Podcast - EP 49: The metaverse, crypto, and the evolution of the internet


What exactly is the metaverse? Some say it is the future of the internet — a broad shift in how we interact with technology, including new and more ways to collaborate in virtual worlds. 

Others say it creates even more infringements on privacy and creates chances for identity theft. Foteini Baldimtsi, an assistant professor in George Mason University’s Department of Computer Science, and James Casey, an associate professor in Mason’s Computer Game Design program, talk to Mason President Gregory Washington about what the metaverse is, and could be, and how the volatile world of cryptocurrency fits in.


Fateini Baldimsti and James Casey in the WGMU studio to record episode 49 of the Access to Excellence podcast.
Foteini Baldimsti and James Casey join Mason president Gregory Washington in the studio to discuss the imprint the metaverse is making on society and our future in this episode of the Access to Excellence podcast. 
Photo: Cristian Torres / George Mason University

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The Access to Excellence podcast takes on the grand challenges that face our students, graduates, and our world. Join Mason President Gregory Washington as he brings trailblazers, innovators, and storytellers into the studio for meaningful conversations.

Episode 49 Transcript:

Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers and research innovators in technology, and those who simply have a good story all make up the fabric. That is George Mason University. We're taking on the grand challenges that face our students graduates in higher education is our mission and our passion hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington. This is the Access to Excellence podcasts.

Gregory Washington (00:26):

So what exactly is the Metaverse? Some say it's the future of the internet, a broad shift in how we interact with technology, including new and more ways to collaborate in virtual worlds. Others say it creates even more infringements on privacy and chances for identity theft. My guest, I hope you will help us understand what the Metaverse is or will be and how the volatile world of cryptocurrency fits in with all of this. So, James Casey is an associate professor in George Mason University's computer game design program, and he's the associate director of the Virginia Serious Games Institute. He has more than 12 years of experience developing video games and has extensive knowledge of the production and live management of Gaines, and has worked on titles from Mythic Entertainment, electronic Arts, and EA Mobile. Foteini Baldimtsi is an assistant professor in Mason's computer science department. She received a career award, which is one of the highest awards that could be given to a young faculty member from the National Science Foundation in 2022. And her research is centered around cryptographic protocols to help prevent infringements on privacy and identity theft. To both of you. Welcome to the show.

James Casey (01:54):

Thank you.

Gregory Washington (01:55):

So let's start talking very, very high level here and then we'll work our way down into the weeds into specifics. Jim, let's start with a basic definition. What is the metaverse?

James Casey (02:08):

Uh, of course you start with the hard question, right? So the metaverse is interesting because depending on who you ask, the definition changes. So some people, it's just a virtual world where you inhabit a avatar and you do stuff that mimics real life to some degree. You know, games and other things out there already do that. But to a lot of folks, it's a little more broad. It's like you have a computer and then you have the internet connected everybody's computer, right? The metaverse is this idea that it's a virtual world where people have avatars and it becomes their virtual life and it takes over and you can work, you can play, you can buy, and it's all interconnected and persistent and all these cool buzzwords. So depending on who you ask, it's somewhere within that kind of spectrum of what we currently have to what we want to have. And so the metaverse is this broad great idea that we're still developing.

Gregory Washington (03:09):

Is it the same thing or different from Web 3.0?

James Casey (03:13):

Another great question. Basically, we're in Web 2.0. I could go into the history of web one versus two and three, but web three is just really the iteration of the internet that we will see in the future to some, this includes blockchain and cryptocurrencies and some of the other stuff we'll talk about today. Some people include AI and machine learning as a big part of that, uh, and to some people as well. The idea of virtual reality of a metaverse is kind of the evolution of the internet. Whether that becomes specifically Web 3.0 or somewhere in the future still is to be seen. But Web 3.0 definitely includes some of the same things that people are looking from in the metaverse.

Gregory Washington (03:57):

So Fonteini, you focus in cryptography. Cryptography, yeah. And its connection to privacy. Correct. And these two worlds are colliding at an enormous rate. Let me highlight what has happened and then let's talk about it a little bit. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I'm gonna give you a little story, and then I want you all to think about how these worlds connect in a very interesting way. So my son is a junior at Ohio State, just completed his junior year, and he came home and decided, okay, let's spend some daddy son time. So I'm gonna take him and we're gonna go hang out and go to a restaurant and just talk. And so on the way there, he's on his phone the whole time, but I see him and he's using some app, and then he'll press an icon and then he'll listen to it, and then he'll just crack up laughing and then he will, you know, and so I said, Hey, you know, you're not talking that much. Tell me what's going on. So he says, dad, it's a new app where you can send anyone an actual voicemail from a famous person. And I said, what do you mean? So he lets me listen to him. Somebody had sent him a message from Drake and it was Drake's voice, but Drake wouldn't be talking to my son like this. Right.

James Casey (05:14):

<laugh>. Right,

Gregory Washington1 (05:15):

Right, right.

James Casey (05:16):

Good old deep fake talking.

Gregory Washington (05:18):

Oh my goodness. It was phenomenal. Yeah. And he kept letting me hear all these voices and I, I'm sitting here listening, I'm like, oh my goodness. I said, so you can send me a message from anybody except from anybody. I said, send me one from Kim Kardashian. <laugh>.

