Seven of the ten largest companies in the world are racing to control what will become a foundational layer of the future of the internet. This new battlefront is spatial computing, the art of teaching digital devices about the physical world – and Apple’s recent release of the Vision Pro​ is bringing the competition to a fever pitch.

The stakes are high. Billed by analysts as the 21st century’s most important tech breakthrough, spatial computing will determine the course of everything from AI and the metaverse to robotics and smart cities. Without spatial computing, AI is limited to a human-curated derivative of the real world. As Lili Cheng at Microsoft puts it: “Mixed reality is the eyes and ears of AI.” Whoever wins the race for spatial computing captures the massively expanding markets for both computers, AI, and robotics – but they also end up with an incredibly dangerous power.

And there’s the rub. When equipping AI with eyes and ears, it’s important to ask ourselves who else gets to look through those cameras. Training AI to understand the world requires enormous amounts of data, and big tech companies are competing with each other to build the most sophisticated and widely distributed surveillance network to feed its spatial computers, literally hoping to see the world through our eyes.

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The fundamental challenge in spatial computing is helping computers understand the physical world and their position in it. The GPS is not accurate enough for spatial computing, so Big Tech is instead betting on the camera and other optical instruments for positioning. Think of Google’s cars mapping the world, or Niantic making a world map from contributions from Pokémon GO players.

The idea is to compare a visual feed to a known model of the world. The trade-off is immediately apparent: we only get our position by sharing what we’re looking at.

Apple is worthy of praise for limiting the surveillance capabilities of the Vision Pro, while careful reading of the terms of service of some other spatial computing offerings reveal vendors reserving the right to keep image data from user devices. Amazon’s failing merger with iRobot, the company behind the Roomba vacuum cleaner, is one particularly obvious attempt at getting more sensor data – but the ambitions of headset makers like Meta are also quite on the nose, if you pardon the pun.

The pressure to collect this data is enormous, and without a sense of physical space that allows it to reach beyond the digital world, any AI will fall short of its potential. The surveillance apparatus will eventually reach into our homes and places of business unless we find a way to give sight to AI without centralized surveillance.

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The dark underbelly of the spatial computing arms race is how it encourages and enables more severe forms of surveillance than ever before. Features ostensibly built for our benefit, like foveated rendering, are quickly repurposed for tracking purposes. Foveated rendering in a headset tracks your eyes so that the headset can put extra attention on rendering the part of the scene that you’re looking at, but Meta executive Nick Clegg happily shared how this same eye tracking can be used to track engagement with ads. It turns out that eyes really are the window to the soul.

Our cognitive liberty is at stake. The spatial computing arms race is taking us down a dark path where whoever wins will be in a position of almost unimaginable power, placing themselves as a filter between us and reality, in a position to measure and modify how we think, function, and feel.

The antidote is imagining an attainable world where AI is limited to the smaller physical contexts of your local grocery store, public library or workplace rather than a world-spanning surveillance apparatus. The whole world does not need to exist within one massive coordinate system linked to a solitary company. This is where decentralization comes into play.

The Decentralization Movement

There’s a way for the regular person to get back in the driver seat, and to halt or even foil big tech’s plans. Leaders from the decentralization movement and crypto space mounted a counter-offensive at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, putting forward a convincing argument that decentralized networks are key to stopping this power grab.

Just as the invention of cavalry (and recently drones) changed how wars are fought, decentralized networks offer new opportunities for collaboration and market forces to outperform tech oligopolies. Like Airbnb and Uber increased the utilization rate of homes and cars, decentralized physical infrastructure networks (DePIN) increase the utilization rate of computers and sensors in fair and equitable ways.

DePIN networks can outcompete prevailing cloud architectures in many ways, both in terms of performance and cost, but can also stop data from aggregating in the hands of one company.

With the rising interest in DePIN, the decentralization movement is coming to the realization that Satoshi’s true legacy is letting the people and the free market own and maintain infrastructure crucial for civilization, challenging the hegemony of profit-driven corporations.

And now, the movement is increasingly starting to pay attention to the spatial computing battlefront, carving a path for a civilization without central surveillance.

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Navigating the Spatial Crossroad: Choose Wisely.

Civilization stands at a crossroads this decade. We owe it to ourselves, and the future of humanity, to make informed decisions and to build responsibly. Builders in XR, AI, and robotics need to take extra care not to contribute to these dystopian outcomes, and instead actively and mindfully collaborate towards open standards, decentralized power, and interoperable technology. Founders, developers, and investors must understand the tradeoffs we are being asked to make, and choose what part they wish to play.

Spatial computing, and the world as context for AI, has put us at this crossroads. One path, paved by communal sweat, funding, and code contributions, leads to a decentralized future where we control our data, our identity, and our destiny. The other, paved by big tech’s billions, promises the all too plausible dystopia of corporate surveillance so deep that our very thoughts cease to be private.

The choice is ours. This is the decade. This is the arena. This is how we win.

Nils Pihl, CEO and Founder of Auki Labs, is an entrepreneur, behavioral engineer, and social transhumanist specializing in the intersection of modern technology and human behavior.

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