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December 28th, 2008 by Edward Miller

Virtual Reality (VR) has advanced to incredible heights. For those who haven’t kept up with the gaming scene, the newest game renowned for impressive graphics is Fallout 3. Of course, graphics aren’t all that matters to gamers, which is why another one of the hottest games on the block right now is Spore, which looks very cartoonish.

Nevertheless, consistent advances in both graphics software and hardware have been propelling ever more realistic graphics into our homes. Movies and gaming were the vanguard for realistic graphics. In only a couple decades we went from Pong to Fallout 3. Yet, we still haven’t ditched the joystick, mouse, and keyboard.

Speech recognition was supposed to make keyboards obsolete, but it isn’t as practical as once thought and the technology has been surprisingly stagnant. Yet, more elegant interfaces have been creeping their way into the consumer marketplace; unfortunately, I think infrastructural inertia will prevent movies and gaming from becoming the vanguard for advancement of these technologies.

Porn will be the vanguard, and from there it will make its way into other markets. If you read Wired, you may have come across one of the weirder technological developments of the 21st century: Teledildonics. These machines are basically interactive sex toys which can be activated remotely by a partner over the Internet. Clearly, it is the porn industry which is the most creative and enthusiastic in embracing such new sensory technologies.

When it comes to immersion, the keyboard, mouse, and joystick simply do not cut it. Yet, why would the developers of Spore think it is worth the effort to, say, make an electronic glove that can allow users to feel virtual textures? There is only one industry which is enthusiastic enough to accomplish such a feat.

Before we talk about what’s possible, let’s take a look at some of the interfaces which are already on the market.

What is already here?

Head-mounted Displays

When people think of VR, the first thing they think about is head-mounted displays. These things are really cool. They encompass your entire field of vision and can provide you with the experience of a screen that is hundreds of inches tall for a fraction of the price. Furthermore, they can provide stereoscopic 3D. Remember those 3D goggles you could wear to watch old 3D movies? Well if you have a game and/or a graphics card that is set up for stereoscopic rendering, with today’s graphics, a head-mounted display can give you an experience that will completely knock your socks off.

It is just tricky to find games, software, and/or hardware which support stereoscopic vision. OpenGL has great stereoscopic support, and if you use linux you can get this plugin which will automatically convert all games for you. For Windows users, you just have to hope your game supports it, or if you are lucky find less efficient and badly supported hardware-based stereoscopic drivers.

The best head-mounted display on the market today is eMagin’s Z800. It provides a gyroscope to detect head movement and a stereoscopic OLED display. OLED is a new technology which is superior to LCD in every way. It is thinner, lower power, flexible, brighter, and more responsive. The only limiting feature is the price. Since these things are new, they are still pretty pricey even though they are produced using very conventional means. This visor is a bit old, created back in 2005. Expect the next generation of OLED head-mounted displays to be arriving shortly, and they will likely be half the price and twice the resolution. Though, currently you can pick one up new for $1,200.

Brain-Computer Interfaces

Now this is the future of gaming. There are currently a couple different devices on the market now which can record your brainwaves using electrodes and use them for gaming purposes. Yet, what everyone is looking forward to is Emotiv‘s EPOC headset, which will have much greater functionality. It’s current release date is summer of 2009. It’s target price is only $299 and contains 16 electrodes. Using this data it can detect your facial expressions, emotions, and certain thought processes. It can track your excitement level during a game and can allow you to manipulate objects on the screen using only your mind. Don’t believe me? Check out this video.

We can only speculate about what will be capable in the future with this technology, but clearly we should expect more electrodes and a greater refinement of the whole experience. As we learn more about the brain, we can apply these concepts towards more creating more realistic virtual experiences.

Right now, this technology requires a certain amount of training in order to tailor the device to an individual user’s quirks, much like how speech recognition technology works. I expect this process to be refined over time, and expect more emotions to be detectable. Currently, one can levitate virtual objects purely by thinking of the act of lifting, and the same can be done with rotating, pushing, pulling, and vanishing. It is also possible to change the virtual weather just by thinking about it. I expect more actions to be possible as time goes by.