Foteini Baldimtsi (05:32):


James Casey (05:34):


Gregory Washington (05:35):

Anyway, we were just joking. Right. But you send a message, right? You can send it from anybody. I say, really? And then I start thinking, well, if you're on a metaverse mm-hmm. And now any public figure's voice that's online, that can be synthesized and then recreated by a computer and then sent out anywhere in a virtual world, you don't know who you're talking to. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

James Casey (05:59):


Gregory Washington (05:59):

Absolutely. Because there's somebody behind it typing the words. And what's being mouthed is the voice of a famous person. Yep. You could actually think you're in a virtual house with Drake. Oh, sure. And it can be Jake from State Farm, right? Absolutely. You can.

James Casey (06:15):

Yeah. You could even have avatars that look exactly like the celebrity, almost realistic. You could even have the stuff you type into the computer be adjusted so that it actually sounds more like the person that would be speaking. So it would still …

Gregory Washington (06:32):

No, that's what I'm talking about. I mean, that's what this,

James Casey (06:34):

Not, not even just changing the words to sound like it, but I mean, you could actually change the word, like you could put in what you wanted to say, like the gist of it. Right. And then it could actually modify the words to be more in the lingo or more in the, the way that something

Gregory Washington (06:47):

Like, oh, the way the person, the way the person.

James Casey (06:49):

So, it's not just, oh, hey, I'm a stuffy guy and I'm trying to be Drake. No, it's actually, this is what I want him to say. And then Drake says it using his own kind of cadence, his own lingo, throwing in some stuff that Drake might say. And you could do a whole lot with it to really make it convincing. I mean, now we're veering into the AI, the machine learning aspect of these things.

Gregory Washington (07:10):

Well, but I think that's where this thing is going. So what are the privacy concerns with this <laugh>?

Foteini Baldimtsi (07:15):

Well, um, the good news are that cryptography can actually help in situations like this, because no matter what AI can do, it can only simulate public information. So the way we speak or the way we write is something that is public, but the way that we can actually secure our communications or authenticate ourselves in a secure way relies on secrets that we shouldn't be making available. This essentially says that in order to authenticate in the future is not enough to just call someone and then claim that it's us and people believe us based on our voice and our tone. But we might actually have to provide more than that. That actually relies on cryptographic secrets.

Gregory Washington (07:58):

Oh man, this is getting hot. I love it

James Casey (08:01):

It's like you had to watermark your voice, right? You have to watermark your

Gregory Washington (08:04):

You have to watermark your voice. This is exactly the point.

James Casey (08:07):

In fact, some internet creators have been creating fake Drake and, you know, Kanye songs.

Gregory Washington (08:13):

Oh no. This is actually, if you go online right now, Spotify Yep. Has taken down Yep. Thousands. Yes. Not a few songs. Yes, absolutely. Thousands of songs Yep. That were developed by bots. Yeah. But made to sound like real artists. Exactly. Who we all know and love. Thousands of songs have been removed. I couldn't believe it.

James Casey (08:36):

Some artists I've seen, like, I think it was Grimes, the previous other half of Elon Musk, who is like, Hey, if you make something using my voice, I just want 50%. Right. And other ones are like, yeah, no, don't use my stuff. Right. <laugh> <laugh>. But yeah, it opens up a whole new level of …

Gregory Washington (08:53):

But are you even using, so if me and you are talking mm-hmm. <affirmative> and I impersonate Drake's voice Yep. And I'm talking to you in that context. Well, there is no mm-hmm. <affirmative> issue there with copyright or anything. And even if I sing like I, you know, I sound like him or anything like that, as long as I'm not using his music or anything like that, it's just me. I, I listen to artists that sound like other artists all the time. You listen to, oh, he sounds like.

James Casey (09:24):

I would argue yes and no, because it depends on what you say as Drake. So we should have done this. That would've been actually really cool if you had come on and used a voice changer. Right.

Gregory Washington (09:33):

I should have done that. I should've done that. That would've been really cool. Actually have Drake interviewing you.

James Casey (09:38):

If you did not, if you did not say you were using Drake's voice and you weren't saying, oh, this is, you know, Dr. Washington, but I'm using this voice. If they just thought for some reason and we didn't correct them, that I was talking to Drake, and then you as Drake were to say something very controversial that would get the real Drake in trouble, then we fall into some issues because then you are basically acting as Drake and defaming him and or liable whatever the correct.

Gregory Washington (10:07):

I get it. But this is the point. The messages that my son let me listen to. Oh, I'm sure they were bad. Were of stars cussing people out. I mean, <laugh> basically in their own voice. You'd be like, whoa, I'm shut.

James Casey (10:20):

Drake curses. Come on, <laugh>. Have you heard his songs? Come on?

Gregory Washington (10:23):

Yeah. But, you know,

James Casey (10:25):

Not in the way, but what,

James Casey (10:27):

But what about Joe Biden? Okay. Yes. So you get Joe Biden calling you and he's just ripping you a new one. Oh. And it's because they have synthesized his voice and put it on.

James Casey (10:37):

There are some,

Gregory Washington (10:38):

You know what I'm saying?

James Casey (10:38):

There's some actually great videos where they have Biden Trump, and I think Clinton all like playing Call of Duty on the same team. <laugh> I like and ripping each other. Oh man. And it is the funniest thing, and it's just, it's just taking sound bites and stringing them together. And not even, not even in the sophisticated way. Right. But, and it's just, it sounds so funny, but you know, it's a joke and you know, with parody in that case. That's right. But will you always be able to tell that?

