When does the virtual become real?

Virtual Reality (VR) is here to stay and the technology will only become more of an integral part of our lives.  For immersive experiences, Oculus Rift, Playstation VR and a host of other products are vying for our attention. It’s not difficult to imagine a future where we spend a high proportion of our time in virtual realities for both work and leisure. As VR technologies become more sophisticated and immersive, their long-term impact raises the questions of what is reality and are we in danger of losing a grip on it?

Other realities

Popularised by movies such as The Matrix and Inception, the idea that we can exist inside other realities often without knowing, is not new. Meditations by René Descartes was first published in Latin in 1641. Descartes contemplates an evil demon trying to deceive him. Considered a foundation for modern western philosophy Descartes uses Cartesian doubt (a form of methodological scepticism, questioning the possibility of certain knowledge) and also solipsism (the idea that one can only be certain that one’s own mind is the only mind that exists) to ponder his own existence concluding “cogito ergo sum”  – I think, therefore I am.

A contemporary take on Descartes is the Brain in a vat” (BIV) thought experiment. In the BIV scenario, a mad scientist has removed a human brain, placed it in a vat of some life-sustaining fluid and wired up its neurons to a supercomputer that provides the electrical impulses identical to those that the brain would normally receive. Therefore the supercomputer would be simulating reality and the brain would continue to have normal conscious experiences.

We’re already living in a simulation

To reinforce the concept of other realities, widely respected philosopher Nick Bostrom (https://nickbostrom.com/) published a paper in 2001 entitled “Are you living in a computer simulation?” Bostrom concluded that based on probability analysis there is a high probability that we are. Bostrom argues that “a technologically mature ‘posthuman’ civilization would have enormous computing power” and that “unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor‐simulation.”

Therefore, what we call reality may already be a simulation in a virtual reality. Conceding this point we have deduced that virtual reality has the potential for achieving the equivalent experience of our current day to day base reality.

Defining reality

To continue with this line of reasoning, the question posed of “what is reality?” could be answered by saying that reality is a perceived shared common experience with those things that we interact with, both through our senses and by mutual consent to social constructs (e.g. money, gender, government, corporations, family, etc) that manifest themselves in the reality. I say perceived to keep open the small possibility that you are the sole Brain in a Vat and everyone else you are interacting with is a simulation.

Value scenarios

From a purely sensory experiential perspective, a virtual reality could be a single player scenario where all other entities are simulated. This scenario does inevitably lead us to conclude that the experience, although enjoyable, is essentially hedonistic.

On the flip side we should consider potential value scenarios. These value scenarios are those that elicit the opposite response to the hedonistic single player scenario above. Potential value scenarios include:

  1. Transferability of skills and knowledge
  2. Transfer-ability of social constructs
  3. Multiple opt-in

Skills & Knowledge

Transferability of skills and knowledge from the virtual world to the real world already provides a safe learning environment for both airline pilots and Formula 1 drivers. In the future more training and skills accumulation will happen in virtual worlds across a broader range of scenarios. Virtual worlds act as a safe environment to fail in for more dangerous activities and provide better experiences and engagement for the mundane.

Social Constructs

Whilst transfer-ability of skills and knowledge provides a soft link from the virtual to the real, when social constructs are transferred across realities this provides a hard link. For example, earning money in the virtual world through completing activities and then being able to transfer this money to the real world. Conversely, the ability to use money from the real world to buy additional assets or experiences in the virtual world. These hard links can already be found in many MMO (massive multiplayer online) games.

Multiple opt-in

Building on the concept of transferring social constructs, the more people that choose to enter a given virtual reality the more real it becomes. This is based on the previous definition of reality being “a perceived shared common experience with those things that we interact with, both through our senses and by mutual consent to social constructs that manifest themselves in the reality.” Multiple opt-in satisfies the shared common experience where the single player experience doesn’t.  The more social constructs we build in the virtual reality the more real it becomes. For example, as well as it’s own financial system, the shared virtual reality may have government, laws, law enforcement, companies, etc.

Is the virtual real and are we in danger of losing a grip on it?

At this point, we can say the advanced virtual reality we have theoretically constructed is real in terms of the definition offered, however it may not feel real. This may be for two reasons:

  1. Either the virtual reality does not feel real enough as all of our senses are not satisfied and/or
  2. There is a defined threshold between realities acting as a mental “check-in, check-out” from one reality to another.

On the first point, this comes down to how we can progress our technologies to provide the all-immersive experience that satisfies all of our senses. Even having achieved this there will still be the act of entering the virtual reality. This crossing of a threshold acts as a marker so we know that we are entering a different reality. Contrast this with both Bostrom’s “living in a computer simulation” argument and the “Brain in a Vat”  argument. Both of these work on the presupposition that we know of nothing before entering the reality, therefore the reality we are experiencing appears to be base reality.

Losing a grip

It is conceivable and therefore possible that at some point in the future a virtual reality may offer everything and more that base reality can, albeit with the caveat of having to cross a threshold to enter. The fewer number of times a person crosses the threshold and/or the more time the individual spends in the virtual reality the significance of the threshold diminishes. If the virtual reality offers some kind of life-support then it would be possible to only have to cross this threshold once.

Even if the threshold is traversed multiple times, realities would blur into each other if the sensory experiences are not distinguishable between realities. For example, if the virtual reality is a copy or a near copy of this reality then our memories may get confused between the two.

There is a comparison here with dreaming that offers a good analogy to help us with our thinking on this matter. We dream, it feels real, we wake up (cross a threshold) and realise that it was a dream. Some people are able to recognise the fact that they are in a dream while they are dreaming (lucid dreaming). Usually this is achieved by noticing small details in the dream that are not a match for our waking state.

So, if you were permanently able to dream do you think you would notice? When would the dream become your reality?

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