"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Virtual Reality–Why Would Anyone Want The ‘Real Thing’?

A revolutionary discovery was reported recently in the New York Times (James Gorman, 10/8/15):

Building on years of research, 82 researchers from institutions around the world reported Thursday that they had built a reconstruction of a section of a rat brain in a computer.

The research was partly supported by the Human Brain Project, a more than $1 billion, 10-year European research program. The report comes directly from the Blue Brain Project, which aims to reconstruct the rat brain and eventually the human brain in a computer.

This scientific advance is particularly interesting because it represents a new and extremely promising way to the complete interface between the human brain and the computer.  Previous efforts have focused on deciphering electronic brain waves, thus creating a common language between mind and machine.  Once vocabulary, syntax, and grammar have been mastered and employed, the symbiosis will be complete. Our thoughts will be mediated by the computer thus enabling us to access the billions of bits of electronically-stored information in cyberspace, to manipulate it, and to create our own personal virtual realities.

Virtual reality


The discovery reported in the Times is as remarkable because it simply transfers portions – and eventually all – of the brain to the computer, thus eliminating any distinctions between the two.  There will be no ‘mediation’ required by the computer. It will be the human brain and/or vice-versa.

Both of these discoveries classified under Artificial Intelligence or Virtual Reality are particularly significant because once this symbiosis between mind and machine is complete, there will be no reason to simply rely on the ‘real’ world for stimulation or satisfaction. A virtual world which is indistinct from the ‘real’ one and of infinitely more possibilities for interaction will replace reality.  Why should anyone prefer the humdrum, prosaic, and entirely predictable world of brick-and-mortar experience when he can explore the jungles of the Amazon, dine with the Duchesse de Nantes in her chateau, stroll through the gardens of Versailles to the music of Bach played by Louis’ own chamber orchestra, bed Scarlett Johansson, Marilyn Monroe, and Marisa Tomei, travel to Mars, and sample concoctions of the most famous chefs that have ever lived? No one.

Image result for images chateau de versailles


When the idea of virtual reality first emerged fifty years ago with the advent of the earliest avatars – holograms – few people understood the implications of the new discoveries in AI; and those who did were frightened of them.  How could anyone prefer an artificially-created world to one’s own?  How could the scent of a Northern pine forest every be reproduced or replaced? Or the wonders of the seashore? Artificially-stimulated sex? A distortion of God’s world and a travesty of Nature. Replacing the ‘real’, palpable, and immediate sensations of the world by some electronic chimera? Devilish at best.

Image result for images holograms


Much has changed over the last decades. Interactive virtual reality in the form of super-real video games is but the precursor to advanced games where there is no manipulation of a gadget, but a seamless interaction with the characters within one’s mind-environment.  More and more data are being digitized.  Stimuli of the real world – the scent of jasmine, the taste of briny oysters – are being disaggregated into their component parts and then recreated. There is no mystery or some cosmic pleasure in eating an oyster.  Soon, thanks to this disassembly and virtual recreation, the gourmet diner will be able to ‘eat’ Olde Salt, Apalachicola, Hood Inlet, and Wellfleet oysters every day; or fresh foie gras; or the finest Sonoma Bartholomew Park cabernet.

Image result for images hood inlet oysters

It might take some getting used to, this replacement of the ‘real’ by the virtual; but soon enough the distinction will disappear altogether.  In fact, once we realize that virtual reality is better than the real thing, thanks to the infinite personal adaptations possible within a virtual world, the easier it will be for us to drop our archaic notions of what is.  In other words, if one cannot distinguish between the ‘real’ and the virtual, then they are both equal in value.

For those who are spiritual in nature, virtual reality represents that freedom from corporal restraints that Hindu ascetics have always prized.  The individual need never be restricted by the practical and the mundane. Personalized ecstatic experiences where the spiritual souls find Jesus in his many forms – as a baby, a pre-teen teaching in the temples, a heroic leader of a new faith, the risen God, the Heavenly Majesty – will be far more satisfying than the ‘born-again’ experiences only possible in hot, crowded churches.

Image result for images hindu ascetics


Backward-looking critics of social media lament the younger generation’s immersion into a virtual world.  They do not understand how young people willingly choose an antiseptic, electronic, artificial world for ‘the real thing’. They see nothing but the erosion of logical thinking, fugues into fantasy, and an unrealistic appraisal of self-worth.  Of course nothing could be farther from the truth.  These young, plugged-in twenty-somethings are simply today’s innovators; those with collective foresight, no attachment to the past, and only optimism about the future.

Philosophers for centuries have written about metaphysics – when is a thing a thing? If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a noise? Does the ‘real’ world exist or is it our creation?  Psychologists have written about perception and its fallibility.  No two eyewitnesses can ever agree on what they have ‘seen’, so the confluence of philosophy and cognitive science is no coincidence.

Image result for images bishop berkeley


In other words reality is but a convenience.  ‘Blue’ is a convention regardless how each of us see it. Trees always make noises because the laws of physics say they do, regardless of any metaphysical issues. Simply because reality is a convenience and an integral part of our daily lives, many of us are reluctant to give it up.  Those who believe in alternate universes, astral projection, and impossible physics are kooks, outliers, not to be taken seriously. Yet when virtual reality become a reality, all these theories will be acceptable.  Logic will be an option.

Few of us bother about these abstruse concepts; and it is probably a good thing.  We have enough on our plates without adding metaphysical doubt.  Others worry obsessively about current events; and even those who correctly see them within the context of history and realize that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, wonder how we got ourselves in such a pickle.  It would be too much to ask to reflect on the nature of reality.

The train has left the station.  Virtual reality, complete symbiosis between mind and machine, Artificial Intelligence, and the loosening of logic’s hold are the future.

It is interesting to note that through genetic engineering, the human organism and human nature itself will be dramatically altered. Not only will we become bionic, but infinitely genetically malleable.  Our children can be anything we want them to be.

Double helix

The two phenomena combined – virtual reality and DNA sequencing – will change the nature of humanity forever.  A done deal.  

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