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Covering technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing–and will change–human beings in fundamental ways.

Editor's Blog

Matt Swayne
May 23, 2012

The history of human technology is, to a large degree, a drive to create virtual reality.

Language -- the manipulation of symbols and sounds to convey experience and make reality malleable--is one of the simplest forms of virtual reality. Story-telling is an expression of language and an immediate form of virtual reality.

Radio, television and the internet are all increasingly complex and immersive forms of virtual reality.

In the next decades, technology experts predict that the latest forms of virtual reality, even the detailed gaming environments like World of Warcraft and Second Life, will be considered primitive. Just as the combined advancements in electronics, chip design and physics played a role in the creation of the early virtual environments of the internet and telecommunications industries, rapidly advancing technologies in an even wider range of technologies -- everything from nanotechnology and quantum physics to biotechnology to artificial intelligence, and robotics to brain control interfaces -- will create new realities that are interactive and indistinguishable from our current reality, these experts say. In fact, our current reality may be a mere staging ground for deeper, more expressive, and more immersive forms of reality where the imagination and experience finally meet.

There seem to be three trends in the development of these simulated realities: internal, external and transcendent. Although, most experts tend to lay bets down on one form of virtual reality -- internal, external, or transcendent -- or the other as the basis for virtual reality development, it could be a combination. This doesn't have to be exclusive. Inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, believes that virtual reality will become highly immersive--in more ways than one.

In the next few decades, researchers will be able to release billions or trillions of nanobots directly into the brain and body. These nanobots can interface with neurons to create experiences that will be no different from the external reality. He describes it this way.

"Virtual reality and virtual humans will become a profoundly transforming technology by 2030. By then, nanobots (robots the size of human blood cells or smaller, built with key features at the multi-nanometer—billionth of a meter—scale) will provide fully immersive, totally convincing virtual reality in the following way. The nanobots take up positions in close physical proximity to every interneuronal connection coming from all of our senses (e.g., eyes, ears, skin)."

There are other forms of brain-computer interfaces. Kurzweil, again:

"We already have the technology for electronic devices to communicate with neurons in both directions that requires no direct physical contact with the neurons. For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute have developed “neuron transistors” that can detect the firing of a nearby neuron, or alternatively, can cause a nearby neuron to fire, or suppress it from firing. This amounts to two-way communication between neurons and the electronic-based neuron transistors. The Institute scientists demonstrated their invention by controlling the movement of a living leech from their computer."

New research is paving the way for people to use their brains to interface with robots. This work is especially helpful for those with physical limitations, who may one day rely on robots to literally become their legs and arms, eyes and ears.

Internal forms of virtual reality ignore external reality and focus on the reality interface--the brain or mind, depending on who you talk to--to create new environments. But that isn't the only path. Surrounding the user in sights, sounds, smell, and feel could create deeply immersive, interactive environments. The development of this could range from holographic television to screens that completely surround the user and suits designed to mimic feelings and sensations.

Some researchers believe that reality itself can be made malleable and, hence, virtual.

Programmable matter and nanotechnology could literally create new environments, designing and redesigning on the atomic level. Nobel Prize Winner Richard Feynman suggested this when he said, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."

And that could be just the start. Deep futurists see these abilities as the first step in completely changing time-space through scales below nanotechnology, through femtoengineering, for example.

We probably can't predict how new technologies and the coalescing of current, but separate, technologies will affect virtual reality.

For example, quantum computing may be able to create simulations of high complexity using either modes -- internal or external. Imagine nanobots that use a quantum processor... Or, quantum computation tied to a holographic display system.

Pretty far out stuff, for sure, but this isn't the end of the quest for virtual reality.

Reality--the stuff you see around you--may actually be virtual reality.

Nick Bostrom, Brian Whitworth, Jim Elvidge and other philosophers who back the simulation hypotheses believe that highly immersive virtual reality is possible. In fact, we're in it.

Elvidge, in his book "The Universe Solved," gives four reasons for his "programmed reality theory." The discrete nature of quantum physics, the exponential growth trends of computational processing power, the fine-tuned aspects of reality and anomalous activity are all evidence that we could be living in a virtual reality.

The simulation assumption is ancient, though, and shows how integrated this transcendent view of virtual reality is with spiritual beliefs, especially Gnostic and Eastern religious beliefs. The Hindus called virtual reality, Maya, and believed that it, too, had internal, external, and transcendent qualities. Maya was a veil of consciousness between Brahman and Atman (dual aspects of the unitary godhead), as well as the projected external world.

So, are current virtual reality technologies just tools to discover and transcend the programmed reality?

Will virtual reality lead us to a new state of understanding about "reality" and our place in it?

These are questions we are just starting to ask.

Matt Swayne is a science and research writer at Penn State, as well as an author and freelance writer. Always interested in technology and fringe science, Matt became interested in the technological singularity after reading Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. He also writes for the Singularity Symposium. Matt hopes the future will include automated cars so he no longer has to wait in line at the DMV.


    Thank you for the provocative ideas which I shall endeavor to incorporate non-plagiaristically into my upcoming AISF e-book which will be categorized as belonging to the High Tech Thriller genre and to the Neuroscience genre.


      When will your new AISF e-book be released?

    I am very sceptical about the nanite scenario you described. Even if we had sufficiently advanced neuroscience to know how to stimulate the brain to produce hyper-realistic hallucinations (I'm sure that every brain varies significantly in this regard) or the ability to coordinate a swarm of billions of nanites to provide this stimuli (nanites don't even exist yet), such stimulation would be fatal. The cells in the brain (not just neurons, but all the cells) are densely packed with only minute spaces between them. There simply isn't enough room for nanites to casually fly around the brain. They would need to hack their way through like it was a dense jungle, and in so doing cause a massive amount of damage.