Eventually, there may come a time when this technology improves the productivity of mainstream computer users. At that point, we may be manipulating data by pure thought. Also, I am confident it is also possible to compose music this way, lowering the barriers to entry into the world of music, and allowing even those with the most modest of musical talent to compose beautiful symphonies. The same could be true of painting, though in a virtual environment it could be much more fun. Imagine painting with clouds or fireworks.

VR Gloves

Those Nintendo Wiis have been selling like hotcakes. Sure they are small and cheap, but the main reason is the Wiimote. It is a small cylindrical handheld controller with a built-in accelerometer that tracks movement. It also uses optical tracking. This allows for the player to swing virtual lightsabers, bowl virtual bowling balls, and so forth.

In the VR world there have been devices like this for awhile, and one of them is the P5. This device is similar to the wii-mote but allows even more precise control since it is a glove and can track the movement of all the fingers. Unfortunately, it uses a clunky optical tracking system rather than a webcam. Nevertheless, it allows for a surprising degree of control. If you wanted, you could even play a virtual piano on a laptop or netbook during a plane trip.

Speech Recognition

Speech Recognition is mostly here, it has just been underwhelming as far as productivity is concerned. Our friend Ray Kurzweil was one of the pioneers of this field. It has been great for the blind, and other disabled users, but it hasn’t added much benefit for the rest of us.

Yet, there is huge untapped potential for speech recognition in gaming and VR environments. Imagine casting spells with your voice (“abracadabra”) or engaging in spoken dialogue with NPCs. Of course a simple voice chat setup could potentially be used effectively in multiplayer games with serious role players, but more often it completely ruins the immersion. (“Where’s the Cheetos?!”)

3D Sound

3D sound is already a reality. In fact, speakers are so good these days that even modestly priced ones produce sound indistinguishable from the real thing. Those who have surround sound speakers already know how much better movies can be with sound coming from many directions. In 3D environments, this is even cooler since the sound changes direction as your character does. The computer’s 3D sound software, like OpenAL, does most of the work and is implemented in most games. You don’t need an expensive 7 speaker setup to experience this. Just get a good pair of surround sound headphones and you’re set.

What needs work?

First and foremost, all of this technology must (and will) become cheaper in order for mainstream adoption to occur. This is the only way for these technologies to mature. Yet, even if all of the above technologies were perfectly implemented right now we would still have a few sensory inputs left out to dry. Our senses simply send electrical signals to our brain, and we have always been able to find ways to trick them one way or another.

Taste and Smell Emulation

There has been some development in this area, but as far as I know nothing will be hitting the market soon. This is one area that I expect pornography to pioneer the new technologies. Pheromones, tastes, and smells are a big part of the sexual experience for many. However, I think almost anyone would be interested in tasting virtual cake or smelling virtual roses. We just wouldn’t be willing to pay the big bucks to do so. The users of porn, on the other hand, have reliably shown interest in shelling out the big bucks. Unfortunately, I think there wont be much demand for this until the other senses have been thoroughly emulated and this is the only one remaining.

Touch Emulation

Feeling surfaces and textures in virtual reality is a long-held dream, but only the most basic of systems can currently be bought, and they are ridiculously expensive. It is over $4000 for a deluxe VR haptics glove. That glove combines all the features of the P5 above, but also has the ability to feel pressure when virtual objects are touched.

There is nothing on the market currently that lets you feel textures, but work is under development. For full immersion, such a haptics system would have to be expanded to a full bodysuit, not just a glove. Remember the movie AI? This will be the hardest of all to implement, but I have faith in the determination of the virtual sex industry.

Final Thoughts.

This technology is rapidly approaching a point where the boundaries between the virtual and the real will be demolished forever, and this will present tough ethical challenges to society. It will also produce a whole lot of fun, and may even boost productivity. All of this must be considered. There is a lot to be hopeful about, but it is imperative that we critically examine the the social consequences.

