Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Going All-Virtual: The Desire to Leave Reality Behind

Considering the implications of the singularity is a fascinating exercise. We will be facing choices and available enhancements that require of us quite a bit of imagination if we are to even tentatively understand them. In this article I will raise an issue that I think will confront society at large and ourselves as individuals within the next few decades: Should I go virtual and leave reality behind?

When we hear the term "virtual reality," what may come to mind is the bulky helmet and treadmill setup worn by Michael Douglas in the movie Disclosure. No one would be fooled by that kind of simulation, because their senses would be only partially engaged. They would feel the helmet, they would smell the room they were in, they would always be aware that they were standing, they could not feel the touch of a virtual person or object. The entire experience would never be mistaken for reality.

Skip now to the singularity, when nanomachines in our blood and in our brains can cut off all the data coming from our sensory organs and replace them with virtual data. Every signal being processed by your brain could be coming from the nanomachines, rather than from the outside world. You would not feel the chair that you are sitting on, you would not feel the warmth of the air surrounding your body, or smell the smoke coming from the fire that was started when your lit cigarette fell from your slack fingers onto the flammable carpet.

You see, we would be so completely engaged in our virtual world that it would be very easy to lose track of anything happening on the outside. This possibility raises for me two issues in particular that will have to be addressed in the design of such a virtual reality system.

First, there would have to be some connection with real reality left open. It would have to be unobtrusive in order to avoid ruining the fantasy of the virtual world in which we are enmeshed. But it would have to be able to alert us to messages coming from the outside, to warn us of danger, to remind us that we need to eat, or attend to other bodily functions. (Although we will probably have other means of taking care of those things automatically.) I'm reminded of occasions when I am listening to music from my phone through my earbuds. If someone is calling, I'll hear the alert over the music, so I won't miss the call. Something similar would need to be involved with our future VR system.

Second, when it becomes a simple thing to create a virtual world that we actually prefer to the real one, there will be a very powerful motivation to move our minds into the virtual and abandon the physical body we once called home. Certainly many would choose not to do such a thing, for various reasons, nostalgic, religious, phobic, whatever. But it seems to me that most people will choose to go virtual all the way and stop having to be burdened with the vicissitudes and vagaries of the material world.

I'd like to know what you thin, so feel free to leave a comment. In the meantime, stay tuned.

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