How much time would you spend in a ‘perfect’ virtual world?

[From The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET)]

Life in a Virtual World

Mike Treder
Ethical Technology
Posted: Jul 24, 2010

If you could live in a world that was just the way you wanted it to be, with specifications you’d chosen, customized and personalized to meet your every need and fulfill your fondest desires, would you spend all your time there? Or would you prefer to stay here, in the real world?

As computers continue to gain speed and power at the rate of Moore’s ‘law’, they are moving closer to the point where they will be capable of rendering a virtual environment that closely resembles the real world, so close that it may become hard to tell it apart from the real thing.

If you’ve watched any of the most recent movie blockbusters or played the hottest video games, you’ve surely noticed that computer animation is getting better and better. Though you may still be able to tell that what you’re seeing is CGI (computer-generated imagery) and not just straight photography, it’s getting harder all the time to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Now, project yourself forward 10 or 20 years, with that much more time for computer processors to ramp up in speed, gain memory exponentially, and implement massive parallel processing. The day is probably not far away when you’ll be sitting in a theater or playing a game and you could swear that what you’re seeing is literally photographed and not created by technical artists. Sometimes you might even think that now.

The next step beyond sitting and watching a movie, or engaging in a game via keyboard and joystick, is to step inside the experience, to partake of all the sensations within that other place—to touch and feel and smell and taste in addition to seeing and hearing—to be in a virtual reality.

Technology so powerful that it can achieve that level of appeal to our sensorium—a full immersion inside a created world, made so real that we can barely tell it apart from reality, if at all—is still some years away. It requires not only brute force computing, but also the development of fine human-computer interfaces that allow us to engage all our senses without being aware of the mediating apparatus around us.

Once that is achieved, however, when sophisticated techniques for full-immersion, indistinguishable virtual reality (VR) have been honed and perfected, how much time do you think you would want to spend there?

Assuming that the cost of using VR is negligible (which may or may not be the case), and assuming it’s so realistic that when you’re inside you can’t tell the difference, and assuming that you are able to exercise control over your own personal VR environment, to make the world around you just how you’d like it and the people behave as you want them to, then would you ever want to leave?

This question has been posed quite provocatively in fiction by Greg Egan is his classic novels Permutation City and Diaspora, as well as in the Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright.

In those books, and in others of the same genre, the protagonist will interact with some characters who are fully artificial (AI constructs), and with others who are avatars of real flesh and blood people. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stipulate that in your virtual reality, you get to choose with whom you associate and generally can determine how they will behave.

So, again, here’s the question. Once the technology has been perfected and the virtual reality you can experience is near-ideal, as we have described, how much of your time do you think you would choose to spend there?

We’ve just posted a new poll on the topic. Here are the answers you can choose:

  • No time at all. I value the experience of real life too much.
  • Probably a little time, but mostly I’d stay outside, right here.
  • I think I’d split my time inside and outside about evenly.
  • Most of the time, though I’d still like to be real once in a while.
  • ALL the time. Goodbye cruel world!

Please let us know what you think!

Mike Treder is the Managing Director of the IEET, and former Executive Director of the non-profit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

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