Gregory Washington (11:06):

And that is the, I think that's, to me, that's the quintessential privacy challenge. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> because, and you brought it up, Fontin, if you don't have a way of authenticating mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative>, who a person is now, all of the tools that we have traditionally used on listening to a person's voice or to their lilt and their tone and, and how they speak, all of that can be digitized. All of that can be replicated. So, you know, I can receive a phone call from my son right now where he's asking me to send him, yeah. 150 bucks or 200 bucks so I can do abc or I just got in an accident, I need blah, blah, blah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. And it cannot be him. Absolutely. So, and then when you get in these virtual worlds where there are two or three layers behind the disguise, so you think you're interacting with a person and you're interacting with somebody else, or you're actually interacting with a bot. Yep. Well, I had a very normal conversation with chat G B T <laugh> the other day, and it seemed normal to me. You know, bill Gates says the Metaverse is already here. Right. But then the guy whose company took the name Meta <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative>, Mark Zuckerberg turns around now and says, oh no, it's still five to 10 years away. <laugh>. So, so who's right?

James Casey (12:26):

Well, and Business Insider, if you read them like the last week, they said the Metaverse is dead. So it depends on who you ask. Right? If we go with this grandiose vision of everything connected, like the movies Ready Player One, or the Snow Crash book, or these fantasy, you know, ideas of essentially taking the internet, but making it into a virtual world where everything's connected and blah, blah, blah. And we can go into specifics, and I know later in the, the conversation that is still years away and there's a lot of technical reasons. Why do we have the lower end versions of Metaverses? Sure. We've got people claiming they have Metaverses right now, fortnight's probably the closest because they have so many different types of IP and content. Roblox has tons of people coming into their world and sharing space. So there's these ideas, these seeds of a metaverse. I made massively multiplayer online games for a living before I came here that essentially was its own kind of metaverse, because it was virtual worlds where people played and bought and worked and talked mm-hmm. <affirmative>. It was just in its own world versus connected to every world. And I think that grandiose vision is what's still years away.

Foteini Baldimtsi (13:36):

Right. And I, I don't think we're gonna have like a clear distinction between web two and web three. I think we're gonna transition to it slowly. It's the point that we'll not be able to tell when we are actually there when we're actually in Metaverse.

James Casey (13:48):

Yeah. Someday they're just like, Hey, we're on web three. Web four though. Right. Web four, that's going to be great. Right, <laugh>. No,

Gregory Washington (13:55):

Exactly. So this whole idea of cryptocurrency mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and if you're in a digital world, it seems to me that you're gonna want to use digital currency. Right. You can't use paper currency obviously in that world, because the definition of it, it's digital. The currency of choice would have to be a cryptocurrency. So, so talk to us a little bit about that. And uh,

Foteini Baldimtsi (14:19):

Yeah. Um, yes. And,

Gregory Washington (14:19):

And it's going, it's ebbing and flowing, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, every other week you'll hear that crypto is gone, it's

Foteini Baldimtsi (14:25):

Dead <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (14:26):

And then the next week you'll hear, no, it's not. And you see the price of Bitcoin just oscillate. I've seen it go down to 16,000 and go back up to 34,000 and then, and now it's somewhere in there.

Foteini Baldimtsi (14:39):

Now it's been an rollercoaster. Yeah. Yeah. <laugh>. Yeah. So let me try to put some definitions first into case. Okay. I'm, I'm a computer scientist. I work in theory, I want to define things first. Digital payments exist forever. And they're not necessarily related to cryptocurrencies. Okay. So we could as well go into Metaverse in whatever way James refined it and just use digital payments using the fiat currencies that we all were used and love or not. Cryptocurrencies bring a different perspective into that. So it's not just the fact that they allow us to do digital payments. The main innovation of digital currencies or cryptocurrencies is that they try to take the intermediary out of the picture. They try to take the idea that there is a trusted financial institution or a government that handles the way that the currencies operating. And they are democratizing that, quote quotes in a way that now is decided by a set of parties.

Foteini Baldimtsi (15:34):

And who are these parties? Well, everyone. So you can participate in the governance, if you like, of these cryptocurrencies and decide how the system is gonna work. Participate in the system, maintain the system, and be rewarded for it if you do so. Hmm. So the main idea, again, of cryptocurrency is not just a payout digital payments. They do. Absolutely. They do. And they have certain perks as opposed to doing digital payments through our financial institutions. I can send coins money to Australia without paying any fees for intermediaries and, uh, having a constant payment later, early in a matter of seconds. Although if I try to do that through my traditional bank, it'll take days to clear <laugh>. That's the big perk of it. But the main revolution is the fact that they're taking the idea of a central, trusted party. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> out of the picture.

James Casey (16:23):

Ah, very good. Very good. And, and think about it this way, like we have this idea of the metaverse, but if you really wanted to boil it down, the internet is kind of like a metaverse. You just don't have the 3D world on top of it. Right? We can play, we can talk, we can pretend to be Drake, we can buy stuff on the internet. And we did not create a single currency for the internet. Right. Just like we have multiple currencies around the world. And you know, some people say, oh, dollar is king. Or some people are like, no, we use ours. But there's still this idea that regardless of what you're using, you can convert it or you can get it into goods, whether they're virtual, real. And so in that virtual metaverse, yeah. The dollar can still be what you pay with, or you can pay with Frank's, or you can pay with pounds, you can pay with a credit card.

James Casey (17:11):

Cause that's fake money anyways, right? <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative> or that money then translates into metaverse bucks or whatever we want to call it, right. Me bucks. Me bucks. Right. And it has its own exchange rate. And you know, a lot of games or worlds out there now do that for several reasons. And one of them being, once you take a currency and you abstract it into another layer, you are less likely to be as stringent on your spending. So if I spend a hundred bucks on a thousand meta bucks, that dollar value, that cost becomes obscured and you're more likely to spend. So whether the metaverse ends up with one kind of virtual currency really is gonna depend on who owns and who runs the metaverse. And that's why things like blockchain and cryptocurrency are being pushed by some people is because they want to make sure it's outside of Facebook owning it or a government owning it.

