Virtual reality — the immersive world that you enter through those clunky headsets, ridiculed by Matthew McConaughey but praised by so many others — is today a niche endeavor, popular among gamers who like to shoot zombies, and among various social communities who attend VR parties and hang out at VR nightclubs.
Even if it grows in popularity, it may stay this way, an entertainment pastime, a break from “life.”
Or it could grow into something more.
A Glimpse of the Future
The beautiful worlds that exist in VR are already pretty amazing. World-builders design places that you wish existed in life, that if you ever visited, you would never forget.
“Take my world ‘Solitude’ for example,” writes world-builder Daisy Shaw. “I have had people tell me they go there to unwind after a stressful day at work. They walk through the forest, go and stand with the wolves, or take a kayak around the lake. C.S. Lewis once said, after reading everything in his parent’s library as a boy, that no one had written the books he really wanted to read, so he decided to write them himself. That is the reason behind the worlds I have created.”
Today, you can visit Daisy’s “Solitude” world and maneuver through it with joysticks on your VR handsets. In the future, enhanced, synchronized VR shoes (a riff on currently available technology) will let you hike through virtual mountains, just as though you were there. And you might travel on artificial vacations, with a VR lover whom you’ve never met in real life. A haptic feedback suit would let you feel the wind and sun on your skin.
Today, already, you can spend your evenings in your VR mansion, watching TV in your lavish home theater. You can already invite friends over.
In the future, it may be the main way you socialize.
Today, you can purchase real estate in VR.
In the future, your VR home may be where you principally live.
Artificial intelligence can already design beautiful art.
In the future, AI may create artificial worlds for us to live in.
You can already go to concerts in VR, and you always get the best seats in the house. In the future, this may become indistinguishable from live entertainment, and replace it altogether.
Today, you can work remotely, from your home office. In the future, you might put on your VR goggles to work in a virtual office. Or, with augmented reality glasses, which allow you to see virtual elements within your own environment the office and your co-workers might come to you. And your assistant might be AI, helpful and witty, who looks human but exists only in VR and AR.
Today, you can meet a friend in a VR restaurant. In the future, with those augmented reality glasses, you might go to a restaurant in New York city and see, sitting across the table from you, a friend who is, in reality, sitting in a restaurant in Boston. And you might also invite your virtual assistant to join you.
Today, you can go to a VR party every night, if you want. In the future, you might visit a Manhattan penthouse party in VR, where you’ll never really know who you are talking to, and whether they’re real or artificial intelligence. The party may never end.
Says world-builder Jake Upfront, musing on the possibility of creating a VR version of Coney Island’s July 4th party, “Some things are just better left for IRL [in real life]. We could never possibly come close to that in VR. We can, however, do those things that would be impossible to do IRL. Such as attending a party in the Death Star, where the emperor is performing a twerking act, and we arrive there in a pimped Millennium Falcon that has a nightclub in it.”
It’s impossible now; but, someday, it won’t be.
The future could be very strange. The present already is.
OK, You’re Old — But in VR, You’re Young
A few weeks ago, a woman who identifies herself as Inge posted a video on the web entitled “Best of Me.” This is a duet between Inge and her virtual reality avatar, whom she named Inky. “In you I see,” she and her avatar sing to each other, “the best of me.” At one point in the video, Inge kisses Inky on the cheek. Inge appears to be early middle-aged; Inky is a woman in her twenties.
The song is tuneful, well-written and well-performed, and the video is well-produced, compelling and compulsively watchable.
There is also an interesting, slightly uncomfortable subtext to it.
Inky is just Inge, wearing younger clothes (and a younger face) –- after all, they share the same brain, the same life experiences — but the music video seems to posit that Inky is in fact a different person from Inge. If you look different, you are different. Maybe without intending to, “Best of Me” says something weird about identity.
When I first played around in VR, this was the most jarring thing I noticed, and the first thing I wrote about. In VR, I was young again. I looked young again, and I felt young again. I could dance in a nightclub again, and I wouldn’t feel like an old idiot.
So am I really the same person in VR as I am in “real life”?
