Writing at his Forbes blog Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek offers a few speculative thoughts on what the year 2045 might look like. While his piece is brief and interesting throughout, and should therefore be read in full, his prediction concerning virtual reality caught my attention.
My second prediction is we will spend a disturbing (to us) amount of time in virtual reality. Right now humans spend a tremendous amount of time staring at screens that basically amount to a moving flat picture. Perhaps eventually brains will adapt and learn to not trust virtual reality, but the early reports are suggesting the coming VR is very good at tricking us into feeling strong emotional and even physical responses. What will happen to the demand for the virtual world when it goes from flat moving pictures to immersive experiences capable of inducing emotional responses that closely mimic real life? I believe it will explode, for good and for bad. Importantly, our sphere of empathy will expand as we have the opportunity to “walk in other people’s shoes” in a very realistic way.
This is dead-on in my view. The answer to his question “what will happen to demand?” is that it will explode, of course. We can probably shave fifteen years off the predictive timeframe as well and find virtual reality use to be not only common in wealthier nations but quite consuming as well, especially among the younger demographics.
Widespread use of virtual reality matters…a lot…and for a variety of reasons. The most important is that, a lot of sticky and tough questions notwithstanding, certain VR experiences could amount to a referendum on actual reality. About a year ago, on this blog, I made the case that even early versions of VR technology were likely to meet the minimum hurdles to become just that. Effectively, they’d be real-life incarnations of low-level experience machines, famed philosopher Robert Nozick’s term for his made-up contraptions that can trick you into believing you are actually experiencing any thing you can imagine happening in reality, all while your physical body floats, lifeless, in the machine. His point was that most people would not choose to live in the machine the rest of their lives, but rather, people value something beyond just felt experiences alone; most people aren’t hedonists. Here’s the gist of why VR might actually qualify as an experience machine sometime soon:
More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.
Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.
As Adam correctly points out, virtual reality will deliver both benefits and costs to humankind. Since his only example (increasing empathy) lands on the benefit side of the equation, allow me to offer an opposing one to balance the scales: Widespread use of certain VR experiences in 2045 will represent hard evidence that, contra Nozick, many people are merely closet hedonists, and the fundamental value of acting in reality will be, directionally, devalued and marginalized relative to today.
Of course, this prediction doesn’t merely balance the scales, it sends one end crashing down under tremendous weight. Any benefits introduced by VR in the “real” world will implicitly be marginalized as well since they occur in actual reality. If, on average, members of global society determine reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whether they realize they are saying so or not, then those benefits are undermined to some extent.
In the end, the thorny philosophical issues that VR raises require more investigation, and soon, in my opinion. In the meantime, if we are slouching towards hidden referendums on reality, then that should be discussed in detail as well. And if others aren’t quite as concerned about the consequences, then shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.