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This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: Who made up the metaverse?

Marc Filippino
Good morning from the Financial Times. Today is Thursday, December 23rd, and this is your FT News Briefing.

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Financial conditions in the US remain historically loose, despite the Federal Reserve pulling back on its pandemic stimulus. And US equity markets surged this year but a handful of stocks did most of the work. Plus, who came up with the metaverse? Tech companies are sinking billions into something that comes from an early 90s sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson.

Madhumita Murgia
But he was quoted somewhere saying that he was just making stuff up, so we don’t really know how it ended up being taken so seriously by tech companies.

Marc Filippino
We’ll look at how science fiction shapes how we think and how we feel about robots. I’m Marc Filippino and here’s the news you need to start your day.

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The Federal Reserve may be pulling back from its pandemic stimulus measures to try and battle inflation, but financial conditions in the US, like corporate borrowing costs, are still near their loosest on record. After last week’s Fed meeting, there’s been only a marginal tightening. According to Goldman Sachs, it’s still really easy for companies to list on public markets and tap lenders for new credit. This shows the extraordinary levels of cash sloshing around the global financial system, meaning there’s no shortage of cash available for further dealmaking.

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This year, the S&P 500 hit record high after record high, so you might think the stock market is in great shape, right? Well, peel back those layers and things are not as solid as they may look. The FT’s US markets editor Eric Platt reminds us that the S&P, the Nasdaq and other indices are not monolithic.

Eric Platt
There was one fascinating day just over two weeks ago where the S&P 500 dropped. I think it was about two per cent. And on the same day, Apple, the largest member of the S&P 500, it has more influence over this index than any other stock, actually rose three per cent. And so that dispersion has been really quite great and really unusual, given kind of all the big macro drivers you have in the market at this minute.

Marc Filippino
So, Eric, are the S&P and the Nasdaq bad indicators? Are they misleading in terms of how the broader market is doing?

Eric Platt
It’s not that it’s not a good indicator, right? Because otherwise what you’d have to be doing would be really looking at the individual performance every day of every single stock. And that is a just quite a laborious task, right? The problem is there are times when you do see this concentration and you do see these indices and the stocks underneath move in different directions. And I should say that’s not always a bad thing, right? Sometimes it makes a lot of sense if you know you’ve got financial stocks and energy stocks are really trailing. But you know, consumers and transport and industrial stocks are rallying. And hopefully, at least more than half of the index is rallying, which would make it, you know, move higher. But if you have just been looking at the S&P 500 this year, you missed a lot.

Marc Filippino
Eric Platt is the FT’s US markets editor.

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This year, a new word exploded into the mainstream: metaverse. Companies like Facebook are spending billions to build virtual worlds where people can live online and use services as avatars. Facebook even changed its corporate name to Meta, and all this got our European technology correspondent Madhumita Murgia thinking about where this word comes from. She joins me now. Hey, Madhu.

Madhumita Murgia
Hey. Hey, Marc.

Marc Filippino
So where does this word metaverse come from?

Madhumita Murgia
So I found out that the word metaverse was actually coined or the term was coined in Snow Crash, a science fiction novel by Neil Stephenson from back in 1992. It’s funny because I was looking up why he created this, because he’s inspired so many tech luminaries like Jeff Bezos. But he was quoted somewhere saying that he was just making stuff up. So, you know, we don’t really know how it’s been ended up being taken so seriously by tech companies, but it did originally come out of his novel.

Marc Filippino
So in this new technology frontier, Facebook and Microsoft are pouring billions of dollars into developing. It came from a work of fiction. But I guess it doesn’t feel surprising, right?

Madhumita Murgia
Yeah, I mean, exactly because the whole idea feels really fictional and like, you know, as if we’re talking about living in a video game, but they are taking it really seriously. And as you said, you know, Facebook is putting in tens of billions of dollars into this and even Microsoft, which is far more staid and kind of more practical and kind of how it does business, they’ve already integrated a form of this into Teams, which is, you know, their work communication and productivity software. So this is happening. But the question is kind of how quickly it’s gonna be adopted.

Marc Filippino
So Madhu, you and I have been talking about how fiction affects technology, but it also affects popular perceptions of technology, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence. What did you learn about that?