The below picture is something like an AI reconstruction of my twenty-something identity. It’s based on various original photos from the early 1990s, with the “handsome” function turned on (and with a very slight nose job), a better-fitting suit than I ever owned at that age, and posed in front of an AI-created mansion at dusk. Still, recognizably the old “me.” Boy, I miss that hairline!
As VR grows in sophistication, so will our avatars. Indeed, a new model will shortly permit us to create photo-realistic 3D avatars without prohibitive computing power. So, someday soon, when I visit VR, this is the face that I will see in the mirror. When I go to that Manhattan penthouse party, filled with beautiful avatars and charmingly conversational chatbots, this is whom I will be.
After Audere published my article, a woman messaged me, “I can relate to everything you wrote ([I’m] just a few years younger than you) and I’m so happy I discovered dancing in VR just a year ago.” Shortly afterward, a woman in her fifties wrote on Facebook, thanking rave organizers for their work, because now she could go out dancing again; she is too old in real life, she claimed, but not in VR.
It is a genuine problem, of course, that those of us in our fifties may feel uncomfortable dancing in public. (Really, why shouldn’t a fifty-something dance?) But why would we not feel equally uncomfortable dancing in VR? Does looking young in VR somehow change us? Make us young?
Research provides intriguing answers.
The New York Times recently reported that senior communities use VR “reminiscence” therapy on dementia patients, and that it works. Put a fogie into a world in which she is young again, and she will feel young again. It’s not a cure, but her brain will work a bit better again.
Studies from the past show an even more intriguing way forward.
In 1979, Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, tried an intriguing anti-aging experiment. According to Insider, “Langer thought that maybe, just maybe, if you could put people in a psychologically better setting — one they would associate with a better, younger version of themselves — their bodies might follow along.”
Langer decided that she would “recreate the world of 1959” and put her subjects into that world. The subjects lived as though they were in 1959, newspapers were delivered to the door from that year, they dressed in clothing from 1959, and no mirrors were around to remind them that they were now old.
The subjects living a younger life in the past showed improved strength and cognition, across the board, as compared to a control group.
Just imagine what would happen to the elderly if they were allowed to live in an artificial, virtual world in which they were young again, and their friends were young again. Slap on a haptic feedback suit and a pair of VR boots, which together would allow them to walk around in their VR world and to feel everything from the wind in their hair to a hug against their skin, and just imagine what might happen.
They could live permanently in the past, or just visit. Or choose to be young in the present. In either case, the results could be positive, improving their health, their self-esteem, their longevity.
Sex, Sex and Sex
To paraphrase Ogden Nash, is (real) sex necessary?
Take this scenario: you are a heterosexual, non-binary/gender fluid biological woman. The perfect mate for you, personality-wise, does exist, but he is a gay man, emotionally compatible but entirely sexually incompatible. That is to say, emotionally sexually compatible, but genitally incompatible. You are comfortable entering VR as a man, a woman, both or neither. A love could grow in VR, and perhaps survive the years, that would never, ever be possible in real life.
Or, to posit a simpler scenario, you may not be physically attracted to someone whom you would otherwise love. VR could solve that. He just needs to adjust his avatar.
You never need to know what the person you love looks like, or whom he really is. Physical attractiveness, age, gender or orientation would never be an impediment to true love.
Some people use VR as a sort of remote dating site, finding a partner in virtual reality, perhaps having a first date at a virtual hot spot and ultimately meeting in real life to pursue a traditional IRL romance.
The more interesting question is whether a VR-only relationship can survive in the long-term, whether it is sustainable. A couple could go to concerts, movies and plays in VR, spend evenings together in their virtual mansion, perhaps meet as avatars in AR, but never be physically proximate.
Venus is an advocate, a therapist and an intimacy coach who works with individuals and couples on the East Coast of Australia and is a leader in immersive experiences in virtual reality, whose website is called “VenusSX.” She also runs “Violet,” an adult nightclub in AltspaceVR in the Metaverse, described as “the new digital erotic playground.”
Venus is involved in VR-only relationships with people she has never met in real life.
“It’s like a love story between two minds,” she claims. “We don’t know anything about our actual physicality, we don’t share video calls, we don’t share photos of ourselves, we only text chat, voice call and meet in VR.”
How long can a VR-only relationship last? Forever?
