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Current Development

Virtual reality (VR) devices are still mainly used for amusement like in this video of the game Skyrim in virtual reality using Oculus Rift. With augmented reality (AR) devices such as Microsoft's Hololens, Magic Leap and Google Glass we have seen business applications as well. Techcrunch estimates the market for AR and VR devices to grow to $150 billion by 2020.

All in all, the current development suggests there will be a lot more work on creating AR and VR.

For these reasons it seems likely to me that humans will be able to build and partially live in complex simulated-worlds in some hundred years and fully at some indefinite future date. It can be speculated that sooner or later every sufficiently advanced society will have the means to create something like The Matrix.

Although being much more of a feat to accomplish it has been theorized that instead of creating artificial intelligence we might one day be capable of mind uploading / whole brain emulation allowing us to "exist" as a digital version of ourselves with no need for a physical body.

Complementing vs Replacing Reality

It strikes me as rather odd that in most science-fiction movies / literature I have seen the societies pictured – even those hugely advanced compared to ours – either not use VR at all or only as some kind of tool to complement reality – think holodeck – for amusement, training and whatnot.

Assuming we will be able to do whole brain emulation and to create a simulated world as complex as ours wouldn't it be an ingenious solution and panacea to most of our problems to just collectively swear off our earthly bodies and live in a custom-made world replacing what we know as reality?

Surely most present-day humans would be scared of transferring their existence to a simulated world and letting their physical body die but is there anything actually stopping us from doing so besides people's mindsets?


Additional thoughts

Matrix-ception

Given my assumptions are correct and given enough time the following scenario could (have) happen(ed):

A society that once entered a virtual reality designed so that it can not be manipulated from within might still find problems they have not thought of or a severe bug and build a new matrix from within the first one to escape to.

Repeat several times and you would end up with multiple layers of matrices, multiple layers of existence possibly with distorted or removed sensory perception and laws of physics.

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  • $\begingroup$ I didn't need this new existential crisis. Thanks, you subroutine. $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley Apr 7 '15 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulation_hypothesis $\endgroup$ – Davor Apr 7 '15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, I was checking my cell phone. What were you saying? $\endgroup$ – Schwern Apr 7 '15 at 18:12
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From a technology standpoint, it would be far more practical to simulate an environment virtually than to change the environment to make it seem something that it isn't. This is comparable to breaking down every molecule in your body and recomposing it elsewhere as opposed to simply stepping through a gateway. The number of advantages in programming your own reality outweigh the limitations and energy required to do anything else, and so I would argue that if anything, this would be our future.

While you would certainly see a "matrix" type reality, emulating our reality, it would not be the one in which most people would be in. For example, if you could fly, why wouldn't you? This reality would simply be the internet, but 3d, if you can imagine it. The people within would have god-like powers. However, don't make the mistake of assuming it would be a game to most people. Like the internet, this reality would be serious business, being an economical hub. You would not need to be a programmer to build in this world. You'd simply have to have the right software and enough patience to do it.

Most people would likely spend little time out of such a reality, and in fact, many services would be focused on minimizing your time out of this reality, such as food delivery or being able to work directly in this reality. Virtually everyone would connect to this reality at some point, though the poorer among the population would be the ones performing most of the physical labor which cannot be done otherwise.

Advance another 100 years, and you may even begin to see people purposefully insert feeding tubes to their stomach so that they would not need to exit. The very few things which must still be done physically will be left to be done by robots. While this sort of world seems very alien to us now, it will not be us to accept it, but rather our children's children. While I would like to imagine that aliens would be very shocked to find us in such conditions, in all likelihood, should we ever meet an alien species, we will be making contact with their robots, and not with the species themselves.

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Will sufficiently advanced societies ultimately embrace living in a simulated world?

It takes a long period of intentional effort for a human being to overcome their body's instinctual or habitual urges and motivations.

It takes far less time to become addicted to a new pleasure.

We don't currently understand how pleasure is actually perceived in the brain/mind/consciousness. We understand there are often hormonal triggers, but the sequence of events that cause us to perceive what we call pleasure isn't entirely understood.

So, for instance, the pleasure of particularly good food. Part of this is learned in our youth. Part of this is simply the body's reaction to salts, fats, sugars, and other compounds evolution has taught us are good. Part of this is the feeling of satiety. Part of it is the company associated with the meal.

Designing a machine that holds our consciousness isn't enough - it also has to trigger our pleasure centers, mimicking a variety of human pleasures, interactions, etc.

But if the machine does allow us to perceive new and/or addicting pleasures, not only would people jump at the chance, they could - and perhaps would - become willing slaves in order to continue to receive that pleasure.

This would drive a wedge between groups of society, and not necessarily due to the slavery aspect.

Further, does the process of transference guarantee physical death, or is this something that is done due to the ethics of cloning? Can one create clones of their consciousness and make a million of their simulated selves? Can we backup a brain in case of machine failure? How would you determine the difference between machine failure and dementia due not to physical issues, but merely thought?

...wouldn't it be an ingenious solution and panacea to most of our problems to just collectively swear off our earthly bodies and live in a custom-made world replacing what we know as reality?

No. The machines would necessarily require more energy to simulate thought than the human body currently does. If we develop unlimited free energy (dyson sphere?) then this wouldn't matter, but even in 100 years a machine capable of simulating a world and a brain to experience that world will both be larger and more power hungry than the human body.

Surely most present-day humans would be scared of transferring their existence to a simulated world and letting their physical body die but is there anything actually stopping us from doing so besides people's mindsets?

Aside from technology and people's mindsets, no, there's nothing stopping this from happening.