Foteini Baldimtsi (18:11):

Right. I mean, if you think about online game platforms right now, yeah, they do have these currencies, but they are controlled by the company that runs the game. So if that company decides to shut down the game today mm-hmm. <affirmative>, nobody's gonna give these funds in some form back to the users. But if instead they were using a currency that was decentralized using a blockchain system, nobody can really set it down because it doesn't really belong to someone specific.

Gregory Washington (18:38):

That's right. That's right. And it makes it harder. Although <laugh>, we've seen examples of this the other way, but it makes it harder for individuals to steal your coins as well, supposedly. Yes.

Foteini Baldimtsi (18:50):

Uh, yes and no <laugh>

Gregory Washington (18:51):

Well, yeah, that's a hard problem. Yeah. Because death is, death has actually happened, but it's still much easier to take your physical money,

Foteini Baldimtsi (18:59):

Right? Yeah. Well, well, although it turns out that well, people should not have physical money. Don't think, well, not should not <laugh>. No. People should have deposited their physical money to some financial institution. Right. And the good news are that if you lose, let's say, your password to your online bank account, there are ways to recover it. Why? Because there is this central institution that has ways to physically authenticate. You might ask you to literally walk into an office and sew a passport and have ways to recover your password. If you lose your password or your secret key for funds for coins that you have on a blockchain system, then this becomes so much harder to recover. Almost impossible. Yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, look,

Gregory Washington (19:40):

Look, I forget my passwords all the time, <laugh>, because they keep making us change it. So, <laugh>, how much money do you think is sitting in cryptocurrencies now that people can't recover because they cannot figure out their key?

Foteini Baldimtsi (19:54):

A lot <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (19:56):

I'd be willing to bet you it's billions of dollars.

James Casey (19:58):

Oh, yeah. No, there was people back in the Bitcoin days before it became big that had a bunch sitting on a hard drive somewhere, and that hard drive is lost or dead, or they don't know the password to get into the computer. And that was tiny amounts of money for Bitcoin back there. And now it's 30,000 of Bitcoin and Right. That's millions of dollars in just one space. So yeah, there's, yeah, there's lots of stuff there. I mean, I mean, look at what's happening with banks recently. Right. The nice thing about a lot of that is the government is going in and bailing them out, or there's the F D I C, which covers deposits up to a certain point, you know, that if you put your money there, you have some degree of security. The thing with the cryptocurrency is, although it is de democratized <laugh> or however you want to put it, right?

Gregory Washington (20:42):


James Casey (20:43):

Yeah. Essentially, yes, you have complete control over it, but you also, like you said, if something goes wrong or you lose it or something goes on, like there is no backup to that.

Foteini Baldimtsi (20:53):

The hope for that is to change it. And I think that people who are serious in the space, they actually want to have regulation over cryptocurrency. And I'm very optimistic on that. I think that it is gonna, I mean, it is gonna happen one way or another because people are using these systems

James Casey (21:06):

And I think the same thing needs to happen for the metaverse for it to take on too. Absolutely. We can get to that in a minute.

Gregory Washington (21:11):

So that kind of brings me back to that. The reality is, you know, you had movies like Blade Runner mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and even the Avatar, the ones that, that show these futuristic worlds Yep. Where people in their avatars interact in the world and in Ready Player one, the currency was digital currency. And if you lose it in a <laugh> in a virtual world, you lost it in the real world. Yes. Yes. Absolutely. So how accurate are the predictors? They talk about this dystopian world where, you know, you really can't go outside, you really can't live in the environment because we've corrupted it. So and so people kind of engage one another in a virtual framework. Now, let me preface this by saying, you know, we were, we were kind of there for a while mm-hmm. <affirmative> with the pandemic, right? Yeah.

James Casey (22:05):

Covid was a nice, uh, precursor. Right?

Gregory Washington (22:07):

So talk a little bit about that. How accurate are those in terms of a future?

James Casey (22:10):

How accurate is the dystopia of the science fiction? Oh, well, I think that there are trends that could point to us going down some of those routes. Absolutely. I think, and you see more and more adoption of technology and virtual aspects, just like with your son, right? <laugh>, uh, always on the phone. And I think that we could become addicted to certain things just like we could anything else. The allure of the virtual world is that it is better than your station in life. You've got a better house where you've got better clothes or you have better friends, or you can't get out like in the Covid and get to your friends. So this is your way to communicate. So it becomes a surrogate for other things that you do not feel are positive in your life. This positivity replaces that. Could that become something that is troublesome?

James Casey (23:04):

Absolutely. Hopefully as a society we do better in general, as well as looking at how do we look at these kind of technologies to prevent that not being draconian like China, where you can only play games three hours a week, certain hours, specific hours on like a Friday night. But how do we ensure that somebody does not become, like in ready player one living in shipping canisters just being on the internet all day long. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And while there's advantages to maybe attending school in virtual space at the same time, you gotta get out and as they say on the internet, touch grass, <laugh> be real. And so if I was a pessimist, I'd say yes, we could definitely see that becoming more of a reality. But I think, you know, the optimist in, in me is that we will adopt the technologies, uh, and we seeing, you know, more and more social change and more social, whatever the right words are, justice or knowledge or shared bits, I think more people will be able to see that going into it, hopefully, than we give them credit for <laugh>.

