AI talk: Virtual society and health economy

Dec. 9, 2022 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

In this week’s blog I will take a peek at two books I read over the past month, one examining what our future society may look like and the other discussing the economics behind health care. 

A person using a virtual reality headset 

“Virtual Society – The Metaverse and the New Frontiers of Human Experience” by Herman Narula 

Herman Narula, a British entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Improbable, provides his take on the metaverse concept in this book. The subtext of the book is really a philosophical one: What is the purpose of one’s life? Is it to toil away in fulfillment centers or seek one’s own fulfillment? The analogy around modern day fulfillment centers is probably apt. The author’s insistence on this front is the following: Our focus should be “away from a production economy and toward a fulfillment economy (pg. 162).”

So, what is fulfilling? The argument here is that the experiences one has need to be fulfilling. For some, the experiences they have at work can be fulfilling, but it is not always that way. Virtual experiences in the metaverse can make one happy – ask any gamer. With more and more work being automated, what is left for humans to do? They can enjoy a pallet of diverse experiences in the virtual world. They can hang out with their friends in virtual reality. They can have meaningful experiences as a virtual society.

Improbable’s technology (very heavily utilizing machine learning (ML) programs) was used by Yuga Labs to create a virtual event this past summer dubbed “first trip,” which allowed 4,500+ participants to invade the virtual world with their avatars. All of these people were not only rendered in real time simultaneously, but were navigating a lush world and interacting with each other and following directions to slay an animated creation (played by a real actor). It got rave reviews from participants! Yuga Labs managed to monetize this event as well – requiring the participants to have tokens. Clearly, this use case translates to things like concerts with tens of thousands of participants having an interactive experience.

The vision that Narula has for the metaverse, is not one congruent with the vision of Meta. He believes for the concept to really succeed it needs to be completely open – open for value creators to get the bulk of profit from that and not be beholden to some platform provider. The vision is a network of interoperable metaverses where users can go from one to another with their digital assets; and value should be transferable not only between worlds but into real world as well. An ecosystem that evolves and provides, as he terms, “fulfilment” to its participants. You don’t need to venture into planetary travel but use your brain as a way to entertain a rich set of experiences. His vision is literally just the brain with some electrodes is sufficient!

Whether we get to that kind of a vision is quite debatable, but Narula’s view of a virtual society is quite compelling. He is quite passionate in his view and what he is building. It comes through in the two interviews I reviewed one before the book was published and one just last month. The demonstration that they did with Yuga Labs certainly portends a new form of social media emerging – and it is going to be a wild ride. 

“The New Health Economy – Ground rules for leaders” by Bisbee, Trigg and Jain 

This book, published past summer, has been on my to-read list for some time, and I finally got around to reviewing it. It squarely takes the approach the past is prologue to future. A new set of timelines to frame the discussion – before COVID-19, during COVID-19 and after COVID-19. The authors discuss interviews with various prominent CEOs and decision makers which fit this timeline – to garner their take on what the future holds for the health care ecosystem.

It’s an interesting mix of discussion around politics and policy – starting with Hillarycare (failed attempt at re-imagining health care in the 90s), HITECH and Obamacare (successful, but partisan effort), remove and replace (failed partisan effort during Trump’s term), and incremental advances over the years from MACRA to Cures Act and others.

The perennial conundrum in health care is the fact that the price is constantly going up and affordability is headed in the wrong direction. An illustrative example is telehealth visits. Clearly it brings a great degree of flexibility to the patients. But from a cost perspective, physicians consult time does not really change and the attendant cost does not come down. There is a sense of new urgency to the cost/affordability as Medicare enrollees are on track to increase from 51 million now to 73 million by 2030. Bulk of the health care expenditures is for this population and is borne by taxpayers.

So, what are the prescriptions suggested by the authors of this book? They focus on four “P’s”: Health care politics, health policy, provider networks, data-driven personalization.

Health care is a non-partisan reality, so we need to focus on non-partisan politics! Focus on affordability. Focus on population health and care delivery networks. Focus on personalized medicine given the proliferation of personalized data.

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“Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is an AI evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and computer science research.