Charles Simonyi, the godfather of virtual worlds, steps up to

Is the next great playground for humanity a virtual world? Silicon Valley thinks so, and soon Meta is ready to start handing out party invitations. The brainchild of neuroscientist Charles Simonyi, Meta is a place in which people can work together in a collaborative web, in exchange for rewards.

A part of Simonyi’s many interests, the idea is to capitalise on a phenomenon referred to as “superposition” – the confluence of brain power and digital technology, enabling people to work together on problems in a higher level than merely completing assignments. It’s already being used by Simonyi, known for his contributions to Microsoft’s Office productivity suite, and is celebrated by his friends and colleagues. Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen recently joined the company board, where he is a strong backer of Simonyi’s technology.

Simonyi first used virtual worlds in an effort to learn about his daughter during her early years. He was in for a surprise when she defied the odds and went on to lead a normal, seemingly fulfilling life.

“You could see it was in her DNA: she was a leader and had an extraordinary ability to problem-solve and she could communicate on a level that was unusual and distinguished,” says Simonyi. “When I started looking at her, I saw this possibility in terms of the business world: what if everyone in the world had the power and talent that she had?”

His daughter went on to become a language teacher, helping students struggling with English and Chinese, and Simonyi’s interest in digital life grew from there. He decided to merge a child’s creativity with his own experiences to build Meta.

“The first stage of programming was simple tasks, but those tasks also allowed you to learn something, ” says Simonyi. “Today, 99% of what we do is not simple. It has become really sophisticated, really fast, involving loads of systems and algorithms that are built for very specific functions, and you need strong memory and supercomputer-level resources to learn these things. If you had used those brute force platforms 10 years ago, the cost was too high; your ability to learn would be stunted.”

With this in mind, Meta leverages neural networks – brain processes that are described as “general purpose generative machines” – to create an environment in which everyone can learn at once.

“It’s a learning environment, of course, but it’s also the primary ‘thing’,” says Simonyi. “There are scores of millions of units you can have [on a single platform] but they’re centralised.”

One particularly exciting part of the software is its interaction between physical and virtual worlds. The project received support from SRI International, a government-funded organisation located in California that develops technology and techniques for the US military and intelligence services.

“It’s being built in collaboration with the SRI consortium, where their technical output is something you can now work on in a virtual world,” says Simonyi. “We have with them a hub where we’ll begin to put the network together, the control system, and software that will allow people to cooperate in the virtual world.”

As for the future, Simonyi says Meta has a few milestones left to meet before opening its doors. “We need to do some more research and experiments,” he says. “Just a few things. We have a prototype for going from a dataset to a live network, and the exciting thing is we’re still in the proof-of-concept stage of that. At the moment, everyone’s pretty static and the communications are not real, but eventually we’ll get to a point where every node on the network is represented dynamically, and you can conduct real conversations with people from different parts of the network.”

Simonyi intends to build the platform in stages, initially by passing through the alpha stage of the architecture.

“The alpha is just the start,” he says. “It’s important to realize that you want to have the diversity of applications. You want to have frameworks that allow people to make their applications.”

“You have to understand that there are things you need to know that can’t be taught, such as the real-time data and how quickly the platform works,” he continues. “Once you have the interface right, then you can get off the platform in a controlled manner and have the conversations at an evolutionary level. I’m getting a lot of inspiration from the whole project in terms of software architecture, security, communication architecture.”

By uploading his personal and academic work, Simonyi also hopes that he can inspire new ideas and individuals in the same way that he guided his daughter into the workforce and life. “It could be the ultimate online social network,” he says. “It could change the way you think about our universe.”

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