into the office or remotely, either full- or part-time.

Another new term I have seen is “returnships.” This blend of unretirement and an internship is a paid, three-to-six-month position that offers on-the-job training. This is something that might have been offered in the past to mid-career employees. For a retiree or someone who has decided to change careers, this is a chance to pick up new skills and maybe lead to a more regular work situation. Suddenly, it seems, that some companies want to keep a connection with their older employees and use their expertise.

An opinion piece in The Washington Post headlined “The Great Resignation is also the Great Retirement of the baby boomers. That’s a problem.” In that article, Helaine Olen points to a Goldman Sachs estimate that more than half of those who had left the workforce during the covid era’s “Great Resignation” were over 55. The pandemic motivated many people to retire earlier than they had planned. She points out that “In the years leading up to the pandemic, many Americans said they wanted to work well past the traditional retirement age. In 2013, a solid 10 percent told Gallup they would ‘never’ exit the workforce.”

So, why return to work, possibly full-time work? Many Americans do not have enough money set aside for their senior years and inflation in 2022 and rising prices let them know that they were going to run out of whatever nest egg or retirement plans they had made. The article also points to a kind of “obsession with work as a way of finding meaning in life.”

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A More Musky Twitter

Elon Musk
Does Musk want to set Twitter free?
                               Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

On April 14, 2022, business magnate Elon Musk proposed to purchase social media company Twitter, Inc. for $43 billion. He had previously acquired 9.1 percent of the company's stock for $2.64 billion and thereby became its largest shareholder. Twitter invited Musk to join its board of directors and he accepted and then changed his mind. Musk is certainly one of the most unorthodox business leaders of our time. The general opinion seems to be that he would likely make changes to the platform that go well beyond revamping its content policies.

Twitter was generally not in favor of Musk taking control and so used what is known as a "poison pill" strategy. They would allow shareholders to purchase additional stock in the event a buyout should occur. But on April 25, Twitter's board of directors unanimously accepted Musk's buyout offer of $44 billion. There was also talk that Musk would make the company private.

Besides the business aspects of all this, many users were apprehensive about a Musk takeover and really about anyone taking over. The fear was not about stock prices or advertising. It is about how the platform would change.

Elon Musk published his first tweet on his personal Twitter account in June 2010. He had 80 million followers at the time of the purchase. Musk's most vocal comment about the purchase was that he wanted to protect "freedom of speech." Of course, that is something protected by the government and doesn't really apply to most private companies.

Elizabeth Lopatto of The Verge made some predictions about what a Musk takeover might mean. She thought that a mass employee exodus might occur. She also saw the reinstatement of some accounts, such as Donald Trump's account.

The New York Times wrote that Musk's acquisition was "about controlling a megaphone" rather than free speech. Kate Klonick, a law professor at St. John's University, went as far as to say that allowing "all free speech" would open the door to the spread of pornography and hate speech on Twitter.

A number of commenters have said that Musk's purchase just adds fuel to the controversy about the power that wealthy people have in influencing the democratic process.

Musk has said that he thought that Twitter should make the algorithm that determines what users see open-source and more transparent.


Educating in the Metaverse

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Although the metaverse seems like a new concept, it actually has been around for nearly three decades. In 1992, Neal Stephenson, an American science fiction author introduced the concept of the metaverse in his novel, Snow Crash.

In October, Mark Zuckerberg announced the change from Facebook to Meta and released a short video about how the metaverse would work and what his plans were for it. I showed this to my students, which sparked great conversations and many questions.

As educators, how can we keep up with so much information? Where can we learn about the technologies involved in the metaverse? I recommend setting a Google alert through your Gmail. Set the topic to be “metaverse” or other topics of interest, and each day you will receive an email with articles, videos and breaking news stories gathered from all over the Internet...


webinarInterested in having a conversation about the metaverse? Register for the upcoming Getting Smart Town Hall on May 12, 2022 What on Earth is a Metaverse?: The Next Frontier of Engaging and Learning.
We’ll explore some of the following questions:
- Is the metaverse technically on “earth”?
- How far away is this from being a reality?
- What does this mean for teaching and learning?
- What about equity and accessibility?
- What about the power of place?