What is real? That depends on who you ask. Some people will say anything you can touch and feel, make an impact on, is real. Then there are those who believe that what you experience is reality. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato set out a scenario in which a human was imprisoned, staring at a blank wall. Behind the prisoner is a fire that reflects shadows on the wall. In front of the fire and behind the imprisoned, puppeteers perform, casting their shadows on the wall. The prisoner cannot turn around and only ever sees the shadows. To that one person, those shadows are the reality because that’s all they have experienced.
In his allegory, Plato was discussing what constitutes reality — what’s real and what’s perceived. It’s an old subject, but one that always manages to find hold in the public consciousness. While Plato wrote of puppeteers, we’re here to talk about the metaverse and virtual reality. Those concepts were a bit after Plato’s time, so a more up to date example is the Social Technical Imaginary.
“I’d like to introduce this idea that academics call Social Technical Imaginary,” says Rizwan Virk, founder of Play Labs @ MIT. “This is a collectively held vision that often comes from science fiction, but it gets adopted by a larger number of people. Those people have the ability to turn the imaginary into reality.”
Virk, who came to his calling via mobile gaming, is the author of two books on the subject of whether we are living in a simulation and the creator of the roadmap to the simulation point. He is currently with Play Labs @ MIT, a startup incubator in the gaming space.
“How close are we getting to creating fully immersive virtual reality that would be indistinguishable from the physical world,” asks Virk. “To the point where we could consistently fool ourselves into thinking we’re in the virtual world. That lead me to create a roadmap called the road to the simulation point.”
The first few steps towards the simulation point
According to Virk, we are about halfway down the road to the simulation point. We’ve already created gaming spaces dedicated to interaction with a virtual world and other players. We have spectator sports based in the virtual world and the worlds are becoming more photo-realistic by the year.
“Those are the stages we’ve already past,” says Virk. “The stages we are in today are stage 4, which is virtual reality, and stage 5, which is photo realistic VR and augmented reality. As we see better augmented reality, which will be based on glasses initially, we start to blur the line between the physical and virtual world.”
One of the more interesting technologies of the recent past is 3D printing. 3D printers take different materials and create a physical object from a design file, or they create physical objects from pure data. Virk defines this as stage 6.
“As we move beyond the need for glasses, we will definitely get to the point where that line is being blurred,” comments Virk. “We’re seeing that line blurred already with the introduction of 3D printing. You can print everything from a motorcycle to a guitar. Some companies are using 3D printing for blood vessels. We’re starting to see that biology is a science about information, which is what 3D printing is all about. It’s about creating objects from information.”
The next steps
So, where do we go from here? According to Virk, we have a few more steps to go before we reach a true simulation. The next step on the path comes in the form of brain computer interfaces. During his talk he mentions experiments involving implanting chips into different animals and reading their brain waves.
“We’re already seeing quite a bit of progress in being able to read brain signals and classify those,” says Virk. “We have different techniques like EEG, or EMG, which are the brain signals to the muscles. We’ve seen companies use sweat and eye position. We’re trying to correlate all this data.”
Somewhat connected to stage 7 is stage 8, which is implanting memory and learning. As seen in movies like The Matrix, this stage related directly to being able to upload a memory or certain knowledge via a brain computer interface.
“We’re not at the point where we can implant electrical signals and memories yet,” notes Virk. “There have been experiments in learning where they were able to monitor the EEGs of expert pilots while flying. Then they took student pilots, who were learning, when they beamed those signals in, the results were much better. It may not be that far in the future where we can be like Neo and insert a cartridge that downloads the knowledge of Kung-Fu.”
Stage 9, the final stage we are currently dallying in, is dedicated to Artificial Intelligence and Non-player Characters. These automatons are computer controller personalities with which we interact in the virtual world. These can be anything from quest givers in World of Warcraft to sophisticated AI chat bots that exist on the web.
The big component we’re missing in AI at the moment is the lack of humanity. Creating AI that are able to pass the Turing test is one of the barriers we have to overcome to reach the simulation point.
“Today, an extended conversation with any AI or NPC will convince us that it’s not human, but we are much further along than we were in the past,” says Virk, but we are not that far off. “It’s much easier to train in the metaverse, in a virtual environment, than it is in a physical environment. That’s why self-driving car companies are turning to virtual environments to do as much testing as possible. It’s much safer that way, and it may be the best way to train these NPCs over time.”
The end of the road
The final step on the road to the simulation point is one we aren’t currently able to dabble in. In fact, we’re not really sure how to deal with this step, because it will require mapping the entire brain and its connections to the body.
“This idea of being able to download consciousness fully, and live in a virtual environment, is now often referred to as a digital afterlife,” says Virk. “The materialists believe that if we can simply map out every single neuron and connection, called a connectome, of the brain, we will then have everything we need to move that consciousness. It’s a concept that is sometimes referred to as substrate Independence. Where you could have that same intelligence or consciousness that used to run on a biological computer running on a silicon computer.”
However, these final pieces aren’t as far off as some might think. Virk estimates by 2050, or 2099 by the latest, we will be able to reach the simulation point. Why is he so sure? We already have living versions of this technology. Now we need to decode how those work.
“When I laid out this criteria, it occurred to me that we already have this technology to some extent,” says Virk “People always ask me ‘when will we reach the simulation point,’ well my estimate is that we’re still a few decades away from that. No more than a hundred years, but it turns out all this technology already exists in biological form and it happens every night when we dream.”
Don’t tell Jeff, but the first thing I’m going to download is Astro’s Playroom cheats so I can beat his scores. To check out more of this talk and hear all the details and caveats directly from Rizwan Virk, check out the GB Summit: Into the Metaverse 2 event!