Foteini Baldimtsi (24:15):

Yeah. I, I think also our role as scientists is to actually develop mechanisms that make these tools and these technologies to work in the, in the favor of the society. And this is, this is a responsibility for us. And just for example, on, on the blockchain space, right? So all these payments are now becoming transparent, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so think for a second that right now, when you're making transactions through your credit card, it's only your own financial institution that knows exactly how you're spending, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But now, if all these transactions happen in the blockchain space, then they're essentially in one way or another, becoming fully public, right? So everybody now knows how you're spending. But then also as scientists, we know, and as cryptographers, we know that there are tools that can actually work towards adding privacy in these transactions in a way that not even your bank knows more than what they should know. <laugh>. I think this is a great responsibility in our hands, and we should be trying to make these tools to work for the benefit of the society.

Gregory Washington (25:19):

Interesting. Well, let me give you a, a little spin on this. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you can get your reaction to it. Our group of researchers at Stanford University in Google mm-hmm. <affirmative> have created a miniature virtual world mm-hmm. <affirmative>, where 25 characters controlled by chat, G P t mm-hmm. <affirmative> and custom code Yep. Live out their lives independently with what a r s technical has described as a high degree of realistic behavior. Yep. In addition, they created an architecture that stimulates minds with memories and experiences. Yep. Then they let the agents loose to interact, and now humans can interact with them too.

James Casey (25:58):

Smallville, I think they called it.

Gregory Washington (26:00):

How is that not like

James Casey (26:02):


Gregory Washington (26:03):

The kinds of things that we saw in, you know, an early version of, of a ready player one Right. Or an environment where you are interacting like Matrix with bots. Right. The only good thing is if they kill you in a virtual world, you don't die in the real world. Right. <laugh>, at least not yet.

James Casey (26:23):

I think it would be closer probably to kind of like the West World model, right? Like you're Oh

Gregory Washington (26:27):

Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

James Casey (26:28):

Like you're developing this, like, in this case the AI to mimic real world interactions. And so I'm familiar with the Stanford, uh, little research that they did on Smallville, and I think it's great. Now, to be fair, when I grew up, there was a program called Little Computer People, where we got to watch, watch people live in their house and go about their day. And it was very similar, but it was much more strict and programmed. In this case, the AI is learning based on the data that it was trained on, the goals it was fed and all these different things. And what's nice about it is it gives us insight into how it takes this information and creates those relationships, these, uh, conversations and creates memories. And honestly, one of the big things for, you know, the general intelligence is this idea of how do we mimic how people's brains work? And part of that is the memory construct. I

Gregory Washington (27:16):

That's right. And and that was great that they gave them those.

James Casey (27:19):

Oh, yeah. In fact, um, one of our companies out at the Virginia Series Game Institute was founded by a guy who worked on Ultima Online, a massively multiplayer online game. And he's working in this field, and he took the same thing that Stanford did, but he actually had the AI create the world instead of just, hey, here's your town and here's, we've already created all this, the art for the world and the way the world worked. And the, the streams and the valleys and the roads and the, the resources of the world was all created by the AI as well. And then it populated it within NPCs that took a look at what was around, and they built a campfire. And then once they had that and they met that need, they'd go and grab resources and build a, a cottage. And they had apple trees.

James Casey (28:02):

So they made a fruit stand and they build this whole backstory for themselves using ai. And then that can be put into a game or a world where then you interact with a guy and he is got this whole history of, oh yeah, when I first got here and it was just a campfire and we had to, and so this AI is building all this content <laugh>, essentially for a game or a virtual world. And it's not just let 'em loose and see what they do. It's from creating the world proper with AI to every little aspect of it. And so the next step for them is obviously they're gonna do 3D and they're gonna do a few more things and they're, I think they're reaching out to the same folks at Stanford as well as the researchers here. But again, the promise of what AI and machine learning can do is huge. And yes, there's always horror stories about what it could do if it approaches the singularity as they call it, and things like that.

Gregory Washington (28:59):

But see, I think this whole singularity thing, I think is a red herring, to be honest with you. I think these technologies are going to be incredibly influential in our lives long before that concept is reached. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And in some sense, I'm blown away by the earliest forms of artificial general intelligence and it hasn't even been optimized yet.

James Casey (29:25):

Oh yeah.

Gregory Washington (29:26):

You don't have the breakthroughs yet. And to me, this will all play out in virtual worlds. Right.

James Casey (29:32):

It's a great place for it. Cuz again, it's content generation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's a tool to make more stuff at the end of the day, whether it's coming up with a chemistry equation and showing a proof, or whether it's creating a world or whether it's making people talk to each other or pretending to be Drake <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (29:51):

So recently mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we've heard Jeffrey Hinton, one of the groundbreakers in artificial intelligence mm-hmm. <affirmative> talking about the idea that this stuff can get smarter than people is not that far off. Hmm. You've heard the warnings from many of the individuals in open ai mm-hmm. <affirmative>, which is the company behind chat, G B T, including its CEO mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that basically warn of the challenges associated with it and how they are actively have to, for lack of a better way of putting it, dumb down the AI before it's released to the public because they're worried of some of the damage it can actually do. Maybe the metaverse is the place for this stuff to develop and flourish where it's not touching the physical world and let it grow. And you can interact with the currencies and you can intermingle all of this stuff. Sure. Because they're unintended consequences to everything you do. We know some of the intended consequences of artificial intelligence, but it's that thing you're not thinking about that will creep up and sure just knock you down.

James Casey (30:54):

When Microsoft first put out an AI chatbot, I think it was called Tay,

Gregory Washington (30:58):

And started

James Casey (30:59):

Training and it and became racist. Right?

