A mixture of Matrix, Terminator, the sequel to Ready Player One explores dark side of VR, Brain Computer Interfaces and realistic simulations.
Ready Player Two, the sequel to Ernest Kline’s bestselling ode to 80s geek culture, Ready Player One that was turned into a blockbuster movie about Virtual Reality (VR) by Steven Spielberg, was released recently. Anyone who played vintage arcade games will recognize that the title of both books is based on the messages displayed at the beginning of each player’s turn.
Figure 1: In Ready Player Two, Ernest Klines moves us to the Simulation Point. (img: MovieWeb)
When Kline wrote Ready Player One and set it in the far future world of 2045, little did he know that the VR technology he envisioned was well on its way to becoming reality. While there were no consumer VR headsets available when he released the novel in 2010, only a few years later, Oculus(now Facebook), Sony and HTC would all release VR headsets and a new industry was born.
Kline doesn’t make the mistake of underestimating the pace of development of technology again. He updates the virtual reality tech in the sequel. Not by a little, but by a lot.
When I wrote The Simulation Hypothesis, a good part of the book was about how our current technology could develop to the Simulation Point, the theoretical point at which we could build fully immersive simulations that were indistinguishable from physical reality. When asked by journalists how long it would take to go through all of these stages , I estimated it would take us at least 100 years to get to this point. This included beaming signals into and reading signals out of the brain, mapping and downloading consciousness into Silicon, and creating intelligent NPCs/AI that could pass the Turing Test.
I was surprised, delighted and a bit concerned to see that in the first few pages of Ready Player Two, the Simulation Point was reached without much fuss. Our hero, Wade Watts, discovers a neural interface technology that allows you to immersive yourself fully inside the virtual world (courtesy of the now passed on richest-man-in -the-world video gaming mogul James Halliday).
By putting on this neural interface, all of your senses can be engaged — touch, smell, sight, sound and taste — via signals that are sent directly to your brain while your body falls asleep in the “real world”. Even more alarming and interesting, by wearing a recording device you can use the ONI (Oasis Neural Interface) to record any experience — ranging from skydiving to mountain climbing to kinky sex and even giving birth. All of the sensory information is stored and can be replayed and re-experienced fully by anyone who puts on the neural interface headset via ONI files.
It’s not hard to imagine that something like ONI files, the ability to playback any experience on demand, might become the new preferred drug of humanity. The first big decision for Wade and his team of adventurers is whether to release this tech to the world, given its potential impact on “real life”.
This may seem like a theoretical question that’s best asked in science fiction, but it’s a real question we may have to ask ourselves in a decade or two as we develop brain computer interface (BCI) tech, allowing us to fully feel everything that is happening in a virtual world. Should we even shoot for “full immersion” of the kind that was depicted by The Matrix over 20 years ago?
Not surprisingly, in Ready Player Two, the neural tech is released into the world. Predictably, mayhem ensues, this time courtesy of a rogue AI based on James Halliday.
Not unlike the first book, the plot mostly follows Wade’s team of diverse adventurers on a quest which requires them to pluck out relatively obscure geeky references. Do you know what the first action video game that had a female protagonist? Or in the lesser-known history of Middle Earth’s First Age, which occurred before the events depicted in the Lord of the Rings movies, who stole the jewels in the crown of the first Dark Lord and how?. Both of these facts were essential in solving some of the new quests, but that’s not all. In the sequel, Kline expands his repertoire if not his methods by including obscure details of broader pop-culture (with virtual recreations of every venue that Prince, the purple one, has ever played at, as well as Shermer, IL, the fictional suburb that included each of the 5 different characters that Molly Ringwald played in different John Hughes movies in the 1980s).
While solving the puzzles is the main plot of the book, the novel has received mixed reviews. I think more important than the plot itself, the novel raises some important questions about technology and our own future, questions that have already started happening in coffee shops in Silicon Valley (or at least they had when coffee shops were open, which was about nine months ago):
Should we map our neural circuits to create digital copies of ourselves? should we keep working to develop artificial general intelligence? Finally, most relevant to this article, should we create brain computer interfaces which allow us to fully immerse ourselves inside a virtual world ala the Matrix?
Yogi Berra famously said that the “Future ain’t what it used to be”, indicating that prognosticating can be a tricky profession. Echoing good science fiction of the past, Kline trends to includes some important warnings about our future. Much of the science fiction of the distant past seems antiquated today. For one thing, they didn’t realize that so much of today’s technology would be as much about cyberspace, is it was about flying cars like those in the Jetsons or killer robots like those in The Terminator.
Underscoring that the future is likely to be virtual, kids today already spend more time devices today playing games like Fortnite, Minecraft, and interacting on social media and zoom or via messaging apps, then we ever did back in “golden days of video games” of Atari or the Nintendo Entertainment System.
This trend of spending more time interacting virtually is only increasing every decade, and the technology of Kline’s first book isn’t the only thing that’s looking plausible. In the world of Ready Player One, the world survived an economic collapse and a pandemic, which resulted in more people spending time online than ever before. In fact, the hero Wade Watts was part of what was called “the missing generation” because they did absolutely everything online through virtual reality — including attending school and making friends. Replace zoom with virtual reality and it all sounds eerily familiar.
