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On the Net: Unreal Life by James Patrick Kelly


In the previous installment we surveyed the varieties of virtual experience. I proposed an admittedly arbitrary distinction between artificial and virtual reality, the difference being that in AR the user doesn’t realize that she’s in a simulation—as in, say, The Matrix <>—whereas in VR, she does—as in, say, Final Fantasy <>. We touched on augmented reality, a kind of VR that enhances your five senses with computer-generated information in real time. While the verisimilitude of VR may range from crude to persuasive, the idea of AR would seem to imply a simulation more thorough and robust. This is not necessarily the case; it is possible to imagine a relatively incomplete AR that nonetheless compels the user to regard it as real. In any event, AR belongs, for the present, to the realm of science fiction.
What we did not look at last time is how these technologies might be used. You can discover some current applications by clicking over to the Virtual Reality Society <> websiteOr check out this survey and video <> from MIT’s Technology Review. As an example, amusement is certainly a driving force in VR development, since video games are a huge part of the entertainment industry. Education <> and training VRs are also coming into their own. Today professionals like doctors <>, pilots <>, and architects <> make regular use of VR. Our armed forces <> have developed some amazing VR <>. And while the Department of Defense keeps its most advanced simulations to itself, thank you very much, you can get a government-sponsored glimpse of combat by virtually enlisting in America’s Army <>.
But as useful and fascinating as some of these applications are, they fall far short of the potential of this technology to change … well, everything. This has led some to scoff, for example this blog post, Whatever Happened to . . . Virtual Reality? <>, which claims that VR just isn’t happening. I’m reminded of the pundits who piped up during the Dot Com Bust <> to say that the internet was just a fad like CB Radio <>. Or all the hardcore bibliophiles who were dead certain that nobody wanted to read books off a screen <>. Of course such skepticism is partly our fault; we science fiction writers just wave our hands to create imaginary stuff on the page while engineers must spend decades building the actual high tech. But just because the gadgets you see on the screen at your local tenplex aren’t for sale at Walmart doesn’t mean that they won’t show up on the shelves someday.
Take, for example, the kind of heads up display <> favored by such sf stalwarts as the Terminator, Robocop, Luke Skywalker and Iron Man. As widely reported, it seems likely that by the time you read this, Google will be close to bringing to market augmented reality eyewear <>. Said to look something like Oakley sunglasses, these wearable Google Goggles will supposedly connect to 3G/4G networks and will augment your personal reality using a camera, GPS and other sensors, all supported by Google’s suite of information retrieval services. With a cost somewhere between $200 and $600, they appear to be aimed at the high end consumer market. Too pricey to succeed? Recall that Amazon’s first Kindle cost $399. It sold out in five hours on the day it debuted and was out of stock for four months.  