Gregory Washington (31:01):

Not just racist.

James Casey (31:02):

It was, yeah.

Gregory Washington (31:03):

It was all of the ists. Yeah. <laugh>. It was racist, it was homophobic. Yeah. It was, oh my goodness. Sexist. It was everything.

James Casey (31:10):

But I think what it boils down to again, is it's, it's just like with people, right? The inputs you give it, the training you give it, you know, the whole nature versus nurture and all this stuff, like for ai, you're feeding it information. If you put this AI into a virtual world, it is going to end up being a product of its virtual society, just like people are. And to that end, it is very much like a person, because it is taking all this information in and some rules that have been set up by society or by the programmer and who programmed it and how they programmed it and what they designed it for. Now, if we put AI in charge of nuclear weapons, then we deserve what happens, right? Just like a terminator. Right. But what it can do, and what we allow it to do, those are the questions, right? Training in virtual worlds, whether they're 3D with avatars or this little Smallville with 2d, uh, guys, that's essential for us to see how they grow and to make them better and to remove bias and to remove other elements that get put in as part of the programming, right? Whether it's the initial programming, whether it's the training and data, or whether it's stuff that comes in after the fact that affects them, the learning module.

Gregory Washington (32:25):

So if we pull back in, think about it in the environment and in the world in which we live in today, the real world, right? And you look at cryptocurrencies, do you believe that there will be fully integrated in any time in the near future?

Foteini Baldimtsi (32:39):

I'm gonna say my personal opinions here, right? So I don't think it's a matter, we should not be focusing on the cryptocurrency part of this technology. I think we should be focusing on the technology beyond the cryptocurrencies, which is the blockchain. The blockchain technology. Sure. Uh, so the blockchain technology can offer much more than just digital payments. So digital payments in a sense, are just one application of blockchain systems. And the main idea, the main advantage of all these blockchain based systems is that, as I said before, they take away the idea that you rely on a specific third party. And since we have James here, let me give you one of the most prominent applications of blockchain today beyond payments, that is the generation of good randomness. And let me explain why this is very, very important in the gaming industry and in metaverse in all these games that try to offer some version of virtual reality.

Foteini Baldimtsi (33:33):

So it is, uh, in many, many parts of these games, the users, the gamers, need to be sued. That what happens in the next phase of the game is actually random done in a random way. And not in a way that the company that controls the game can alter the sequence of the game in order to gain more money. At the end of the day, so many of these very large gaming industries, they care to prove to their users that they use good randomness. That for, in a verifiable way, in a truthful way, they do randomly decide what's the next phase? What's the next thing that will happen in the game? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So now where do you take this randomness from? Blockchain systems are an excellent resource of randomness. Again, why? Because they're not controlled from a single entity, but they pull together randomness from thousands or millions depending on what blockchain systems they're looking at of people around the world in a way that it's very, very hard to bias us the randomness.

Foteini Baldimtsi (34:35):

And again, this is just one application and, uh, believe me, it is one of the applications that people are using blockchain today a lot or are looking into blockchain a lot. So that said, cryptocurrencies are one part of this blockchain systems. And if you ask me, yeah, I do think that some of these cryptocurrencies will become more mainstream, but I don't think that this is the main contribution of blockchain in web three. So I think that blockchain can do much more things, many more things than just allowing for this mm-hmm. <affirmative> cryptocurrencies for these digital payments.

Gregory Washington (35:08):

I get the blockchain portion of this. Let me pose the question a little bit.

Foteini Baldimtsi (35:11):

Just don't ask me to give like, uh, investment, uh, <laugh> investment advice.

Gregory Washington (35:15):

Let me, let me pose, let me pose the question a little, a little bit differently. Right now in our country, we are spending trillions of dollars a year, and we're driving large amounts of debt. And as we continue to have more spending beyond the revenues that we are taking in, and we go into more and more debt, at some point in time, you're gonna see a dramatic downward pressure on the value of the dollar. Now, in terms of having a global economy, large enough, in order to become the global currency, you basically got the r and b and you got the dollar, right? Maybe it could be the Euro mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but it doesn't leave you a lot of alternatives as you devalue the dollar, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So at some point you start getting driven towards a digital based currency or cryptocurrency as an alternative. All you need is one or two catastrophic market events with our currency in order to drive people to these. So I don't believe that it is totally unrealistic to think that at some point in time, people will, will want to engage more with these digital based currencies.

Foteini Baldimtsi (36:41):

And we actually, sorry James, uh, we actually saw that happening like a few years ago when like the banks collapsed in Cyprus, for example, we saw that the prices of cryptocurrencies went up. We do observe that happening in the world, right? I mean, I'm not an economist, but there is certainly relation on that.

James Casey (36:55):

I think the biggest thing that becomes a part of that is like, so you mentioned the dollar, right? And a lot of our economy in human or debt, right, is based on this idea that we are a kind of a world currency, but all currency to some degree has a historical value to it based on usually some kind of physical resource. So in the, in the past, it used to be gold, right? It used, it used to be gold used. It's really no longer. Most people may not even realize it, but it's, you know, we're just printing money. But, um, and

Gregory Washington (37:24):

It's the full faith in credit of the United States government is what it's based on and trust. And if that trust is ever broken, you will see the currency collapse and there's no real global alternative outside of the cryptocurrency.