Would this sort of VR positively or negatively impact people’s conception of reality? What effects will it have on children? Will this change the nature of classrooms?

Will this make telecommuting more common? Could this actually reduce the need for transportation, lowering the cost of living and our ecological footprint?

When these sorts of technologies become integrated into something like Second Life, will we ever leave? Will this stifle progress or enhance creativity? I have already given examples of the wealth of new avenues for creativity.

Lawrence Lessig makes the point that John Phillip Sousa bemoaned the 20th century’s abandonment of streetcorner singing and individual creativity, yet Lessig argues the 21st century is lowering the barriers to entry into music and other creative fields. With Creative Commons, online music streaming, file sharing, and open source music software more and more music is being freely produced, shared, and remixed. The 21st century is shaping up to be filled with amateur creativity.

What effects will this have on our social lives and political institutions? There has already been quite a bit of virtual activism, and a whole lot of virtual tyranny.(DRM) Is virtual deviancy acceptable? Only a few quixotic anti-videogame crusaders want to ban virtual violence, but what about virtual pedophilia?

All our values will be challenged, but some may be strengthened. I have already argued that these technologies will actually enhance the viability of monogamy in the short term, though the definition of monogamy itself will likely change given the new customizable nature of our personal reality.

There is great potential for this to actually improve social relationships. The clunkiness of our 2D social networks will become painfully apparent once Augmented Reality and fully immersive VR is commonplace. We will be able to interact with others in a more natural way.

The anonymity inherent in virtual worlds will present new avenues for freedom of expression, but also new avenues for destructive behavior. Trolls are already a problem on the Internet, but imagine 3D trolls. Those of you who play MMORPGs don’t have to imagine this, but as the immersion grows so does the potential for annoying and hurtful behavior. Granted, we will be able to block trolls and customize whatever else we wish, but I think the downsides are already becoming obvious. What sort of spam and scams will these environments make possible? What about virtual rape?

Furthermore, what sort of psychological effects will this unlimited power of customization create? We are already experiencing a trend of cyberbalkanization. We tend to view information that already agrees with our viewpoints, and as our choice of media sources grows, intellectually isolated groups of people spring up who from birth have only been exposed to one ideological viewpoint. VR might take this to a whole new and disturbing level. Of course the “good ol days” when there were only a few papers and three news networks to choose from weren’t so great either. Perhaps VR will instead foster a more connected global community based on shared values, and allow all the diverse groups of people to peacefully live out their individual fantasies virtually. Be it religious fundamentalists or pedophiles.

In Neil Postman’s book Technopoly, he convincingly argued that technology changes our values in ways that extend deductively from the function of these tools. It is worthwhile to consider how to keep what is good about our current values as best we can as we move forward.

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March 11th, 2008 by Edward Miller

The institution of marriage in Western society is both a result of human nature and rather at odds with it. Humans tend to be very possessive with regard to lovers and deeply concerned about cheating on a primal level, and, as a result, monogamy and marriage were instituted. Unfortunately, we have other desires like sexual variety that are in direct conflict with monogamy. Also, marriage functions as a way to ensure financial security, yet when it ceases to do so, marriage can seem more like a cage.

Marriage in the future, if we play our cards right, could be a much less problematic issue. Once we have sufficiently eliminated material scarcity, our financial security will no longer be tied to a spouse, and procuring the necessities of life could very well become a trivial matter. Our desire for sexual variety will be satisfied once perfectly simulated virtual reality is developed, since the experience of sex could take whatever form both partners find most appealing.

All is Full of Love | Chris Cunningham
All is Full of Love | Chris Cunningham
As we gain more control over our bodies via technology, and virtual reality becomes more sophisticated, gender will become purely superficial. Our bodies will be more like Second Life avatars than something fixed and immutable. Some call this post-genderism, and it will transform our notion of sexuality, yet it won’t significantly affect monogamy. There will no longer be any reason to base our relationships upon sexual attractiveness, but it wont affect how many people we wish to connect with on an intimate emotional and physical level.