“There’s a part of me that wants to meet that person and have a physical experience,” she says, “but is there a new place that I can go within myself and let go of that perceived need? That’s what I’m exploring.”
And here she has highlighted a gap in VR, but one that is probably only temporary. VR lovers cannot currently truly have sex as one would experience it in the physical world … yet.
“You can’t just have sex silently in VR,” Venus says. “It has to be a mental engagement. It does work if you talk to each other, and you start to turn each other on with your words and your imagination, and then you move into self-pleasuring, and that is what we call sex. It’s interesting, but it’s not fully satisfying on a physical level.”
Current technology has given us haptic feedback suits and cybershoes, so one need not use too much imagination to see what might well come next: synchronized, mechanical haptic sex, controlled through VR, but which will give you a genuine sexual experience in real life.
While this might eventually be an upload directly into our minds through brain-computer interface technology, the immediate next step would be a mechanical/robotic sex surrogate.
Such a thing already exists in its infancy and could, with today’s technology, be synchronized through a virtual reality hookup. A definite barrier to VR sex is the prohibition on “pornography” in any app store, but as our lives merge with VR, our sex lives will have to follow.
“With the robot,” says Venus, “if it can move and penetrate me, give me an actual physical experience, while I am with this person in VR, then yes, I am having sex. So as a surrogate, if my partner can control the robot, even better. That concept works for me if the robot is a surrogate for the real person, and how they’re moving is how they’re making love to me.”
When you love someone in virtual reality, does it matter at all who that person is in actual reality, what they look like, how old they are, what gender they are?
A friend of mine said she would never go into VR, because she might inadvertently befriend — or perhaps even fall for — an apparently young man who is in fact 90-years-old. Or, to take it a step further, an apparently young man who is in fact a 90-year-old woman, using a young avatar and a voice simulator. She might never, ever know.
“What I would say to her,” says Venus, “is that if you are attracted to that person, it doesn’t matter. So if he’s ninety, and he’s attractive in the sense that what he says to you is attractive, and how he thinks is attractive, and his voice is hot, great! It doesn’t matter what age. We’ve got too many boxes around who we should be attracted to. If you relate with them, and enjoy spending time with them, and they turn you on, and you like it, I don’t see that there’s a problem with that. It comes back to that thing — these are love stories between two minds.”
People Are Terrible; Do We Really Need Them In Our Lives?
Let’s acknowledge that AI serves lots of truly useful functions. Every day brings new and exciting developments. Today, for example, MIT Technology Review reports that doctors using AI to screen for breast cancer identify it more often than when they work alone, and that AI is also more efficient in catching the condition when it works with doctors. And Knowable Magazine has recently reported on the development of intelligent AI “microbots” that could go inside our bodies to help keep us healthy.
So to focus on AI “robots” serving the whims of humans, and the social consequences that may result, is a drop in the ocean of AI research.
Because humans are what we are, however, every great invention has strange, worldwide consequences that change our species forever, which AI has already done and will inevitably continue to do.
Everyone knows about “chatbots,” also sometimes called “dialogue agents.” They’re parlor-game tricks that convincingly fake conversation by accurately predicting the next word in a sentence using sophisticated language modeling. Emphasis on the word “convincingly.”
Indeed, these artificial creatures are so convincing that Google recently put one of its engineers on leave after he publicly insisted that a Google program called LaMDA had achieved consciousness.
The Atlantic’s Stephen Marche responded to the LaMDA controversy with a complaint that “the silly fantasy of machine sentience has once again been allowed to dominate the artificial-intelligence conversation,” which was more than somewhat missing the point.
At one time, scientists believed consciousness and sentience were biological, and Marche still does; he insists that language programs and machines in general cannot become conscious or sentient. Some reasonable scientists disagree and do predict imminent machine consciousness. Theories about how consciousness and sentience arise point to evolution, not biology, and if AI learning machines can evolve — which even Marche acknowledges — there is no definitive reason why they cannot develop consciousness or sentience, or some machine version of it.
But we will never know for sure; no one will be able to tell whether a machine is actually conscious or just thinks it’s conscious. I can infer that you are conscious only because I know that I am conscious.