James Casey (37:37):

So we'd have to work together as governments around the world on a currency we all accept within that parameter. So that if we said, you know, what we transfer from the dollar to Bitcoin or Dogecoin or whatever the, you know, Dogi coin or whatever latest coin is, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> or the, the dollar coin or the, you know, I didn't know they were playing around with some of these, right? It's, it's still based on, you know, if the U.S. has trillions of dollars worth of Bitcoin, there's still going to be some of that inherent instability behind it if all of a sudden the U.S. is not good for it. And that's why some people were really skeptical about cryptocurrencies in general, or this idea of digital currency is because, is there something behind it? Except what we say. It's the same thing with stocks, right? The stock market is one of those things where, or you know, the banks, you know, failing because people start to lose faith and they're like, how do we get any value out of it? And if there's no value originally in it, how does that translate in the long run if we do lose faith in the system?

Gregory Washington (38:35):

I guess what I'm kind of driving to, and as we start to wrap up here mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you start to bring all of this together. So we talk about the metaverse as a construct. We talk about cryptocurrency and the like as a construct, and we talk about how these entities can actually connect mm-hmm. <affirmative> the connection with the physical world. I remember Pokemon, I remember when my kids got into it, they were into it big time. And so they were into it so much. I said, okay, let me figure out what's going on with this thing. You'd have a camera from your phone would overlay over the physical world in an environment which you were in. Yep. Pokemon Go. And you'd see a little Pokemon over it in the corner and you can walk over to it and get it. You were in the physical world, but you were also in the virtual environment also

James Casey (39:23):

Mixed reality.

Gregory Washington1 (39:24):

Exactly. Is that a possibility? Is it a possibility that these worlds could indeed collide? You know, I got cryptocurrency Yep. And I have real currency. You, you, you get what I'm saying? Yeah, absolutely. I have, you know, exist in the virtual world and I exist in the physical world, right? Yep. So talk a little bit about that.

Foteini Baldimtsi (39:44):

Yeah. I mean, so a as you're saying, this is already happening. Uh, I, I'm not sure if this is part of web two or web three now, <laugh>, but it is certainly happening. I do have both cryptocurrencies and real currencies. Yeah. And wrapping back to the, you know, the beginning of this discussion, right? Are we gonna move completely into a metaverse reality? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>? Well, I think it's not clear, right? So I think we'll probably end up having for many more years a mixed reality of people trying to find a harmony between the, the virtual world and the real world. And again, in one way or another, our role as universities and researchers is mm-hmm. Uh, to try to make this balance as fair as possible and as, uh, secure as possible.

Gregory Washington (40:26):

Try to make sense. We have to try to make sense in all of this.

James Casey (40:29):

We also have to make it easier for folks. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies at the end of the day, are not the easiest things for people to understand. Yeah. So I know Amazon is working on a digital marketplace for NFTs, you know, non-fungible tokens, but they're abstracting it. So it's, it's as easy as buying on the Amazon website. And I think for us to go to that route where we can buy physical stuff, we can buy virtual stuff, we can combine them, we have to have that same kind of thing. Cuz again, at the end of the day, if you can keep it simple, people will adopt the technology. You know? And as, as Bitcoin became more popular, you could use it to buy a Tesla. I know somebody bought pizza with it way back in the day and regret it now cause it's worth a lot more

Foteini Baldimtsi (41:12):

Because they could have bought a Tesla now.

James Casey (41:14):

Yes, exactly.

Gregory Washington (41:14):

They could have bought The Tesla

James Casey (41:14):

With the pizza. They could have had a Tesla <laugh>. Um,

Gregory Washington (41:18):


James Casey (41:19):

But to get to this idea of what really the idealists want Web 3.0 or the Metaverse to be, requires us to really put in regulation work procedures, technology like blockchain or, or similar. We have to agree as both either a country or a society as a world, much like we did with the internet, we have to say, look, there are some rules. There are some things that have to happen. Cuz right now nobody in a capitalist society, no company is going to want to share their version of the Metaverse with everybody else. Because as you said, if I spend $10 on Nike sneakers in this virtual world, that $10 purchase can't translate to Nike shoes in every other game because of so many technical problems. Right? Right. So what is that $10 Nike shoe worth? Well, it's worth $10 worth of skins in Fortnite. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

James Casey (42:16):

But in order to use it in Call of Duty, so many technical things would have to happen for it to even have an equivalency. So this idea, this idealistic view that the currency or the items or things that you share within a virtual world, like the Metaverse should be, requires us to get on board in so many different ways and pass some technological hurdles. And maybe AI and machine learning can help us on that cuz maybe they can help us make translations between different worlds. But there has to be much like we have the back end of the internet. You know, we all rely on https and we all rely on these different protocols and we all rely on these different things that make it fair, not necessarily equitable at all times, but make it at least fair and things will work together. And we know if we do this, it will work. That has to be done for the metaverse and people are are on that. It's just, it's a lot more slow going I think, than when the internet took off.

Foteini Baldimtsi (43:07):

Yeah. And I thing James and what you're saying, it's, it's really, really important to bring together people from different disciplines. Yes. And so far it has been a game that has been played too much on the side of computer scientists and engineers. Yep. But now it's becoming a part in that no matter what technology we're building, it cannot get out there without regulation, without people from the policy side. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> without economists, without psychologists to understand how this impacts people. So we really need to close the gap here.

Gregory Washington (43:35):

So in conclusion, what does the future look like in your opinion, in both of these contexts? I'm not talking 10 years out. Sure. You know, even five, I'm saying over the next three years or so. What happens in the context of what both of you all do? What do you think happens? Look, I get the caveats that it's almost impossible to predict the future. Here’s the thing. If you predict it and it's right. I will refer back to this <laugh> recording.

