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'Think big, start small, scale fast to enter the metaverse’: Accenture's Paul Daugherty

'Think big, start small, scale fast to enter the metaverse’: Accenture's Paul Daugherty
29 Mar, 2022
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Paul Daugherty is Accenture's group chief executive for technology and chief technology officer. He also heads Accenture's Cloud First initiative and has incubated new businesses such as blockchain, extended reality (XR) and quantum computing. In an interview, Daugherty, who has a degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan, speaks about Accenture's understanding of the metaverse and Web3, and explains how artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, the metaverse, and Web3 are shaping the world of business. Edited excerpts: 

* Three years ago, when you spoke about the world being on the cusp of a major business transformation with AI, you had pointed out that that many companies were experiencing AI stagnation due to the lack of right data, lack of right talent, and the wrong mindset, among other things. To what extent has the scenario improved now?

We saw Covid being an accelerator of tech adoption. According to our research, before Covid, digital leaders who were adopting new technologies like Cloud AI faster outpaced others by a factor of 2x. When we did that same research after Covid, we found that these digital leaders who comprise the top 10%, had widened the gap to 5x. We saw another category of LeapFrog(gers)--another 15% of companies that were rapidly innovating to adapt new technologies like AI. Roughly 63% of companies started adopting AI for the first time during Covid, which drove a lot of innovation. That said, there's another round of research that I'm going to publish shortly, specifically on the adoption rate of AI. What that will show is that only about 10% of organizations are really adopting AI at scale. It's a relatively small number and the rest are doing pilot deployments. So, there's still a lot of room to cover. 

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* Is the trend in India any different from other parts of the world?

The work we're doing in India supports what I just said, which means there is a lot of acceleration and a lot more of AI happening now. 

* What's Accenture's vision of the metaverse, which you have christened as the Metaverse Continuum in your Tech Vision 2022 report?

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There are all sorts of definitions of the metaverse, and some of them are crazy--about alternative worlds and realities and things. A lot of these definitions are very consumer focused. What we're doing with the metaverse continuum is talking about a definition that's very grounded in business. We do believe the metaverse will impact every part of every business, and companies need to start acting now. We should talk what's happening with the future of the internet, which you referred to as Web3, which is enabling this new capability and looking to create worlds that bridge the virtual and real. That's where NFTs (non-fungible tokens) come in place. That's where the VR/AR (virtual reality and augmented reality) come in and (enhance) experiences. And it's here that the continuum becomes important. We say Metaverse Continuum because we believe it's not just about the consumer--it's about the worker, and it's about extensive continuum of the roles we play as people across the enterprise. It's a continuum from not just the virtual, but also the real.

As an example, we will work with a client or a worker who uses a digital twin (replica of a physical asset) to understand the workings of a manufacturing plant. They can put on their Augmented Reality (AR) headsets and play around with the equipment to change the way they need. Then they can go back to the real world. The bridging of the real and virtual is a key definition since most think just virtual when they define the metaverse.

The technology will get better. But not all eight billion people in the world can afford this. We need it to be inclusive. So, our ability to create 2D experiences that allow access to some of these 3D worlds is critical. Hence, the continuum of 2d to 3d is important. The good news is that the technology is moving in that direction.

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We've been talking about the way you use artificial intelligence to create the experiences in the metaverse to do digital twins to create digital humans like we're doing for museums when we create intelligent guides. A lot of people think the metaverse is just about gaming and headsets, and I think that's going to mislead people into missing the opportunity. I caution companies that you might have missed Web1 like when Amazon disrupted e-commerce, or Web2 when Airbnb disrupted lodging or Uber disrupted transportation, or Facebook, social. But now's your opportunity to define the rules. If you don't, you're going to wake up in worlds (metaverse and Web3) that are defined by someone, and for someone else. That's not going to be a good place to be. 

* But people and businesses talk about the metaverse and Web3 in the same breath, giving the impression that these are interchangeable terms. What does Accenture think?

Sometimes Web3 is used in almost a political context by some in the crypto community. I'm not using Web3 in that sense. Web3 is the new set of capabilities that are enabling in, one sense, the Internet of place--shared virtual spaces to collaborate, and the internet of ownership--the ability to use blockchain and other technologies to invert the way that ownership works and create unique, differentiated protected digital identities for objects and products that people use. 

