Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Virtual Reality

Previous Cassandra posts: A.I. — Global Warming — Antibiotics — Pandemic

Today's terrifying existential threat looks like this:
The headset, not the guy.
That's right, the threat is that you will look like a doofus. Truly blood-chilling.

But give me a chance to lay out my latest chicken-little argument, and soon you too can recoil at the thought of virtual reality.

Now while some mainstream publications have difficulty looking past the obvious initial problems of motion sickness and tripping on wires, my focus is on a more insidious problem.

Fair warning, this is more or less uncharted territory, and I’m going to be drawing from speculative fiction. Many of the ideas in here have been laid out better in “The Unincorporated Man” and, to a lesser extent, in the various horror stories written around “Friendship is Optimal”.

Let’s start at the beginning, with what I’m going to call “Axiom 1”: the world sucks.

I know, I know, but really, it does. More specifically, it is… not optimized for human happiness. This is not a new idea, and anyone with a passing familiarity with Judeo-Christian mythology will recognize the parallels with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
  It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
   By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.

Blame entropy, blame the devil, blame whatever, but the fact remains: the world has things in it that people wish weren’t so. Now philosophical views differ on the benefits of pain, suffering, and discomfort, but I’m going to just leave the existence of them as an established fact. Axiom 1.

Axiom 2, people prefer pleasure to pain. Not especially groundbreaking, but worth mentioning in this context. Willpower is a finite thing, and people often get caught in hedonistic wells and/or addiction spirals, where they actively seek positive stimuli such as food, sex, drugs, or feelings of personal accomplishment. Even pleasure with net negative externalities are difficult to avoid, just ask the next cigarette smoker you see if they’ve ever tried to quit.

Which leads us directly into Axiom 3: People will seek out pleasurable feelings. It’s just how our brains operate, since feeling good is how our body tells our brain to keep doing that thing, and pain is something we shouldn’t do. Humans are animals, and animals fundamentally follow their base urges and instincts. These are not all first order operations, plenty of people feel good helping others and contributing to society; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instructive here.

Invented worlds, i.e. worlds designed by humans to maximize human pleasure, lack many of the limitations of Axiom 1. They can be more exciting, more fulfilling, and just better than the real world.

Clearly there is already substantial addictive behavior regarding our use of electronics, and the effect is far more pronounced in children who are growing up without knowing anything else.

At present, the world as it stands now has no significant virtual competitor and, isolated examples aside, no one is forsaking this world for an artificial one. If the predictions in my previous posts on Artificial Intelligence hold up, we are looking at a society where the majority of people have nothing to do, and no way to meaningfully contribute. Best case scenario, assuming there are social services to provide physically for these people, they will be healthy, fed, and intensely bored. The real world will have little to offer them, outside of basic sustenance — Maslow is a cruel master, and man cannot live on bread alone.

Enter, Virtual Reality. A simulated world designed from the ground up to entertain and provide for human needs, intended to supplant and replace the increasingly inhospitable real world. A world far more pleasurable and exciting than our own. Axiom 2, people will prefer this world, and Axiom 3, they will seek it out. If the choice is between a boring world of basic subsistence where everything of consequence is done by machines, or an exciting virtual world where you can be important and valued, the choice will be an obvious one. We are beginning to see this trend already.

There is an obvious counterargument that I want to address. Namely, “People won’t do that. The real world is going to be better because it’s real”. Unfortunately, I have to disagree, and I’ve got the science to back me up.

There is a landmark book of psychology: Niko Tinburgen’s “The Study of Instinct” (1951). In it, among other things, he talks about the concept of supernormal stimulus. There are dozens of animal examples, of instinctual preferences and behaviors going off the rails, birds preferring to feed fake chicks with wider, redder mouths, instead of their own offspring. Butterflies preferring to mate with brightly colored fakes. There are others, many experiments have verified that there is no natural limit to instinctive behavior and preferences. This is also demonstrably true in human beings as well, with males consistently preferring breast shapes that are only possible with augmentation, to say nothing about facebook, junk food, pornography, opioids, and other deliberately designed super-stimuli.

To put it bluntly, there are no guardrails. Humans do have higher cognitive abilities, so all hope is not lost, but most of the time when instinct and reason fight, reason loses. People eat more candy out of closer bowls, and it is really difficult to eat just one chip. It is not so farfetched to imagine an advanced VR system that connects directly to the sensory sections of the brain, wireheading a generation.
In this case, the worry is that we’d put ourselves into the pods voluntarily, Adolus Huxley-style. I can imagine the blue pill being a very popular option, when the choice is between a pleasurable, super-stimulating human-designed Matrix and a painful world where humanity is all but obsolete. The question isn’t “How many will plug in?” but “How many will be left?”

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