Virtual Reality, simulation & computable universes
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography – purportedly from Suárez Miranda, Travels of Prudent Men, Book Four, Ch. XLV, Lérida, 1658 – (Borges)
Manifesto’s Creative team has been making early forays into 360 video and VR recently, some of which our Motion Content Director has been sharing with you. There’s a lot going on in the wider industry, particularly in the consumer space: Valve has partnered with HTC and just released Vive to compete with Oculus Rift, bringing VR to the mass market. One of the first of many head to head reviews is here.
If you think about the increasing realism of VR and immersive experiences, and you’re not too worried about people falling over a lot while mistaking the map for the territory, there’s huge potential for amazing storytelling and possibly escapism that people may find hard to resist.
Are we already living in Virtual Reality?
A much more controversial implication of the increasing power and realism of VR is the notion that we’re already living in a simulated reality. Konrad Zuse first proposed, in 1967, that the entire universe is being computed on a computer, and was possibly based on cellular automata. Another AI guru Jürgen Schmidhuber has some additional thoughts about Computable Universes.
This is taken further and has been popularised recently in the Simulation Argument, which is a theory and thought experiment posited by philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom, which essentially asserts that at least one of the following is true:
(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
Rocket man Elon Musk is apparently aware of and a fan of the argument, as discussed in the New Yorker.
That doesn’t sound very convincing so far…
So can we move this thought experiment into the real world, or is it destined for ivory tower speculation?
Does quantisation represented by e.g. the Planck Length suggest that the universe has a granularity (or pixelisation)? Could this be indicative of, and expected in, a computer simulation run with finite resources?
Is the Uncertainty Principle roughly analogous to lazy evaluation? That is, could an observer, through he act of looking, cause what they’re looking at to be computed?
This may seem like total pie in the sky speculation, but Fermilab is taking is seriously enough to throw a few million dollars at it by creating the Holometer, a device to study the quantum nature of space and any associated “jitters”. So far, so reassuringly – the results say we’re not living in a hologram.
The glitch in ‘The Matrix’
More philosophically, the simulation and mediation of reality has been described by Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation, which was famously misinterpreted by the Wachowskis in the Matrix movies.
And if you’re looking for something a lot more fun covering VR, AI, Alternative Realities, Hyperspaces, Interfaces and Virtual Feeds which people spend their lives hooked up to voluntarily (admittedly with more LSD and tentacles), Mother Horse Eyes, a reddit user, is currently telling a fun little romp in bite size chunks which you can see in order here.
In any case, if you want to be reassured – if we don’t help to create Hard AI, we’re definitely going to get punished in a simulation by the Hard AI that eventually does get created by Roko’s Basilisk.