IEET > Vision > Virtuality > Bioculture > Staff > Mike Treder > Futurism
Life in a Virtual World
Mike Treder   Jul 24, 2010   Ethical Technology  

If you could live in a world that was just the way you wanted it to be, with specifications you’d chosen, customized and personalized to meet your every need and fulfill your fondest desires, would you spend all your time there? Or would you prefer to stay here, in the real world?

As computers continue to gain speed and power at the rate of Moore’s ‘law’, they are moving closer to the point where they will be capable of rendering a virtual environment that closely resembles the real world, so close that it may become hard to tell it apart from the real thing.

If you’ve watched any of the most recent movie blockbusters or played the hottest video games, you’ve surely noticed that computer animation is getting better and better. Though you may still be able to tell that what you’re seeing is CGI (computer-generated imagery) and not just straight photography, it’s getting harder all the time to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

image

Now, project yourself forward 10 or 20 years, with that much more time for computer processors to ramp up in speed, gain memory exponentially, and implement massive parallel processing. The day is probably not far away when you’ll be sitting in a theater or playing a game and you could swear that what you’re seeing is literally photographed and not created by technical artists. Sometimes you might even think that now.

The next step beyond sitting and watching a movie, or engaging in a game via keyboard and joystick, is to step inside the experience, to partake of all the sensations within that other place—to touch and feel and smell and taste in addition to seeing and hearing—to be in a virtual reality.

Technology so powerful that it can achieve that level of appeal to our sensorium—a full immersion inside a created world, made so real that we can barely tell it apart from reality, if at all—is still some years away. It requires not only brute force computing, but also the development of fine human-computer interfaces that allow us to engage all our senses without being aware of the mediating apparatus around us.

Once that is achieved, however, when sophisticated techniques for full-immersion, indistinguishable virtual reality (VR) have been honed and perfected, how much time do you think you would want to spend there?

imageAssuming that the cost of using VR is negligible (which may or may not be the case), and assuming it’s so realistic that when you’re inside you can’t tell the difference, and assuming that you are able to exercise control over your own personal VR environment, to make the world around you just how you’d like it and the people behave as you want them to, then would you ever want to leave?

imageThis question has been posed quite provocatively in fiction by Greg Egan is his classic novels Permutation City and Diaspora, as well as in the Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright.

imageIn those books, and in others of the same genre, the protagonist will interact with some characters who are fully artificial (AI constructs), and with others who are avatars of real flesh and blood people. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stipulate that in your virtual reality, you get to choose with whom you associate and generally can determine how they will behave.

So, again, here’s the question. Once the technology has been perfected and the virtual reality you can experience is near-ideal, as we have described, how much of your time do you think you would choose to spend there?

We’ve just posted a new poll on the topic. Here are the answers you can choose:

  • No time at all. I value the experience of real life too much.
  • Probably a little time, but mostly I’d stay outside, right here.
  • I think I’d split my time inside and outside about evenly.
  • Most of the time, though I’d still like to be real once in a while.
  • ALL the time. Goodbye cruel world!

Please let us know what you think!

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

This a tricky question that l have thought a lot about.  In short my vote goes to:
- I think I’d split my time inside and outside about evenly.

My real opinion is this:
    In the short run I think it will be entertainment based and I can clearly see how many people will spend a lot of time in VR, just look at the World of Warcraft following, it may even become epidemic.  With that in mind, there is some $ to be made in the outside world as technical and life support.  The main issue is whether the health of mankind goes down due to sedentary lifestyles.  Also I hope it doesn’t pacify us so much that we are more prone to physical terrorist attacks by luddites and religious zealots.
    In the long term I can see the physical world and the virtual world become one due the use of augmented reality, utility fog and using matter at an atomic level as computational devises and storage.  At some point most of the matter in the universe may become “smart” and there will be no distinction between physical and virtual as we will have the capability to manipulate matter at an atomic, or smaller, level.

I don’t know. If your question is solely about escapism then no more time then I currently spend on it. But, given the existence of the prerequisite technologies needed for the VR world you describe, VR would be used for much more productive ends in addition to escapist fantasy fulfillment.

Speaking as a programmer, the potential for a light-year leap in intuitive programing “languages” that take advantage of a direct line to the brain is just one example of the promise that VR holds for a complete redesign of the work (and social) environment.

Given that progressively more work will be done in VR, I suspect that I would be spending the majority of my time there. It’s a practical matter for me.

As far as the V in VR is concerned, what about an astronomer that is immersed in an artificial galaxy constructed from all available (and constantly updating) data of our milky way? Is that VR or augmented reality? In short, there will be plenty of non-fiction on the VR shelf.