    Even if this technology worked as described, you completely ignore its potential for abuse. Someone could use this technology to turn you into a meat puppet, or keep you in a hallucination against your will for mind control or torture.

    Over at my blog, http://sanctumofvespertine.blogspot.ca, I wrote a post last October entitled "Just some dude", explaining why I think it is unlikely people will be adopting brain jacks in the near future. Check it out if you want.

    My scepticism towards nanites also makes me think that it's highly unlikely that we will have Santa Claus machines in the foreseeable future. They're call Santa Claus machines for a reason; they would have to be magic.

    As far as I'm concerned, a holographic TV is the only plausible innovation on this post. I do however share your desire for self driving cars. Since Google already has a prototype of such a car, it seems likely they will be commercially available before 2030. Hopefully that will ease your disappointment over the complete lack of neuro-hacking nanites.


      Check out Drexler's new book, Radical Abundance. One of his examples shows that if a red blood cell was blown up 10 million times (to the size of a football field) a nanobot with 10^6 parts would only be about a foot square. He also address the Brownian Motion problem, and other objections people have come up with.

        Might I add, abuse of such a thing is entirely up to the person using it. Torture and such will be determined by the security of a device, much like hackers in a computer. If you want to become a meat puppet, fine, live in the VR world. If not, use it, but don't abuse it. Your choice. However, most of the human population is too stupid to think any further than enjoying themselves, so it is likely many people will suffer, but it will be at their own choice, not because we found a new innovation. Besides, this can be great use in fields other than entertainment as well, such as scientific and medical research. The future is coming. Live with it.

    Thanks for the comments.
    I admit this is speculative and, really, I only touched the surface of the literature out there. I did come across information skeptical of the nanobot idea--and ones that countered the skeptical nanobot idea. As I recall, a few theories suggested that the nanite could use those minute pathways through the brain cells. Another suggested that the anti-nanite group sees nanobots as little jaggy, metal submarines, more than likely they will be like cells, made of soft materials or metamaterials that will diminish any chance of damage.
    Again, all theoretical.
    But, more to the point of this piece. I agree that there could be negative aspects. However, this pushes us more to a transcendent outlook. For instance, here's a thought experiment: with a highly immersive, interactive reality at one's fingertips, why would anyone need to to make you a meat puppets? Are you really that interesting?
    The real impact of virtual reality, if it happens, will be on consciousness.
    Indeed, if a nanite Santa Claus machine is created, it would most definitely be indistinguishable from magic. But not indistinguishable from impossible. Pure speculation on my part again, but based on some research that's out there. I am curious, though, since I read references to the multiverse on your blog: Would you consider the ground from wherever this multiverse originated to be magic?
    I look forward to seeing you on the road in 2030. I will wave with both hands.

      Hi Matt

      With billions of people in the world, I'm sure someone would have some reason to want to abuse neuro-hacking nanites.

      I do believe that there is a higher level of reality and that our Universe is a metaphorical computer simulation when viewed from this higher plane. I acknowledge that this is largely a spiritual belief however, and I consider the multiverse theories that have become fashionable among physicists to be wildly speculative and pseudo-scientific.

      I don't object to the belief that technology indistinguishable from magic is possible. What I object to is the widely held belief among transhumanists that such technology is imminent.
      You for example are anticipating swarms of billions of nanites working in perfect harmony, perfectly and harmlessly manipulating the Human brain by 2030, when nanites haven't even been invented yet. That's a pretty big quantum leap to make, and I don't think we'll make it. I don't think we'll make a superhuman AI that will solve all our problems, and I know I'm not going to live forever. I'd consider myself lucky to make it to the 2050's.

        Hi Armand--
        Sorry. Just saw this.
        I don't think I gave a timeline for this. That was a quote from Kurzweil. I never endorse specific dates for things. Too many Popular Mechanic covers gone awry to make that mistake.
        Thanks for your comments.

    It seems almost irrelevant to discuss how we achieve virtual reality, we will achieve it. Once the sensory feeds to the brain are spliced/spoofed/hijacked, whatever you want to call it, with sufficient fidelity, then virtual reality becomes as real to our brains as real reality, which we should remember is nothing like a serious, detailed mapping of the outside world.
    Now we get to the fun part, now there is no reason to limit ourselves to the sensors we came with, now add in zoom, IR, UV, x-ray, the whole spectrum, polirization, gravimetric, electric and magnetic fields, etc, the imagination can run wild, 'profiles' would develop for tailoring our sensor suites to given situations, the potential mind-numbingly vast. BTW, a fraction of this capability will be here before very long, with contact lenses already in development, it just won't be the total immersion big-leagues. So my big wonder, once "The Show' arrives, how exclusively will we retreat into a better-than-reality virtual world? Can you come up with an argument for us not going over virtually[sorry] entirely?

    Nice article Matt.

    If super-hi-fidelity virtual reality is possible, then we'll certainly spend a lot of time there; and we'll create a lot of sentient beings there. Most of the sentient beings that will ever exist will likely be created and exist solely in virtual worlds. That is so much the case that it seems fantastically certain that we, too, must already be in a virtual world, a matrix inside a matrix inside a matrix.

    Maybe the transcendent aspect of of technology will help us understand how anything exists at all in the first place.

    Yeah and you could go further to say that we are in process of creating new universes (tho i know u dont wanna sound too outrageous). Coded, representational, abstract reality has been slowly creeping out of physical reality since ..forever.. but with humans ita getting very large and complex... and will be soon be enough to ...yeah: what Vance said. And its amazing when u think of core hindu ideas from a virtuality perspective.. eg. turtles... (and yes, they used metaphor - who doesnt?). not much on net about it tho, surprisingly.

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