Herman Narula, the co-founder and CEO of Improbable Worlds Limited, a London startup building the infrastructure for massive virtual worlds to be developed, says that "gaming could be an antidote to a world where jobs have been automated".

While speaking at Wired Live in London yesterday the CEO directly referenced science fiction from The Matrix, author William Gibson and Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One.

© Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures

It is this last reference which seems the most apt, as the novel depicts a world wracked by environmental and social issues which has seen most people retreat into a virtual world run by a massive multinational conglomerate.

Speaking on stage, Narula said that with 2.6 billion people playing video games today it "is drastically important to our society in a way that we need to wake up to".

"Why I think it is so important is it is beginning to go beyond playing. Now, video games and game worlds are starting to produce behaviour that doesn't look just like people entertaining themselves by engaging with the game directly. We are starting to see players become professionals, become creators."

The young CEO went on to make a prediction: "What we are about to see is a further transformation from video games that are all about playing, to games that become more like worlds, where value can be created, jobs perhaps can be had, experiences can occur which can blur the boundaries between simply passively consuming something and having meaningful experiences."

Narula spoke about the singularity, a term coined by science fiction author Vernor Vinge to encapsulate the idea that artificial superintelligence could abruptly trigger runaway technological growth and automation, causing a seismic shift to society.

Narula said that this concept was something his investor, SoftBank CEO and multi-billionare Masayoshi Son talks about often. Improbable raised a massive $500 million (£388 million) from SoftBank earlier this year.

Naturally, both Narula and Son see the singularity with rose tinted glasses or, more importantly, as an opportunity.

"What it should mean to people, beyond a world where AI and autonomous systems create enormous wealth and productivity, is a world where humans have very little to do," Narula said. "Jobs are going to be automated at a fairly frightening rate. I think gaming could be a very important antidote to some of the challenges we might encounter in an automated society.

"Game worlds represent a place where labour doesn't need to be automated, there is no point, and the kind of activities that game worlds support and the value creation they support are intrinsically resistant to AI. They are in fact kind of wonderfully, quintessentially human activity. It is our culture abstracted away from the real world and put into a form where people can create value in unimaginable ways.

"Who would have thought that video games can save the world, but perhaps they can."

Looking further forward, Narula doesn't believe that "virtual worlds will replace the real world, I think we will find ourselves living these interesting, multi-versal lives, jumping between worlds, engaging with people and activities that today we can scarcely imagine but all happening in the context of a much larger more rich experience of life".

This sort of tech utopianism is problematic. The idea that retreating into virtual worlds to avoid the problems we have created in the real world, and the implication this has in terms of putting wealth into the hands of the gatekeepers of this world, is the sort of dystopian vision that would give the authors Narula earlier referenced nightmares.

A computer science graduate from Cambridge, the 29-year old went on to speak about the importance of developing distributed computing to drive the technological feasibility of truly immersive virtual worlds.

Naturally, this is where Improbable comes in. Narula says "there is no technological, fundamental constraint that means those futures aren't possible. So we have to assume they come about and if they do we have to wonder what our lives might be like".

Called SpatialOS, Improbable is designing a platform-as-a-service running across distributed servers which promises to be able to host massive virtual worlds with huge volumes of concurrent users and compute-intensive AI-powered elements.

“SpatialOS is a new type of development platform that transcends the limitations of the old client/server model. It connects servers in the cloud so that your online game sees them as one massively powerful server, providing access to nearly unlimited player connections and compute,” the company states on its website.

"To make that happen, a sort of technological change is happening behind the scenes of the games industry," Naurla said. "You might think that I am talking about VR here but I'm not, because the key is not necessarily how we immerse ourselves in these worlds, it is what these worlds themselves allow for. The big change that we are beginning to see and that the industry is starting to move towards is massive scale."

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