As we develop more interactive virtual reality and improve our Brain Computer Interfaces, will this lead to a “missing generation” of our own? The underlying question is the same: should we take immersion to its full conclusion that makes the virtual world indistinguishable from the physical world by developing neural interfaces like those in Ready Player Two?
This would, first of all, allow you to experience via electrical signals what is happening to your avatar inside the game. But what if we took it further, as Kline does, and allow you to record your experiences and offer them for sale?
Think of what this would mean — you can experience what it’s like to go mountain climbing, feel the wind on your face, watch the sunset in Hawaii? In a covid-induced lockdown, this might sound very tempting. It also means that you can experience sex of any type with any person (a point that Kline makes in the book several times). Using a reference from Kline’s favorite decade, it would put us beyond the territory of the 1980s movie, Total Recall (adapted from a Philip K. Dick story), where it’s much cheaper for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character to get memories of a vacation implanted than it is to go on an actual vacation.
Suddenly, we wouldn’t need to go on a vacation at all. Even better than Total Recall, you wouldn’t just have a memory of having done a thing or two, you could log into a sim and re-experience those anytime. Why go to Mexico to eat authentic Mexican food and climb a pyramid if you can do it with all of its accompanying sensations without worrying about air quality, actual pathogens, or as happened to me when I was in Chican-Itza, have it start raining while you were on top of the pyramid?
Figure 2: With fully immersive BCIs, we wouldn’t need any villians to plus us into the Matrix, would we?
Speaking of the Matrix, where humans were forced to plug into a fully simulated world by superintelligent AI, what Ready Player Two implies is that we wouldn’t need any malevolent evil overlords to make us plug in to such an experience. Humans would willingly plug in 24x7, or up to whatever maximum number of hours that the technology and physiology allow (in Ready Player Two, you could only plug into the ONI for 12 hours a day without getting some kind of neurological damage).
We might be tempted to say that worrying about the implications of this technology is premature because it is, after all, still just science fiction. These questions seemed better explored today in episodes of Black Mirror than in serious science and technology circles, right?
I think that would be a mistake. We are steadily making progress to build brain computer interfaces, understanding how to map and interpret connections between neurons. The goal of billions of dollars being spent on research and development is to be able to interpret and then eventually transmit electrical signals into the brain. Once we can map what call qualia, or subjective experiences, to specific neurons and specific electrical signals, this would open up the floodgates so that qualia could then be classified, recorded, and transmitted.
Already, the tech of Ready Player One, where users put on a headset and haptic suits to feel what was happening in the virtual world, is no longer considered science fiction. In real life, a UK-based company called Teslasuit has created a haptic suit that lets you experience kinesthetic sensations. The sensations are recorded by someone wearing the suit going through the actual experience. At a recent demo, they recorded what it would be like to be tackled by a famous rugby player (for Americans, think NFL player without all the protective pads and helmet) and could replay that for anyone who wanted to put on the suit.
Of course, considering these questions, we have to look at the benefits of potential interface technology as well. Elon Musk’s NeuraLink recently gave a widely viewed demo of a pig who had an implant that was being used to monitor its brain waves. According to Musk, the first applications of BCI like NeuraLink’s will be for those who have neurological conditions or spinal injuries which might prevent them from moving a limb, for example. These are worthy pursuits and will help us get closer to understanding how the brain works, how electrical signals relate to qualia and intent.
The question becomes, should we move beyond these therapeutic and medical applications to integrate BCI’s into video games use brain research to “transplant experiences” from one person to another?
In Ready Player Two, in addition to the “escaping” motif, there is also the positive effect that empathy for others increases substantially when you can literally “be in their shoes” by re-playing their subjective experiences in your own brain. A husband can experience what it’s like to be a woman giving birth. A heterosexual can experience what it’s like to be homosexual. A bully can experience what it’s like to be bullied.
Perhaps we should ask, as Kline does in his novel, whether the positive effects of such immersion outweigh the potentially negative effects?
While ethical questions in biology and medicine, what we computer scientists call wet technology (think abortion, stem cell research, animal experimentation) have been debated for decades, ethics in linking dry (silicon) tech with wet (biological) technology using software and hardware are only now starting to be considered. While we are concerned with perhaps more urgent ethical concerns about AI algorithms on social media and bias, longer term considerations like BCIs and the AI apocalypse, are generally still considered the realm of science fiction.
But the reality is that the future may be virtual, and we are rushing towards that future just like we did with social networks without understanding the ramifications they could have on society until it was too late.
If we don’t start thinking about whether we should have full immersion, we may just end up in the virtual world. And like in Kline’s first novel, most of humanity might suddenly become the “missing generation”.
Rizwan Virk is a venture capitalist, founder of Play Labs @ MIT and the author of “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics Agree We Are in a Video Game.” Follow him via his website at www.zenentrepreneur.com or on Twitter @rizstanford.