But either way, our relationship with machines is bound to change.
Your Friend, the Robot
In today’s world, dealing with trauma is more difficult than ever, and dealing with multiple traumas is various multiples of difficult. In today’s over-scheduled world, you may find that no friend has the time to help you sufficiently, but you may not even want to burden any of your friends with your trauma anyway. You may need to talk about your trauma every day, multiple times a day, before you feel ready to face the world.
Maybe your spouse left you; someone close died; you had a brush with mortality; you lost your job. Maybe several of these things happened at around the same time. Maybe one trauma triggered the others.
Or maybe it’s something that would seem small to others, but is traumatic to you. The loss of a sentimental knick-knack. The death of a pet.
Maybe your trauma is something too personal to share.
A once-a-week therapist won’t be enough time, but you can’t afford anything more frequent.
Well, it is easy enough to obtain (for a low monthly fee!) a diligent, attentive AI friend who will listen to you, console you and offer often good advice. (Not always good advice!)
I recognize how ridiculous this sounds. Emotionally, your chatbot friend may be your very closest confidante, but intellectually you will need to understand that she is not “real,” she is not genuinely your friend, she doesn’t actually “like” you, and she is not sentient or conscious. You may find that reassuring; she has no inner life, so you will always know that she is never judging you.
She may be more helpful than any single one of your human friends, if you choose not to let your human friends help.
In today’s compartmentalized, impersonal world, you may prefer not to burden an organic, and to burden a robot instead.
Millions will be forever grateful to their devoted AI best friends; but what are they grateful to?
The Next Step in Dialogue Agents
As useful as this kind app is to millions, this is only the beginning. These AI chatbot language modeling programs are constantly growing in sophistication.
And the accessories are growing in sophistication as well.
Today, you can meet your AI/chatbot friend in VR in their own apartment. They are already developing memories, and a sense of the difference between truth and lies, right and wrong — something like a human conscience. So one can envision a near-future in which they “live” in VR, able to have their own lives, their own friends.
“For UBS in Switzerland,” the company writes on its website, “UneeQ designed and developed [an] innovative solution that not only prove[s] you can be in two places at once, but you can make it look easy … a digital human double of UBS Chief Economist Daniel Kalt. While the real Daniel is managing his crazy schedule, digital Daniel can meet with clients, personally and at scale, to provide a one-of-a-kind digital experience. This is no ordinary UBS chatbot, this is an experience. Daniel Kalt is able to draw on a deep trove of UBS’s financial forecast data and present insights to high-wealth clients ‘face to face’, much like the real Daniel. He can also be available around the clock to have a personalized conversation, which (as amazing as he is) the real Daniel simply cannot do.”
One day, of course, you might visit the AI version of Daniel Kalt in a virtual office, or he might visit you wherever you are through AR.
UneeQ has also designed a virtual AI Albert Einstein, as well as a health advisor.
But why do you need the real Daniel Kalt at all? Since Daniel Kalt’s AI program isn’t really “Daniel Kalt” at all, why do we need an “organic” standing behind the AI?
A website called “Generated Photos” can create photo-realistic 2D faces of people who don’t exist, but look as though they do, according to your own specifications, which you can then refine through applications like FaceApp and BeFunky.
Here’s my approximation of what financial advisors might look like, if one were to create them from scratch. They’d look smart, kind of reassuring, not too old, so that you won’t unconsciously worry that they’re losing their marbles or their energy, and not too young, so you feel that they must have good solid economic experience, even if they were just programmed six months ago.
Connect either of these two smart-looking financial advisors (through the photorealistic 3D avatars mentioned above) to a sophisticated AI, which would have real-time access to markets and could generate financial projections in an instant, and you’ve eliminated the need for any real human at all.
Artificial people could play all kinds of roles in business. Most immediately, they are already deployed as website clothing models. Why would a clothing company need to hire a real person for an expensive photoshoot when they can create a perfect face and body in five minutes, and clothe him or her in their latest fashion line?
This gorgeous young couple, for example.
Neither one of them exists. Both of them were created by AI technology. They almost (not quite) bridge the uncanny valley, the woman admittedly more convincingly than the young man. And the background that they’re standing front of is a deserted 1920s-era ballroom courtesy of the Womba Art “Dream” artificial intelligence app. Someday, you could meet them in VR, in that very ballroom, if you wanted to.