Madhumita Murgia
Yeah, I thought this was really interesting because I had a conversation with a researcher called Kanta Dihal, she’s at Cambridge, and she runs a programme called AI Narratives, looking at this in all different cultures. And most of the research shows that attitudes in the West towards futuristic technology, particularly AI, it mostly just comes from a few science fiction films, primarily The Terminator.

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Madhumita Murgia
This kind of Frankenstein monster taking over the world. And it also shapes our sort of fear of these robots and our kind of fear of humanity being stamped out by them.

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Marc Filippino
And then there’s Hal, the robot in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who ends up turning against humans. So like, robots are just kind of really bad folk.

Madhumita Murgia
Well, exactly. And also, and also the fact that, you know, once they become conscious and intelligent, then by necessity they destroy the human race. That’s just kind of a narrative that crops up again and again.

Marc Filippino
We should point out that this is in the West or at least in the US. You know, you pointed out in your article that Japan has a very different relationship with robots. And you wrote about classic science fiction animation series in Japan that, that really shifted attitudes in a very different way.

Madhumita Murgia
There were two animated series, Astro Boy and Doraemon, and both of these were extremely popular and have influenced many generations of Japanese people’s views.

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Madhumita Murgia
Astro Boy was a little android happily living alongside humans and Doraemon was a cat. These are just like much more sort of cutesy images. The narratives were, you know, of these characters helping humans, saving humans, and that’s sort of impacted on how people see AI as something that can help them.

Marc Filippino
So what about China? What kind of influence has science fiction there had on attitudes among Chinese people? And you know, how is it different from the West in Japan?

Madhumita Murgia
It’s really fascinating. So, you know, I did get interested because there is just such a powerful culture and pervasive culture of advanced technology now in China and the kind of way of life is so infused with the digital world. So I was really curious about how their attitudes have been impacted, and I spoke with Chen Qiufan, who is a well-known science fiction writer who’s kind of come up over the last few years. And he said historically, you know, Chinese attitudes were just influenced by Western pop culture and Western sci-fi. And he himself grew up, you know, reading Philip K. Dick and so on. But this new wave of science fiction writers are really focusing on the social issues that have come out from this kind of pervasive surveillance culture in China, particularly from private companies, you know, where things like WeChat, you’re just constantly using it for everything from food delivery to education to transport.

Marc Filippino
You made an interesting point in your article that entrepreneurs often take ideas from science fiction writers, but not their warnings. What did you mean by that?

Madhumita Murgia
I think it’s really interesting the disconnect that I found talking to writers and then looking at what is being said in the real business world by business leaders. Really, a lot of the science fiction like, for example, even if we look at Snow Crash, and then when I was talking to Chen about his work, there is a sense of dystopia. There is a sense of a kind of undertone of warning about the direction in which we’re moving as humanity. You know, none of this, it’s not, you know, celebratory and positive about we’re all going to live in this virtual world and it’s going to be great. There are warnings in there about what this means for humanity and how we’re going to lose the core of who we are. Yet that’s completely missing, I thought, from that conversation that we’re having in the in the real world.

Marc Filippino
Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European tech correspondent. Thanks, Madhu.

Madhumita Murgia
Thank you.

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Marc Filippino
Before we go, this Saturday, Christmas Day, the most ambitious telescope ever built is set to be fired into space. The $10bn James Webb Space Telescope has been three decades in the making. It’ll be shot into orbit four times further than the Moon is from Earth, and it’ll take pictures of the very first stars and galaxies formed in the cosmic dawn. That’s about 200 million years after the Big Bang. Let’s see what science fiction writers make of that.

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You can read more on all of these stories at FT.com. This has been your daily FT News Briefing. We’re taking the rest of 2021 off. We want to thank you for making this a hell of a year for us. Happy holidays, and we’ll catch you in 2022. The FT News Briefing is produced by Fiona Symon and me, Marc Filippino. Our editor is Jess Smith. We had help this week from Joanna Kao, George Drake Jr., Peter Barber and Gavin Kallmann. Our executive producer is Topher Forhecz. Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio, and our theme song is by Metaphor Music. We also want to give a special shout out to Michael Bruning. You never hear his voice, but he’s edited scripts for this podcast since day one. He is unfortunately leaving the Financial Times and will be sorely missed. Thank you, Michael, and best wishes from all of us.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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