There is probably no real separation between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. Perhaps it only seems so because our technology is still in it’s infancy. I suspect, for a number of reasons, as the technology gets better, we will cease to see a meaningful difference.
I voted for 100% of my time.

Great question.  But I think that as the time approaches we will no longer think of the question the same way.  My instinct would be to say I want to spend most of my time in the “real” world.  But which world am I in when I sit in a lecture hall listening to a politician speak - in the same physical space - but tweeting it at the same time? 

Is my time on Facebook virtual or real, both, or neither?  And when Facebook leads to lengthy phone calls with old friends I haven’t seen for decades, what’s the right way to describe the intersection between real and virtual realities that the entire exchange represents?

It’s still a great question, and my temptation is to say 90% “real” world.  But I write and blog and communicate online for a living, so I deal in the “virtual” a great deal of my professional life already.  My point (I think) is that when transformative technologies finally become ubiquitous, frequently the questions we think they’ll force us to confront are no longer even thought of as questions.

I think we already live in a very virtual world.
Let me explain: as humans we are not only physical entities (specifically: animals) we also are *social* entities.
As such we use a language that is written in symbols, and I want to underline that words are *virtual* entities carrying a meaning.
As social entities we use money, that is immaterial.
As social entities we engage in activities that mean close to nothing to us individually (use your least preferred social interaction: be it work, politics, traffic rules, tv-gossip, war, ... ). Let’s say 60-80 % of what we do is externally driven, and most of it is in some sense “virtual”.

Now to the question: “If I could live in a world that was just the way I wanted it to be…”

I would be internally, egocentrically, satisfied…. as in my dreams (or nightmares), but lacking of the originality that others inject in my life.
I could not have invented E=mc^2, in a virtual world of mine (and mine only ). I think I would miss other people’s originality.

My answer could be: I would choose to be living in a world (virtual or real) where others have a part.
If, in that world, virtual entities seem real (ideas seem things, values seem feelings, relationships seem persons, ...), well, I could consider it a good ideal “closure” of the real-virtual metaphorical circle that now seems “open” to me.

well here’s a question how do we know that the world we live-in right now isn’t a VR world that we created from the other Dimensions?

maybe that’s why whatever we really wish for, does come true?
because we actually desgned it that way, we created it?

SO I would most likely spend more time in the VR and live all my fantasies and dreams and goals because at the end of the day the Brain cannot differ between reality or Imagination…

I answered “Most of the time, though I’d still like to be real once in a while.”

There is an important qualification. By “living in a virtual world” I do not mean living as a body/brain in a vat connected to a virtual world, but rather living in the virtual world as pure software, with mu thoughts and consciousness directly implemented on its computing substrate. Like in Diaspora and Permutation City, not like in The Golden Age.

In the previous comment, of course it is “my thoughts” instead of “mu thoughts”.

Also, I agree with iPan. The difference between what we consider as “real” and “virtual”, or “artificial”, will soon become meaningless. For example, you may be reading this with glasses, in which case you would probably not be able to read it with your “real” eyes. Is your vision mediated by your glasses real or virtual? I say real.

OK.. Short and sweet for once, (as I’m connecting via flintstone phone)..

These primeval visions of VR normally involve some image of reclining in a “lazy boy” wearing an electrode helmet, or suspended from the ceiling by wires etc. Yet this leads to all kinds of physical health problems such as muscle wastage, calcium deficiencies and all those other body wasting hazards faced through lack of physical activity? Perhaps similar to those faced by space programs?

Yet despite even these problems there still seems something problematic and unreasonable with these ideas of mental stimulation versus lack of physical activity, at least whilst we do still possess bodies that is? It would appear to me that a more complementary and acceptable way forward is inspired once again by the Star Trek ideas of using holosuites for both recreation and reward, even to the point of superseding monetary payments and reward, and perhaps even transforming economics and consumerism altogether?

If you could live in a world that was just the way you wanted it to be, with specifications you’d chosen, customized and personalized to meet your every need and fulfill your fondest desires, would you spend all your time there? Or would you prefer to stay here, in the real world?

I’ve had this particular discussion fairly often in SL.  The answer I’ve always come up with seems to be the same.  Even if a virtual world was identical in sensation to the real world, i.e. “Matrix” level VR, the fact that we would know that it is “a virtual world” would eventually lead to an eventual state of ennui.  We would get bored in a world in which EVERYTHING was perfect, just like Agent Smith points out in “Matrix.”