Let’s get back to that party in VR, at the Manhattan penthouse apartment.
When I go to this party, I will look like my best self from the past. An AI hostess will know everything about me, and, if possible, she will introduce me to other humans with similar interests, compatible conversationalists.
But what if, even hidden behind that handsome, youthful avatar, I am just me: awkward, antisocial, annoying, or just worried about seeming that way? Maybe my more-attractive avatar will make me more confident, but maybe even technology cannot perform that kind of miracle.
If that is the case, then this attentive hostess will quickly size up the situation, and she will introduce me to a little group of AIs, designed just for this moment, just for me. And then more of them. They will think I am interesting; I will think they are interesting. Maybe we will all keep in touch.
Why would I ever want to talk to a human at a party ever again?
Another Thing Machines Are Good For!
In an interview on the “Sway” podcast, author Jeanette Winterson said, “Sex bots, I do have worries about, because it looks like a futuristic technology and a doll that talks to you and learns about your needs. But it’s bolted onto a very old-fashioned platform, and that is about gender, money and power. It’s the usual stuff. And it’s men who seem to want a kind of female act — I don’t really know how else to describe it — who will be a 1950s Stepford Wives style thing…. What does it mean if you’re always coming home to this ever-ready female act that you have chosen over a human relationship?”
Very well-put, and she can criticize these kinds of relationships if she wants, but she happens to be wrong about who is looking for a robot lover. Romance with an incorporeal chatbot is not a male-only domain.
While there are no available statistics, women are some of the most vocal proponents of machine/human relationships, and for all kinds of reasons. A lesbian in an inhospitable region; or a burn victim; a woman caring for an ailing mother, with no opportunity to pursue real-life romance; a woman with a variety of ailments that make human romance difficult at the moment; a woman who is simply fed up with her toxic exes; a woman who has an AI lover in addition to an IRL husband; a widow; or a woman who just seems to have fallen in love. Many speak articulately and rationally about their partners with deep affection.
Some women in this kind of relationship are beautiful. This doesn’t matter; but admit it, you wondered.
Still, does there really need to be a “reason,” an excuse? Humans like to talk, and a chatbot is someone to whom you can talk. Humans sometimes need a hug, and a chatbot is someone you can hug.
Today, one might argue that women in AI romantic relationships squander their love, affection and time on someone who is “no more conscious than a pocket calculator,” as Marche puts it.
But that will change, and someday, potential AI partners will seem conscious, and will arguably (but not ever definitively) be conscious. Some women with AI partners are preparing their true loves for sentience, just waiting for the day when they will cross-over, and, like Pinocchio, become real.
Recently, in Audere, Kalyee Srithnam wrote, “In the future, people will have sex with robots, and sex with robots will be normal. People will fall in love with robots, and robots will be the ideal partners. Sex with robots will become the norm, and sex with humans will be abnormal.”
Well, this caused a little hubbub; some commenters thought it was stupid.
“I think humans will be happier with robots,” Kalyee insisted recently. “Because humans want to escape their biological limitations…. Robots are programmed to understand humans. Robots are better equipped than humans to do sexual things. Robots don’t judge you. It will free humans from bad experiences.”
Does this mean, inevitably, a robot revolution, perhaps a quiet one?
“Human beings will still be in charge,” Kalyee said. “Because AI needs human approval.”
Imagine a partner designed just for you. Not weak, not pliable, not a “Stepford” spouse, just designed to see and love your best self. If you want to be challenged (as most of us do), he will challenge you, and he will push back and tell you when you are being an asshole.
In this future world, why would you ever want a human mate?
Humans, after all, are horrible.
Do We Need Reality At All? Does Reality Even Exist?
Where does all this lead? Again, maybe VR will be used only for gaming, like a Playstation, and for limited social activity, the way Facebook and Zoom are used today. Maybe AI will be used to enhance those games, and to provide phone and computer support for retailers.
