The prophet of the metaverse: Day 4 at Davos

Also, Binance's CZ showed up via video link and talked about carbs
The prophet of the metaverse: Day 4 at Davos

Greetings, Davos delegates and WEF watchers,

Neal Stephenson, the science fiction writer who coined the term “metaverse” in 1992, appeared Wednesday on a panel about the metaverse. (WEF programmers: Pat yourselves on the back for this one.) His left leg jittered and jounced like a metaverse frame on a bad data connection.

How would you describe the metaverse now, Neal?

“Nascent,” he drawled. “We’ve got a ways to go.” Still, he marveled at how people today, using their 2D screens and their “WASD keys on a Victorian typewriter keyboard,” manage to immerse themselves in the 3D environments of video games.

Gaming seems, to Stephenson, most analogous to the metaverse experience. Even the blockchain firm he co-founded last June, LAMINA1, extends how gamers log into their avatars and retrieve their inventory of weapons and tokens in a game. “That works fine for one game,” he said. “But if you want to fluidly move from one experience to another, then it doesn’t work any more because you’re constantly having to log out of one experience and log into another. Identity needs to be distributed and decentralized if the metaverse needs to work.”

The moderator, The Atlantic’s Nicholas Thompson, tried to goad Stephenson into more predictions. “Anything I can sit here and predict is going to be outstripped by new kinds of creativity,” Stephenson said at first, but then sounded an alarm. “A lot of the time, it seems like the internet and the web are just a big machine for finding incredibly ingenious ways to screw artists. What I’m hoping is that we can find a way to support the people who are needed to do the creative work that will surprise us all and create a metaverse that millions of people will want to visit.”


An equitable morning. An 8am panel on “faultlines from the Middle East” features precisely zero speakers from the Middle East. Better, instead, to pick from a slew of 9am panels in the Congress Centre that promise serious discussion on the fair distribution of development: “Reigniting Growth in Africa,” in Aspen 2; “Enabling an Equitable Transition,” in the Salon; or “Youth Agency over Earth’s Future,” at Ignite.

Double-edged swords. Consider the global positioning satellite: vital for us to find our way to the Airbnb in the countryside, but also for missiles to find their targets. These dual-use technologies can both aid and impede human progress, as a 10:15am panel—featuring the director of the FBI and Ukraine’s first deputy prime minister—will discuss at Sanada in the Congress Centre.

The crypto conundrum. Three government officials weigh in on what the right kind of regulation for crypto markets should look like, particularly in the wake of the crypto bust and the collapse of FTX. Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of the fintech firm Ripple, will hold down the fort on behalf of his industry at this 3pm panel (Aspen 2, Congress Centre).

Space cadets. Two different panels cast their eyes to the stars. At 10:15am (Fusion, Congress Centre), the astronaut Matthias Maurer is on a panel about exploring the solar system. At 4:15 pm (Salon), another panel convenes on technological advances in space, from mining asteroids to satellite connectivity.

The future of growth. The second half of the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented rise in global living standards. Was that ever sustainable? Is it time to segue into an era of degrowth? Senior ministers from Singapore and Finland spar with Larry Summers and JPMorgan Chase’s Mary Callahan Erdoes, at 5:30pm in Aspen 1.


Earlier this week, an email from Casper Labs, a blockchain firm, offered an irresistible invitation: a seat at a fireside chat between Casper co-founder Medha Parlikar and Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, the CEO of Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange. Crypto-watchers will recall CZ’s role in the collapse of FTX: his sparring with Sam Bankman-Fried on Twitter, his offer to buy FTX, then his abrupt U-turn. After FTX crumbled, CZ was hailed as crypto’s “last man standing”—even as US prosecutors wondered whether to file criminal charges against Binance.

Not surprisingly, the small basement of the Blockchain Hub pavilion was full even as the previous session ended. The room broiled. Then the stage was reset to include a stand with a flat-screen TV. CZ, it turned out, was videoconferencing in.

For a mere 10 minutes, Parlikar and CZ talked about crypto and blockchain. She asked him three versions of the same question: What sage advice did he have for other entrepreneurs? “Work closely with regulators,” CZ said, even though Binance has deliberately dodged US and UK regulators. “We should educate users about how to manage risks,” CZ said, even though crypto’s tide of scandal last year had to do more with bad-faith entrepreneurs than with a misinformed public. “Be more transparent,” CZ said, although Binance’s own finances are a black box.

Then the evening grew stranger. What was CZ’s favorite music? And his favorite food? “I don’t listen to music that much. I went to an Akon concert many years ago... I try to listen to all the bands that are into crypto,” CZ said. He wasn’t particularly a foodie, although he “enjoyed carbs a lot.” He doesn’t do touristy stuff when he travels. “Most of the time, I’m going airport-hotel-airport,” he said. Parlikar kept lobbing the softest questions at CZ; he kept swatting at them with the might of a butterfly. The audience listened, rapt. All in all, it made even the average WEF session feel like rigorous cross-examination.


German chancellor Olaf Scholz wrapped up his keynote in Congress Hall with a bold prediction: “My successor will address you at the WEF in 2045. He or she will present Germany as one of the world’s first climate-neutral industrial nations. Energy supplies in Germany and Europe will then be sourced almost exclusively from green electricity, heat, and hydrogen. We will be moving emission free on our roads and railroads. Our buildings will be energy efficient. Our businesses will be producing on a climate-neutral basis.”

