The US and China are competing to gain a military edge in the metaverse. Image: Twitter

In yet another realm of US-China rivalry, both superpowers are treating the emerging metaverse as a contested military domain.

The metaverse is a digital, parallel world created thanks to developments in the internet, virtual reality, networking technologies and augmented reality, to name but a few of its technological enablers. Currently, there is no single unified metaverse but rather fragmentation of multiple metaverses created by various companies and programmers.

While the concept and technologies are still in their infancy, the metaverse has many diverse and significant defense applications ranging from training, mission planning and simulation, weapons design and even combat operations. That potential is already putting the US and China on a virtual world collision course.

In an article published last month in the Military Cyber Professionals Association, Josh Baughman from the National Defense University wrote that China views the metaverse as providing a “parallel cognitive space that digitally twins real combat scenarios, where cognitive warfare can be advanced efficiently and enhanced at a fast pace.”

He added that an attack on an adversary’s metaverse can “affect the opponent’s thinking, cognition, and action decision making.” Baughman opined that China views the US as far ahead in metaverse technology but that it views itself as superior from a cultural and substantive viewpoint.

Citing the example of China’s video-sharing app TikTok, which has recently swept the planet and is fast stealing market share from the US’s Facebook, he emphasized China’s grassroots-based approach to the emerging domain.

He wrote “China and the US will inevitably compete in the metaverse,” with the emerging domain eventually becoming a reflection of real society while blurring the lines between the Internet and reality, thus posing significant ethical and moral questions about how it should be governed.

Both the US and China are betting big on the metaverse. Photo: Wackomka

The metaverse concept lends itself to the ideas of simulacra and hyperreality, as first expounded by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. For Baudrillard, a simulacrum is an imitation that fails to refer to the original and over time becomes less and less than the object it is meant to represent through technological mediation of experience. Hyperreality begins when a simulacrum web begins to present yet another of its kind.

Building on Baudrillard’s thought, in the context of defense and security, the metaverse can accurately model the complexity of human experience required in contemporary military operations, thus raising questions about whether norms can be applied in the development of metaverses and if metaverses can reflect human biases in their simulated reality.

The metaverse can thus be likened to a controlled military environment wherein multiple variables can be controlled with high degrees of precision.

While the use of metaverse technology in training may allow soldiers and officers to better visualize operations in an integrated space, this assumption may still run against Clausewitz’s adage that “no plan survives contact with reality” – that is, no metaverse will replace in-the-moment situational awareness and instinctive decision-making based on immediate, first-hand knowledge of critical situations.

At the same time, the emergence of a single metaverse as a distinct domain poses questions if norms can be realistically enacted to govern its military use, just as the open nature of the Internet makes it extremely difficult to enact universal norms regulating its application and use.

One hypothetical situation is that stakeholders may try to create norms based on the military use of the metaverse but fail to address the human behaviors and motivations that drive the metaverse’s development. That is, political and military decisions may be made based on metaverse simulations yet fail to analyze the human factors that led to the creation of such military simulations in the first place.

Moreover, there are questions about whether metaverses will promote certain morality biases in simulating reality. As with AI, stakeholders in developing metaverse technology may imprint their biases into the technology, producing a virtual reality that amplifies social, political and ethnic inequalities, which could potentially become more embedded as metaverse ecosystems mature and the line between the virtual and real steadily blurs.

Metaverses can also be designed to reflect national values and ideals, with states designing metaverses that reflect their own policies and cultures in terms of design and simulation.

A metaverse based military simulation system. Photo: Defense Advancement

This also opens the possibility that an attack on a metaverse would not be an outright denial of service but rather take the form of subliminal messaging within simulations, creating cognitive echo chambers with real-life consequences on national planning, decision-making and security.

As such, the future of the metaverse will undoubtedly be shaped by US-China competition, with both countries likely creating and fielding metaverses that reflect their respective views of military operations, political decision-making and core values.

As with other real-world realms, the US versus China race to dominate and militarize the metaverse is on and with both sides’ national security agencies, departments and tech sectors intimately involved is likely more advanced than realized.