While it might be possible to “fool” people, I think most people would probably prefer to make “Reality” more like VR. We still haven’t answered all the questions we have about “this reality” and likely our curiosity as a species will lead many of us in a thousand different directions.  I for one plan to always maintain a “physical” interface with the “real world” though I expect that “interface” to be highly modified, morphable, and backed up by numerous fail-safe systems.

Suffice it to say, some will choose one path, others another.

I would think a lot of time.  Especially if you can earn a living in it. Eventually VR will reflect the real world and it may or may not be utopia.

Ironically, my ideal perfect world would be Pandora, though maybe I might change it to something like Half-Life 2 Earth every once in a while, too, just because I enjoy a nice struggle now and then.

As for how much time I would spend there, I think for most of my life, I would use it recreationally. As something to do on the weekend, or take a vacation too. However, one day it will likely become my “heaven,” because I would hope to have my mind permanently uploaded on my deathbed.

Stop understanding language and you’ll see how much of our existence and reality is tied to mental constructs that are essentially virtual. Without language our lives look, e.g. to an alien, very much like those of animals, though often even less (readily) meaningful. Without language we merely appear to move ourselves and things around (very little, in terms of mass, speed, and distance) and that’s about it.

*loudly slamming door*

At least half a dozen questions spring to mind here. How do we know virtual reality ( a really life-like version of it) doesn’t act on the addiction areas of the brain (dealing with drug, gambling and other addictions and wouldn’t you know it, the sex drive), for at least a proportion of the population? I’m thinking of Malcolm MacDowell desperate to get back to the Nexus in Star Trek Generations.

Let’s say most or all of humanity (unlikely, I know) enter it and while they’re in it, an asteroid strikes, the daleks, borg, cybermen (put in name of favorite sci-fi baddies) attack or the Vogans decide to clear Earth for a hyperspace bypass?

One spouse decides to go in permanently the other doesn’t?

After a while people forget about reality and stay lost in VR? (And how do we know it hasn’t already happened?)

Nation A goes in for it in a big way, Nation B doesn’t and then invades A.(variant of the second one above)

Unknown side-effects spoiling everyone’s fun as usual.

This one just occurred to me; a long shot but as the question of whether drugs put us in touch with other dimensions has ben seriously discussed here why not the possibility that advanced VR has the same effect. Opens a whole can of ets,doesn’t it?

Hmmm interesting, Paul - and what if one has a *roleplaying* addiction? When would you know if you are you?

Hi Khannea, IMO people with roleplaying addictions would be well advised to stay clear of advanced VR and stick to Dungeons & Dragons (My God I’m old) but inevitably…

You might like a movie called eXistenZ (no, not drunk, that’s how they spell it). Something like the theme of The Matrix but IMO much superior which touches on the dangers of losing touch with reality in VR.

Possibly each person would have devised some way of knowing when they were in VR something perhaps like the totem of the characters in Inception. Though I’m not certain that would really work… The only other thing I can think of is to have a group of your friends (more than one, don’t forget the old heart attack nightmare scenario) watch from ‘outside’  and get you out if you lose your epistemological bearings (or totems).

Hmm interesting.

All my life I keep seeing this small flickering icon top left of my field of vision ‘interface RLV locked’. You have any idea what that would mean?

Also - who said you needed Dungeons & Dragon’s to roleplay? I know a few IBM executives who roleplay far more persistently than in any greyhawk setting?

Well of course it may mean you may soon be meeting up with some guy who’s going to give you a choice of tablets and soon you’ll be waking up in vat 42 or vat 69 (which you may have imbibed a bit too much of before you logged on Do they still sell that stuff in England?). Or you may have a block on your brain and you should be searching for a girl named Sarah Connor or her son John ... or alternatively you may have been detected as a replicant and you should get your bladerunner rollerblades on. Mind you, it could always be worse ... you could have 666 flickering instead and watch all your born-again friends floating up into the sky…

Cue Monty Python member coming on and telling us that’s quite enough silliness for one post.

Paul, the range of ideas from these cimematic cliche’s doesn’t hold a handle to the full width and breadth of what I can conceive of - or what is actually possible. It is a speck of dust in an ocean.

You forget about augmented reality which is a combination of sensory reality and virtual reality. It is much more likely that when human brains are cyberized, augmented reality will be used to enhance richness of perception. And the cityscape itself might be engineered to accommodate a rich screenscape—where virtual reality is always on display, always ready to connect with the cyberneural ports—all at the same time, being grounded in a real, physical infrastructure.

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