Gregory Washington (44:03):

As positive proof of the Power of Mason faculty. All right. So have at it.

James Casey (44:09):

So with the idea of the metaverse, I'll handle that side for, to start with. So a lot of the metaverse is built around virtual worlds. And right now the technology, like the Meta and you mentioned Mark Zuckerberg is betting on this idea of VR goggles and all these ways that we can enter the world and become immersed in part of it. And then we can shape it is not catching on. That's why Business Insiders said the Metaverse is, is dead. Right. Is because that technology isn't making it. But I think there's an opportunity over the next few years to start striving for setting up parts of the network that we need to make this work to not just be a dominated Amazon marketplace, which, you know, they took over. Right. And eBay controls this part of the, the internet. There needs to be a push for how do we make this a shareable marketplace, a shareable world.

James Casey (44:58):

And I think that is going to start being where we see the most growth. I don't think we're necessarily going to see Fortnite become the place where everybody goes, you know, and transform it. And I don't think unfortunately, you know, meta from Facebook is going to be the big thing that Mark Zuckerberg wants it to be. I think we'll see some iterations on those and everybody's going to do their own little pointer of the metaverse, but it's still a little ways, way before they start to connect to each other. We make those valuable connections that will help us both from a society standpoint as well as obviously from their point maybe making money. Yeah. So I think we're still a little ways away. I think VR is taking a small step back and, and we'll see this still valued about, but I think we're going to hopefully concentrate on the technologies around it more.

Gregory Washington (45:47):

Well, you all remember the Newton mm-hmm.

James Casey (45:49):

<affirmative>. Mm-hmm

Gregory Washington (45:50):

That's what happened with the Newton, right? Oh yeah. Many of the technologies that happened in Newton wound up in the iPhone, right? Yeah. Right. Yep. And so when the Newton was developed, it was a huge flop. Yep. Right. I remember Bart Simpson was cracking jokes on it. Right. You know,

James Casey (46:03):

It's like the Google Glass. The Google Glass was a great idea. It's this augmented reality giving you information. I could look at somebody and see their name and get information. It just wasn't, that would've really done well.

Greg Washington (46:15):

That would've been really helpful for me. But everybody's, I'm bad with names.

James Casey (46:19):

Same. Same here. I tell my class all the time, I'm never gonna remember your name. But if I had that on my phone, we already have that power on the phone phone right now. It's just how do we get it out of the phone and in front of you and everyday use and make it useful. That's why phones have taken off is because their user experience is perfect for most people.

Gregory Washington (46:39):

No, I get it. So as we end Foteini, you tell me.

Foteini Baldimtsi (46:43):

Yeah, I mean, just to, to bring up the blockchain aspect here on the near future, I don't think, again so much is gonna change on the end user experience. I don't think we're all gonna going to be transacting in cryptocurrencies in three years, <laugh>. But again, I do see aspects of the blockchain technology being more integrated. So the example that I brought up before with gaming industry and how they're using randomness, I think that this is something that in three years it might start becoming mainstream. So we might not start trusting companies that they claim they generate their own randomness.

James Casey (47:17):

If there's money for it, the companies will go for it. And that's the key generating that value.

Foteini Baldimtsi (47:21):

Exactly. So I think that we will be seeing more applications of the blockchain space, not necessarily just digital payments, but mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But more part of it will go hand in hand with the metaverse, you know, like reality as it can help in some aspects of it. But blockchain is also very different technology that can have comp completely. You know, even if Metaverse dies, blockchain might not die or the, the other way around. <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (47:45):

No, I hear you.

James Casey (47:46):

We're never gonna get rid of virtual worlds and the virtual environments, but the overall view of what the metaverse is probably will change to some degree. We also talked about AI and machine learning. I think in the next few years we'll see some scary developments, but I don't think they're gonna be scary in the way that people talking about the singularity or, or that kind of stuff is gonna be …

Gregory Washington (48:06):

No, I think, I think we're headed for disaster in some other things. It won't be the singularity, but I think criminal enterprise is gonna have a field.

James Casey (48:16):

Oh, sure.

Gregory Washington (48:16):

Day with artificial intelligence. You're gonna spoof phones, you're gonna spoof people. When you couple that with cyber security issues and cybersecurity, it's gonna force us, it is going to, we got a rough couple of years before we figure out all of this.

James Casey (48:32):

It's like Covid though, right? Like Covid forced us to do things we were Right. Not comfortable with. Right. The rise of AI is going to force us to look at things we have not wanted to look at for a long time. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and figure out how to bend to this new technology and how to use this tech new technology. Cause at the end of the day, AI and machine learning, I mentioned earlier, in my mind it's just content generation, right? It's just like a computer or a painting brush. You know, when you were doing cave paintings, you, you had certain tools when you started to do paintings, you had different tools. When you started to make digital painting, you had different tools. Now we have more tools. How do we use that responsibly? And I think the great thing is, and I've seen it here, both, you know, with what we do and what CS is doing and all across our campuses, we've got people that are thinking about these problems and we got people that are developing solutions now. So that at least makes me hopeful. <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (49:26):

Outstanding. Outstanding. Well, look, this has really, really been a fascinating discussion. And the one thing I can say for sure is that we're gonna be hearing more on both of these topics.

James Casey (49:38):

Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

James Casey (49:40):

So I'd like to thank my guests, Foteini Baldimtsi, assistant professor at Mason's Computer Science Department. And James Casey, an associate professor at Mason's computer game design program, and the associate director of the Virginia Serious Games Institute. I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe. Mason. Nation.


Narrator (50:04):

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students graduates and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.