Some argue that it will become common for humans to have emotional and physical relationships with robots and artificial intelligences. Yet, even this will likely occur in the context of monogamy, and indeed the conversation usually turns to marriage with robots.

Although marriage and monogamy has already been stripped of most of its spiritual significance, most still treasure it. There is something beautiful and comfortable about monogamy, and I have a feeling many people will continue to seek it for the foreseeable future, even as it becomes less financially necessary. Monogamous cohabitation is an increasingly common living arrangement, and it is evidence of the resilience of monogamy in the modern world. We tend to use technology in accordance with our values, which, in the West, currently includes monogamy. Any social changes that affect monogamy will likely come from our human nature asserting itself differently on a macro level as circumstances change, and it will be a slow process.

It could be argued that an ultimate realization of the will to embrace unity would be to not just feel connected to every other conscious being on an abstract level, but to actually be intimately connected. Watching as the world becomes more networked and interconnected, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to extrapolate this tendency and envision a sci-fi-esque scenario where all minds are linked together. Yet, baring the possibility of an imminent Singularity, I do not see this happening this century. I’m not precocious enough to make longer range predictions.

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February 28th, 2008 by Edward Miller

OpenCog is a new project that aims to create an open source Artificial General Intelligence. It is sponsored by the Singularity Institute, Novamente, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

These groups, and the people within them such as Ben Goertzel and Eliezer Yudkowsky, have long been working in the field of Artificial Intelligence and theorizing about how to ensure AI remains “friendly” to human beings, among other ethical considerations. They are amazingly smart; however, they cannot be expected to do this alone, nor should be trust them to. All who are able have a duty to scrutinize this project thoroughly, considering the vast potential consequences. Thankfully, the open source nature of this project will allow it to be scrutinized.

If it is possible, someone, somewhere, will eventually create a recursively self-improving artificial intelligence that will quickly surpass human intelligence. This power could be harnessed for very positive uses, and hopefully it will be a project like OpenCog that does it first, rather than DARPA.

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December 16th, 2007 by Edward Miller

Journalist John Horgan has made an intriguing argument that humanity is nearing the End of Science which is marked by diminishing returns and higher expenses with regard to finding out new deep mysteries of the universe. He claims applied science will still continue, but we will mostly be filling in gaps rather than solving big mysteries.

While he is simply mistaken about the idea, it does raise interesting questions. The fact that Horgan responded to most of the counter-arguments that I am aware of from a well-researched and humanistic perspective is what impressed me about him. Yet, there is much to be optimistic with regarding science’s continuing capacity for discovering the mysteries of the universe, and especially science’s capacity for using applied technologies to colonize space, conquer aging, and create smarter-than-human intelligence.

One thing he didn’t discuss in depth was just how powerful the "knowledge begets knowledge" idea is. Anyone who reads the news should be startled virtually daily by new breakthroughs in information technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and so forth.

Communications technology has allowed for the free flow of scientific information beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (save William Gibson), and now we have the Internet which gives scientists access to virtually all scientific knowledge, preventing the duplication work.

This also makes possible new modes of scientific research. Though this mode of research has yet to be fully explored, futurist Kevin Kelly predicts that it will soon be common for hundreds of scientists to collaborate on one project through open source software such as MediaWiki, the software that powers Wikipedia, allowing for transparency and peer review along the entire process. This is just one of the many sweeping changes that he predicts will radically reshape science in the near future.

Of course with the rapidly accelerating improvements in computing power this will give scientists more power to more quickly analyze mountains of genetic or cosmological data. Moore’s Law is not only remaining true, but is actually being outpaced! The possibilities for computer simulation seem endless.

As seen before with the Internet, new technologies in one area can speed up developments in other areas. Whenever a new nanomaterial is developed, it could have applications for all sorts of things, including computer technology, solar technology, medical technology, or space technology.

Now because of nanomaterials, NASA has put up prize money for the creation of "space elevator" technology which could allow for transportation into space at a tiny fraction of the current cost.

Of course even with the current costs, there is a race between a handful of companies, such as Virgin Galactic, for space tourism as we speak. The first flights will happen in 2008.