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  • $\begingroup$ You are setting the bar way to high. There's no need to simulate human thought. There's no need to clone consciousness or backup a brain. Even with today's technology and flat screens there are many people who are darned near living in virtual reality already. Improvements in technology to make the virtual experience a little more real along the lines of oculus rift (but better) and you start to approach territory where there is no need to ever leave the virtual world. Touch, smell and taste will probably be achievable. Realistic motion sensation seems like one of the more difficult hurdles. $\endgroup$ – Dunk Apr 7 '15 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Dunk Careful reading of the OP shows that this is to be assumed in order to answer the question. "Assuming we will be able to do whole brain emulation and to create a simulated world as complex as ours" and "transferring their existence to a simulated world and letting their physical body die". Sure, we will walk slowly into that using more pedestrian technologies, but I addressed the question with these stated assumptions. $\endgroup$ – Adam Davis Apr 7 '15 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I sometimes lose track of the original question as I read others responses:( I don't know why the OP had to take that last leap in the question. Leaving it as, will people eventually just start living their entire lives in virtual reality ever come to be was a great question as it is. Bottom line is that we'll likely never recreate the human brain via simulation, let alone create an exact duplicate of a particular person's brain consciousness. It is far to complex. We may come up with ways to interface to an existing brain, but certainly not be able to recreate consciousness. $\endgroup$ – Dunk Apr 7 '15 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ Cloning won't work because the brain creates connections as it learns. All a cloned brain would give you is a brain with the same genes/cells, not the same memories, skills and previously created connections from the original brain. I suppose if someone figures out how to make creation of those connections deterministic then a cloned brain could be programmed and executing the same program on all the cloned brains might make the cloned brains similar to each other. But not the original, unless that original was also carefully controlled and programmed in some lab environment. $\endgroup$ – Dunk Apr 7 '15 at 18:23
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Its a possibility but that wont happen for a very long time and unless absolutely required. Consider the following cases where the entire surface of the earth is rendered inhabitable. And with the advanced technologies of the "sufficiently advanced society" might have to go further down into the earth. That of course is what happens is the Matrix movie. Yet another possibility I see is perhaps in a very advanced society, the whole concept of "driving to work" disappears and people choose to work from home logging into a simulated world/society which also provides the ability to conduct meetings in a virtual world instead of peoples' faces on a screen.

We live in what we call the golden age of internet where we can do almost anything with a computer. It is safe to assume that with the advancement in the technologies, the computers would become something that can offer the user a virtual reality (instead of the conventional screens). What if all this is just the beginning of exactly what you had in mind. The same might happen even though the concept of living entirely in a simulated society is far fetched and like I already mentioned, absolutely required. So the only time a person would be outside the "network" would be for basic amenities like eating, sleeping (which can be done while in the system), defecation and for copulation.

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Entropy makes this tricky. The end result will be that the virtual world MUST have an effect on the outside world.

If there is no effect, then what is taking care of our bodies? If it's a mix of biology and robotics, what is preventing that system from breaking down? Obviously it has to be advanced enough to heal itself.

So why would it stick around if it gains nothing from continuously feeding us calories and watts to keep our virtual worlds alive? It would simply start the next stage of life, and our consciousnesses would go away.

Partially virtualized worlds make more sense, though they may asymptotically approach fully virtualized. This could be as simple as there being "keepers" who shift in and out of the "matrix." They bring information out of the virtual world into the real world. It could also take the form of augmented reality, if need be. As long as the Matrix proves to be the most efficient way of solving some problems (perhaps there are some socioeconomic problems that call for a deep wedding of many minds), it will continue to provide purpose to its existence to those who keep it.

Arguably, that is happening right now, as I type this answer and the information it contains clears substantial physical distances to arrive in the from of lit and dim pixels on your screen.

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I think given advanced enough tech to simulate reality, many people would give themselves over completely (already in America at least many people spend most of their free time online, watching TV, and playing video games). Those people, if they could work virtually and didn't need to disconnect to take care of themselves I could see assimilating fully.

That said, even today you have many young people who are focusing on cutting out the digital world from most of their down time. These people feel that doing things like farming, sewing, cooking, wood craft, etc. provide more enjoyment and fulfillment. I think this shows that there will always be a contingent who try to keep technology at bay, and would prefer to live off the land on their own than integrate with that kind of technology.

Could it happen? Yes - but there would need to be some nasty kinds of effects. Ultimately either it would be an issue of coercion or of the drug like potential of the virtual reality. Looking at these two more fully:

  • Coercion could come either through government intervention or some kind of disaster. While I have a hard time imagining a government succeeding at forcing everyone in, with a great and powerful robot army that becomes reasonable (possibly the robots are even controlled by people in the simulation). If the world was ending and people needed to head off to greener pastures, energy was not an issue, etc., etc., then I could see a generationship being built as a simulation machine for efficiency reasons - you don't have to grow all kinds of different plants, just synthetically generate all the nutrients needed. This could even replace the need to find an alternate world, so the ship could just hang around energy sources and keep the people alive in the simulation.
  • The other option would be that the simulation provides enough feedback to our bodies to function as a drug. After using the simulation for even a short period of time you start becoming dependent (it would boost serotonin and adrenaline at will). Eventually the real would will seem unbearable and people will constantly up on the high of the simulation. The simulation would likely windup being very similar to a game - there would be missions and things for you to do to give you purpose, a large open world to explore, and the availability to satisfy vices on a whim with no risks.

Cort Ammon suggested the machines would not want to waste the enormous energy on us. Assuming true intelligence on the part of the machine (without it, it just takes care of us no matter the cost because that is its entire purpose), it is just as likely for the machine to develop a sort of parental feeling towards its people. It wants us to be happy and thrive, so it gives of itself the same way a parent does to a child (this could also be a source of tension, since sometimes parents have to stop you playing with the hot stove, even when you really, really want to).

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