my Matrix rant

While this gadget speaks to the inner geek in some of us, the real potential of VR isn’t to guide us to the nearest pizza joint or murmur of dentist appointments. Potentially it opens new frontiers to replace ones we’ve lost as the promise of the space program sputters and fades. Few if any of us will ever get to Mars, but some of us may someday choose to vacation or even live in an artificial Barsoom with John Carter <>. Those who believe in the singularity < > point to VR or AR as potential homes for our uploaded consciousnesses. To some, let’s call them reality snobs, this is anathema. They view any future that is dominated by either artificial or virtual reality as the very model of dystopia.
One of my biggest problems with the Matrix franchise isn’t the way the Wachowskis undercut the achievement of the first film with two redundant and imaginatively-impoverished sequels. Rather it was that they let their story default to the standard Evil Computer plot. Agent Smith asks Neo in the first movie, “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program.”
Really? Really? When I peer through my computer screen, I see a world in which the video game industry made twice as much money as the recorded music industry last year and threatens to out-earn the film industry in the not too distant future. Some have seriously proposed video game addiction for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM <>, although the American Psychiatric Association <> has decided against inclusion, for now. World of Warcraft <> ended 2011 with 10.2 million subscribers. On January 2, 2012, there were 5,012,468 users logged into Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim <>. In 2009, the internal economy of the virtual world Second Life <> grew to $567 million real dollars, about 25% of the entire U.S. virtual goods market.
Extrapolating from this, I believe that if someone managed to build a virtual world “where none suffered, where everyone would be happy,” that buyers would be busting down the doors of unreal estate agents. In fact, emigration might well depopulate the real world. Reality snobs might say that wouldn’t be the same, and they would be right. Neither was it the same for all the immigrants who came to America from other countries. But, the snobs might argue, any simulation would be just a shadow of reality—like the The Matrix with its cheapjack 1999 simulation. No! That was just the Wachowskis putting their thumbs on the scale. Why would you furnish a simulated reality from the Dollar Store? Remember the scene where we watched viscous black fluid pump into a growing fetus? Laurence Fishburne <>intoned an explanation: it turns out the dead are being liquidfied and fed to the living. Ewwww. But this is just an Evil Computer plot with the volume dialed up to eleven.
Okay, okay! Calm down, Jim. This is just a movie—a thirteen year old movie. But it is also the culture beginning to think about its future, which is why it’s worth interrogating the assumptions here. What if the snoozing population in The Matrix was fed a nice nutritionally-complete vegan broth? What if virtuality made them happy, in the same way that interacting with today’s intricate video games gives so many millions pleasure? What if they chose to forsake memories of the real world as part of the adjustment to virtuality? And would it really be so terrible if they never smelled a real rose again?
Yes, that last would be a loss, no question. But how many people in the real world have access to gardens and the leisure to sniff flowers? In the imaginary world of the Matrix, dysfunctional as it was, nobody was starving and everybody was reasonably healthy. Can we make the same claim for all of our brothers and sisters in this enlightened year of 2012?  


As it turns out, reality snobs may already have lost the high ground. According to maverick philosopher Nick Bostrom <>, it is conceivable that we are already living in the Matrix or something like it. He has proposed what has come to be called the simulation hypothesis <>, which argues that what we perceive as reality might be a kind of AR created by our very advanced descendants. The idea that reality isn’t all that real is not new. Greek philosophers, notably Plato <> argued that beneath the world of appearances which our senses apprehend lies the true reality of eternal forms, which we can’t know. Some schools of Buddhism, notably Dzogchen <> teach that what we perceive as the world is actually a kind of dream. Modern philosophers from René Descartes to Bertrand Russell have expressed varying levels of misgiving with that which our senses report.
Bostrom puts a new spin on the ancient idea, based on AR technology and probability theory. He asks that you imagine that it is possible to build a computer powerful enough to implement a human mind in an artificial reality. This is one of the ideas behind singularity theory, and if you have already decided that it’s nonsense then you aren’t going to like the rest of Bostrom’s argument. But as long as we’re making extravagant claims for our great-great-great10 grandchildren, assume they can implement not just one but lots and lots of minds in this hypothetical AR, which Bostrom calls an ancestor simulation. Say enough to populate an entire world. Bostrom < > then claims that at least one of the following statements must be true:
“(1) Almost all civilizations at our level of development become extinct before becoming technologically mature.
(2) The fraction of technologically mature civilizations that are interested in creating ancestor simulations is almost zero.
(3) You are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.”
If 1 and 2 are false, then technological civilizations will ultimately have the power and inclination to create billions and billions of simulated minds like yours and mine. Bostrom continues, “Therefore, by a very weak principle of indifference, you would have to assume that you are probably one of those simulated minds, rather than one of the ones that are not simulated.” Note that Bostrom does not claim that we are in a simulation, only that at least one of the three statements must be true. 


As you can imagine, this idea has received some serious attention. If you google “simulation hypothesis criticism” you’ll find many spirited attacks. Read them. Then perhaps come back to Bostrom’s The Simulation Argument FAQ <> before you make up your mind. For myself, I must say that I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this idea. I do acknowledge that it makes my brain, real or virtual, throb—but in a good way.

Just like the very best science fiction.

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"On the Net: Unreal Life" by James Patrick Kelly Copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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