Tue Jan 27, 2015
The ultimate dystopian future has to be the one where the culmination of Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) results in our unwitting enslavement by a machine mind. Fifteen years ago, The Matrix nailed it brilliantly:
In this - dare I say - cult classic, the god-like AI, having far surpassed humanity’s cognitive abilities, views people as nothing more than a power source. To maintain control over us, the AI creates the ultimate VR simulation. In this case, VR is indistinguishable from reality because it uses a neural interface - the machine plugs directly into our brain and provides all the sensory data our bodies would usually generate.
The kicker is that the VR world turns out to be a lot more enticing than real life. And even if you’ve taken that red pill, you might just beg the machine to plug you back in so you can enjoy a simulated steak once again.
Other visions of a future where VR is mainstream are a bit more optimistic, but still ambivalent. I recently read Ready Player One, published just four years ago, which imagines a not-too-distant time where overpopulation and global warming have dragged the economy down into the mud and further exacerbated the disparity in wealth. To escape from a dismal reality, people spend most of their time in a VR world called The Oasis. In this case, a VR headset and a haptic rig are all that is required. Seems more believable? That’s because we’re already there.
When Oculus Rift debuted three years ago, on Kickstarter no less, it captured the imagination of the world. In fact, when Mark Zuckerberg tried out the prototype he was blown away and dropped a cool two billion to buy the company. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see Facebook evolve into a VR world, giving the concept of Second Life, a…er…second life.
But the Oculus Rift looks downright antiquated compared to Microsoft’s recently-announced HoloLens, a VR headset that projects holograms into your physical environment. It also makes Google Glass look a silly toy. I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft surprised everybody with this, especially as it seems to be exactly what Magic Leap is working on, and Magic Leap is still keeping their cards very close to their chest.
The key differences between Oculus Rift and HoloLens is that the former projects light on your eyes from a traditional LCD screen, whereas the latter projects images made of light onto a transparent screen in front of your eyes. In Ready Player One, the fictional VR headset used lasers to draw an image directly on your eyes. It seemed a bit ludicrous when I read it at the time, but now I’m not so sure.
When you bring AI into the picture, then some amazing possibilities emerge. In the late 1980s a computer beat a human at chess. It was a big deal. Since then, AI has sort of faded into the background. But it is all around us now and we just take it for granted. When a machine learns from its experiences and adapts, it is gaining in intelligence. The humble spam filter in your email is a low-level form of AI because it quickly learns that Nigerian scam emails go to your Junk folder instead of your Inbox.
Further up the spectrum, Google Now analyzes your daily commute to learn where you work and even waits until you’re just about to head home to tell you how long it will take based on the current traffic. Siri will converse with you and even share a few jokes, while learning the names of your family members so she knows exactly who to call when you ask her to “call my mom”. From Netflix recommendations to self-driving cars: AI is getting smarter all the time.
So we come to the question we all fear - when will AI surpass human intelligence to become our intellectual superior? According to Tim Urban’s research, exponential technological advancement could birth machine sentience sooner than we think. And this AI would not exist in some isolated monolithic box like the WOPR from WarGames. The so-called Internet of Things, with cheap sensors connecting everyday objects everywhere could serve as the eyes and ears of a centralized AI, spanning the world in a spiderweb of sensory data to be parsed and learned from.
VR could become the ultimate interface between humans and their machines, allowing a level of interaction that in some way surpasses reality. Like dreaming. In a dream state, the human mind is an amazing organ, simultaneously creating imaginary worlds and narratives while participating in them. When you become aware you are dreaming, you can perform incredible feats, such as flying or time travel. Imagine if VR was the dream and you could enter it with your conscious mind. You may never want to wake up.
The potential for both great good and great harm is what both intrigues and horrifies us - especially if our creation becomes the Frankenstein monster that becomes alive and decides not to play nice. They say knowledge is power - but more than that: if you can control the mind, and sensory inputs to the mind, that is absolute power. So should we be wary? Sure. But one can still dream.