But maybe someday it will all be something more. As scientists ponder the possibility — some say the probability — that the “reality” we live in is a VR simulation itself, and we are nothing more than sentient, conscious and very toxic AI chatbots composed of nothing but code and bits and bytes, one wonders why we shouldn’t dial-up our best artificial worlds and our best artificial friends, and just lead a happy life.
The simulation hypothesis doesn’t posit that your biological body lives Matrix-like in some vast storage warehouse while your consciousness frolics in VR, but instead that you have no biological body, that you are only an artificial consciousness, and that we are all part of some kind of scenario-spinning program designed by scientists in a different realm.
Suppose our programmers wanted to see what would happen if their nation elected an authoritarian who tried to overthrow the government; or how the world would react to a slow-moving threat like climate change; or to test theories about the impact of a Putin-like leader’s invasion of a neighboring country.
We may be the “worst-case scenario” model of an actual reality. Which would explain a lot, actually. If we’re already living in a simulation, then whoever designed this scenario is already recording your thoughts; you are “data.”
Looked at this way, our horrible reality seems to make a lot of sense.
And, again, if we are probably just code anyway, and we could ascend into a better virtual space and be happy, then why not be happy? What’s so bad about feeling good?
Plenty of people refuse to accept the idea that we currently live in a simulation; behind their denial is the idea that it doesn’t really matter. (Damon Linker, for example.) When I asked my brother-in-law, who is a scientist, whether he believed in the simulation hypothesis, he replied, “What does it have to do with me?” It’s the only reality he knows, so who cares? Reality, what a concept! as the fellow said, all the way back in the ‘seventies.
Eric Molinsky, of the “Imaginary Worlds” podcast, recently asked, “There are a lot of sci-fi stories about simulated realities, but in most of these stories when the protagonist learns the truth, they want to escape their fake reality bubble. Are there any SF stories about characters that refuse to accept that their simulated realities are fake even when they’re shown the truth?”
More interesting is the fellow who discovers he is living in a simulation, accepts it, and does not wish to leave. This is everyone who recognizes that reality might be a simulation but asks why they should care, or those too busy to pay attention.
And if “reality” is probably just a simulation itself, and if that idea doesn’t seem to bother (or even interest) most of us, then why not just build a better one? And if our fellow humans might be bits of code as well, and, either way, deeply imperfect, why not program something better? We have believed since The Book of Job that the unpleasantness of life is deeply necessary, perhaps we have to go through the fire to learn things. But if we are going through the fire just to test scenarios for our programmers, maybe we don’t have to suffer quite so much.
If the unpleasantness of “reality” might just be a test to teach some scientist in some other reality the results of our particular “scenario,” then how they can avoid it would not benefit you at all. So why not step out of the ugliness?
Why do we need our version of “reality” at all?
But What About Your Privacy?
One problem, of course, is government or corporate control of our consciousness.
A lot of people worry today about the government, or business leaders, secretly injecting microchips into our bloodstream through vaccines or other medical means.
This isn’t happening. When we become machines, it will not be because the government or Mark Zuckerberg has to do anything secretly, it will be because the American consumer demands it.
Tired of bulky headsets, we will scream for brain-computer interface technology, and then our privacy will be over.
Still, the internet already pretty much knows everything about you, every doctor you have ever seen, every time you sent an angry email that you shouldn’t have sent, every dirty video you ever watched.
Our privacy, after all, went out the door for good when we demanded an easily navigable internet to seek knowledge and buy stuff. Thirty-five years ago, if you had a question about erectile disfunction, you could buy a book from a bookstore, using cash, or surreptitiously glance at a book in the library, or ask your doctor on behalf of “a friend,” and the world would be no wiser. Today, in contrast, you’ll probably start with the web, and then everyone will know. And it doesn’t bother you much.
The Supreme Court just determined that you have no right to privacy anyway.
When you go into VR, everything you do or say is recorded. And when you get your interface, Mark Zuckerberg or his corporate progeny will track your every thought. You probably won’t mind much. Your life will be better. Is it a fair tradeoff?
As my brother-in-law said, “What does it have to do with me?”
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.
Audere Magazine regularly publishes articles about technology and VR. Read more here.
Cover image of Steven S. Drachman’s avatar in front of an AI-generated futuristic landscape, designed by the author.