When the speech ended, 84-year-old WEF chairman Klaus Schwab didn’t miss a beat: “I just want to say I look forward to chairing this session with your successor.”


Toni Piëch is interviewed on stage by musician AY Young
Toni Piëch, left, was interviewed by musician AY Young.
Photo: Quartz

In a talk at Hedera Haus, Toni Piëch, a great-grandson of automotive legend Ferdinand Porsche, waxed about the future of mobility and the idea behind his Swiss performance-car startup, Piëch Automotive. Here’s what he said on...

The premise of his five-year-old startup: “The thinking behind the company is that in the future, having the best technology and adapting to different drive trains, different sensor technologies, different battery technologies, and quickly, is more important than having your own factory.” In other words, Piëch “makes” cars in the same sense that Apple “makes” iPhones.

The rise of Tesla: “For a very long time there was a lot of ridicule and a lot of disbelief around somebody who’s not from the industry being able to build a car. That’s a typical symptom of old industry trying to not change. If you look at the Volkswagens and BMWs out there today, a lot of them are trying to mimic Tesla. There’s no more powerful agent for change than entrepreneurs.”

Advice to people with range anxiety: “As a consumer, it’s always better to wait until a technology becomes mainstream and you have several companies competing to get something that’s mature, that feels like it just works. ... I think the best thing to do is to ask some of your friends to buy the cars and see how it goes.”

Why the sharing economy won’t come soon for performance cars: “It’s different if you want to move from A to B or if you want to have a good time.”


On the day Microsoft announced it will lay off 10,000 workers, there was consternation that the company’s Davos party was said to feature a concert by Sting. (Who ever thought the “Message in a Bottle” would be a pink slip?)

Tonight’s Salesforce bacchanal, meanwhile, is rumored to feature Snoop Dogg—certainly less of a Davos fixture than, who performed for Salesforce last May, and who is forever at WEF as a “futurist” and technology investor. (The WEF directory lists him as William Adams.) For a slightly different musical experience this evening, you could hit up the Dome, where the subversive rappers Fat Joe and Doug E Fresh will celebrate the official signing ceremony and launch of a skyscraper in Egypt.


Reading the signals in your field, what will happen to the economy in 2023? 

I was just talking to [the economist Kenneth] Rogoff. You know, I’m an optimist at heart, and he poured some water on that. I’m not an economist, but I talk to our customers one on one, and knowing what we know about their business, I don’t see a reason why there is so much doom and gloom.

Business is so strong. There’s no reason for this kind of gloom—in the US, that is. Europe is a different story. There I don’t blame the companies—they’re kind of dependent on an external event, so the right thing for them to do is to stay conservative, wait to see how it plays out. There are some positive signs—the winter turned out to be milder, the energy crisis has not materialized to the level of doom that was expected. If China opens up, an export market opens up... As I said, I’m an optimist. I think the bad news is all priced in. It’s like driving in a crowded street—you have to find some space and go forward, but it is not going to come to a standstill. Mr. Rogoff—he’s much more pessimistic.

Have you been playing around with ChatGPT?

I wanted to create an account, but I didn’t. Are you familiar with this parable of five blind men and an elephant? I thought that’s what ChatGPT is currently. I didn’t want to be the sixth blind man. So rather than do that, I’m listening to what others are saying. But it’s a very interesting thing. There are multiple ways to think about it. If you think about code generators—it’s not the first time this has come about in our industry, but obviously this is more powerful and moving faster.

If you’re familiar with the product IP v process IP debate—India used to fight that a lot, saying IP should be on process, not product, [and] just because you happen to discover something first doesn’t mean that should deny me the right to discover it in a different way. But we’ve lost that battle. We kind of gave in to the product IP regime. What ChatGPT does is take away that right of discovery, because if generative AI was to discover everything that was to be discovered, we’re going to have a big problem. You might see a shift from product IP back to process IP. Generative AI knows one way to do it. As long as you can come up with a different way of doing it, you’d still have the right to do it.

I think it introduces many questions that will be difficult to answer. [The question of] “What is knowledge?” will get complicated. Especially in eastern cultures, knowledge is considered to be a community asset. This will force us down that path: thinking of knowledge as a community asset. Otherwise, with a $30 billion valuation, if the sum total of human knowledge were to be synthesized by a private entity, that is going to be scary.


The US charged crypto exchange Bitzlato with money laundering. The Hong Kong-based platform has been accused of processing $700 million in illegal funds, including some tied to Russia.

China is launching a state-run transportation platform… It will include ride-hailing, ferry, flight, and other services as Beijing enters a new phase of tech sector regulation.

… and ended its three-year ban on Marvel. Black Panther and Ant-Man will make a return in February as Beijing lifts its de facto ban on the franchise.

British nurses went on strike. Tens of thousands of nurses staged a walkout demanding higher pay amid a wave of industrial action sweeping across the UK.

Taiwan reported its biggest fall in growth since 2009. In 2022, Taiwan’s fourth-quarter GDP fell by 0.86%, as the island faces a slowdown in demand for tech exports.


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Our best wishes for a productive day. Today’s Need to Know: Davos was brought to you by Heather Landy and Samanth Subramanian.