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* In your Tech Vision 2022 report, you speak about the four building blocks of the the metaverse continuum -- WebMe, Programme World, The Unreal, and Computing the Impossible. Can you please explain these in brief?

The first one, WebMe, is where we explore how the internet is being reimagined. It's really about the metaverse and future the internet--Web3. The second trend called Programmable World talks about our world being personalized. This one does fold into our metaverse continuum definition. It projects how the convergence of the internet of things (IoT), sensors, digital twins, 5G, ambient computing, augmented reality, smart materials, and more are paving the way for businesses to reshape how they interact with the physical world. You can program smart materials with haptic sensing, for instance, so that a worker can sense if s/he gets close something hot and know not to touch it. This enhances the experience. During Covid, they programmed a messenger RNA to create a vaccine. And it was done by a drug discovery studio that was powered by convolutional neural networks, artificial intelligence, and the cloud. So, it's this fusion of science and the world to allow us to program the world--in this case, a, a vaccine in a very different way.

The third trend--The Unreal--is one of my favorite trends because it's talking about making synthetic objects, and the new issues we have to deal with. Here's just one small example of tremendous innovations coming from a biotech world of synthetic biology, which is allowing us to grow the equivalent of plastics right now. But there's also a dark side to this trend, which is about deepfakes. The other associated with the Unreal trend is synthetic data. We're talking about this tremendous amount of Unreal data you're managing--data about your digital twin of your manufacturing plant, your aircraft, or whatever. Most of the data that you use to train AI as you go forward is going to be synthetic data. One of the analyst firms just did a report saying that by 2030, 80% of the data managed by companies will be synthetic data, not real data because of these trends. The ability to match the unreal in a responsible manner becomes very important because the data itself is generated by AI and is not real data.

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The fourth trend is about what happens in the post-Silicon era. We're talking about quantum computing and bio computing--new forms of computing. Quantum computing is getting interesting, and you need to pay attention to it. The US government just passed an executive order mandating every federal agency to be quantum ready with quantum safe encryption. Quantum cryptography is something that companies need to start paying attention to because it's just a matter of time before quantum computers can break RSA-based encryption. Once that happens, it creates a Y2K like moment for everybody to upgrade the cryptography and the security systems they have. This is not the buzzword right now, but it may become so in two to five years. That's why we call this trend Computing the Impossible. 

* Coming back to the metaverse, companies will also require an AI-type of architecture. What will the elements of this architecture comprise?

We have a reference architecture for the metaverse. There are a couple principles underlying it. One is we believe in an open metaverse and interoperability as a key tenant of it. We are also putting a lot of effort and time into what we call 'Responsible Metaverse', which has two big focus areas--trust and sustainability. On the trust side, we've done a lot of work. The risks, and the need to focus on responsibility, are higher in the metaverse (than in AI) because of the high level of concern. There are concerns around deepfakes, inclusion, and equal opportunity in the metaverse. We believe in pursuing a multi-stakeholder approach (like we did with AI) to work with other companies and organizations. It's a trusted metaverse that gets to handle data and privacy in the right way. Sustainability, too, is a big issue with the metaverse because 3d experiences and the multiple devices consume a lot of energy and resources. If you look at NFTs and cryptocurrencies, they use proof of work mining systems that consume too much energy. 

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* Given all these complexities, what should be the approach of enterprises that are seeking to adopt Web3 and having a presence in the metaverse?

I think the challenge for every company is that every new technology adds on but doesn't eliminate something from the past. With the metaverse, you need to think big because you need to embed, envision the possibilities. But then, start small in a focused way to understand how to apply it. Companies must build an architecture that can scale fast because you will need to move your business fast. So, think big, start small, scale fast is the approach I would recommend from a company perspective.

We made a big entry into our own enterprise metaverse called the Nth Floor. It refers to the virtual environments we have created to bring Accenture people together to meet, collaborate and learn. So, 150,000 of our employees will be onboarded with a virtual reality headset over the next year. (Accenture has created digital twins of many of its physical offices--from Bangalore in India to Madrid in Spain and San Francisco in the US to provide familiar environments for its people to meet, collaborate and network.)

The results we're getting are tremendous. We did this not just to put a toy in people's hands, but we studied the neuroscience around learning and engagement which shows how there's 20-30% improved retention of concepts in an immersive environment. We're seeing that in practice as we apply it and measure it ourselves. People are engaging in new ways. They're sharing experiences that they wouldn't have before.