It makes sense why these developments are happening so rapidly. It has been said that there are more scientists alive today than there was in the entire history of science combined. Couple this with improvements in communications and computer science, and the potential becomes all the more startling.

I have a feeling that before you know it, we will be on the moon harvesting that helium 3 that Horgan was talking about, if not mining asteroids made of solid platinum. Furthermore, if we really do begin to conquer the process of aging itself (as opposed to its symptoms like cancer), then this would allow everyone, including scientists, to live much longer. Imagine how much would have been accomplished if Einstein were still alive today.

But I think this is a far too narrow look into the future. What happens when we create smarter-than-human intelligence is where it gets really exciting. After all, even Einstein only possessed human intellect. Smarter-than-human intelligence could be accomplished by modifying human beings through genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, and brain-computer interfacing. It could also be accomplished through the creation of an artificial intelligence capable of broad pattern recognition and learning ability.

While humans have far better abilities with regard to pattern recognition and creativity, computers have certain superior aspects such as processing speed, memory, and inability to become bored doing repetitive tasks. What happens when either the human gains the positive traits of a computer or a computer gains the creativity traits of a human? The resulting intelligence would be far better at producing even smarter intelligences. What would the smarter intelligences do? Create even smarter intelligences, and so on. This could happen at lightning speed given the characteristics of the new intelligences, creating what futurists call a a technological singularity.

We can already create freakin Black Holes in particle accelerators with our mere human intellect.

Considering this, what sorts of things would be possible from smarter-than-human intelligence? This is where all we currently think about the future is thrown out the window. There is really no way to predict. Of course we can make feeble attempts at guesses.

* Upload Consciousness – Gradually replace our neurons with artificial neurons until we are completely artificial, and then become digital beings capable of being simulated at a very fast speed. According to computational neuroscience, it is possible, knowing current laws of physics, to run a simulation of the human brain at a rate of billions of years per minute in a processor weighing one gram.

* Dyson Spheres – A megastructure that would encase an entire star and harvest all of its incomprehensibly vast energy, and use that to power a computer and/or space colony that is so vast and so powerful that it would be able to sustain quadrillions lifeforms, both virtual and physical. (or one lifeform quadrillions of times smarter than us)

* Molecular Manufacturing – Using self-replicating nano-robots to rearrange matter in any way desired.

* Femtotechnology – Like nanotechnology, but an order of magnitude smaller than nanotechnology

* Ontotechnology – The speculated capabilities of things like femtotechnology. Being able to reshape the laws of nature and redefine the kinds of things that are possible. This could include creating new universes.

* Von Neumann Probes – Create self-replicating space probes to survey the universe.

* Discover the Multiverse – There could be an infinite number of both parallel and nested dimensions, or we could discover that our entire universe or multiverse is itself simply a computer simulation by some other advanced civilization.

This type of stuff is a mere glimpse at what the future could hold, though it is inherently impossible for a human to predict what something smarter than a human could accomplish. If even 1/1000th of what I said is true, the idea that we are at the End of Science is so ridiculously wrong that there are no words for it.

Alas, even if I am completely wrong and we really are nearing the End of Science, then it isn’t even all that big of a problem. What is really important is the elimination of suffering, as Horgan implied by suggesting we pool our knowledge to study how best to end war and sustain perpetual peace. Yet, hand in hand with the elimination of suffering is the maximization of happiness. Working towards vastly increasing the level of happiness that is currently possible with our physiology seems to be an achievable goal. Indeed, the most noble goal of all.

Furthermore, even if we can merely create fully immersive virtual reality, then we will be able to do whatever we like, including experience a kind of future where such things I mentioned are actually possible. This is highly likely in the near future considering the rapid progress with regard to photorealistic video games.

What is real to us is what we see, hear, and sense. With virtual reality we could create our own realities to be however we’d like. These realities dont even have to follow the laws of physics and could be epic stories complete with magic and so forth. However, maybe we ought to refine our definition of technology and magic. As Arthur C Clarke once said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

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