Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s latest trawling of the thesaurus, the whole tech world is paying lip service to his metaverse fantasies. Are there enough talents to help China to step into the new dimension?
Photo from CFP
By ZHOU Shuqi
Everyone is talking about the metaverse, but what is it? The term was first used in a 1992 science fiction story and remained relatively obscure until this fall when Mark Zuckerberg decided Facebook would become a metaverse company. Whether Zuckerberg was referencing the original or freestyling new vocabulary, no one knows, but whatever it means, FOMO is reverberating through the hallowed halls of Big Tech and Big Money.
Microsoft, Tencent, Bytedance, and Alibaba have all made public their metaverse ambitions, without being absolutely crystal clear about their real intentions. Then came the name change, as Facebook set out to detach from its increasingly toxic self.
Everyone wants to have, and to be, a piece of the metaverse, even if it is just something Zukerburg made up. It sounds like it will be inhabited by goggle-wearing gamers and probably won’t amount to much beyond a slightly different image on a phone.
“In the metaverse,” said SHEN Yang, a Tsinghua University School of Journalism and Communication professor, “the virtual world and the real world melt into each other.”
According to Shen, the metaverse should be underpinned by a robust economic model and content generation mechanism.
Strong technology will be the foundation of it all. 5G, cloud computing, and blockchain would be the three pillars of the metaverse. The first two enable a large number of people to be online and interact with one another at the same time, while blockchain provides a secure environment to carry out these interactions, such as buying and selling goods or verifying property rights.
“The reason metaverse came into view in 2021 is that we now have made some progress in each of these areas,” said GUO Bin, a computer science professor at Northwestern Polytechnical University.
Some progress, but not there yet. With demand ballooning, talents are already in short supply. Zhaopin.com, an online job bulletin, estimated that there was a 4.17 million shortage of high-tech workers in China by the end of 2020. In cloud computing and blockchain, the shortage is to soon reach 1.5 million and 750,000 (according to Gartner) respectively.
Last year, 16 new job categories, many related to telecommunication, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence, were recognized by the National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
“Of course, even with the technology, you need managers and customers,” said Shen. “The metaverse will mainly consist of existing technology. We just need to keep doing what we are already doing.”
The consensus is that the metaverse is just the virtual world with better virtual and augmented realities. China’s VR industry never took off and was dragged back into the spotlight this year, there is a long way to go to catch up.
According to the China Electronics Information Industry Development Academy, the industry will need to break its reliance on foreign equipment and come up with a new human-computer interface, something that is nowhere near ready.
The human-computer interaction part has been all but ignored in China, so much so that there are calls for targeted education and labor policies. A new set of professional standards was passed in August.
But those without doctorates in computer science are not necessarily going to miss out. The tech industry will need armies of engineers, designers, and managers to build applications. Game makers are hiring – or trying to hire - in large numbers. Nike, which recently registered metaverse trademarks, has job openings for virtual designers. Facebook (Meta) says it will create 10,000 jobs in the EU in this area.
Jobs that involve heavy in-person interaction - interpreters, tour guides, and store clerks - will be some of the first to be replaced by robots and algorithms in the metaverse. "When you talk to the others, no matter who they are, they perceive the information in their mother tongue," said Shen. Humans will be unnecessary in many cases if the metaverse was to somehow become a reality.