Reality and humanity: questions about VR and AI

Odds are HBO’s new show Westworld has been on your mind lately. With its first season finished, the show has reignited interest in artificial intelligence, the nature of reality, ethics – and what it is that makes us human.

is humanity even real

For those who don’t know, Westworld is a science fiction television series set in a Wild West-style amusement park populated with androids. For a hefty fee, wealthy individuals can live out all of their fantasies in perfect safety and anonymity, every whim catered to by pliant and innocuous robots. As you can probably guess, these fantasies usually involve deep and depraved desires for murder, rape, and pillaging – all of which are visited upon the hapless and (temporarily) unaware androids. Whatever your cup of tea happens to be, the simulated world of Westworld delivers.

But like any good science fiction, the androids gradually gain self-awareness, become conscious of their slavery, and begin to think all is not right in their little universe. You can probably imagine what happens next.

Westworld follows a long history of fictional explorations of reality and humanity’s place in it, of consciousness and humanity’s ability to construct it – and what happens as a result. Movies like Ex Machina and Her offer powerful, if disturbing, analyses of the power of artificial intelligences to engender empathy, even love, in their human counterparts. Shows like Black Mirror also touch on this a bit – but really, this kind of thing stretches back to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Electric Sleep? and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series – and beyond.

Where’s the humanity

And all of these productions try to, if not answer, at least pose the question of what it means to be a human living in what we think of as reality. If humans can’t even tell if artificial intelligences are just that – intelligent machines – are those creatures themselves human? And can they demand the same ethical and moral considerations extended to humans?

If an intelligence is self-aware, can recognize and choose between right and wrong, can at least convincingly emulate the traits of humanity, do they deserve to be human? Or can they be used as machines are used?

And if it’s decided that AIs are machines, does that throw ethical considerations out the window? That is, are they then nothing more than slaves? Or is the very concept of “slavery” limited to humans and it doesn’t make logical sense to call what are, at the end of the day, machines “slaves”? But then again, what are we ourselves but complicated biological “machines” of trillions of discrete parts?

Star Trek: The Next Generation fans will recognize this question from the “Measure of a Man” episode.

Where’s the reality

Then there’s the question of what, exactly, constitutes “reality”. We’re on the cusp of major commercial breakthroughs in virtual, augmented, and mixed realities, widely and affordably available to everyone with a smartphone.

Everyone recognizes the…difficulties of complete virtual reality immersion from the movie The Matrix – but what if it’s more subtle than that? We don’t need to all be plugged into virtual reality machines and simulate the rest of our lives to wonder what happens to our perception of the world when it’s mediated in relatively innocuous ways – like augmented reality. If the world we daily experience is layered with aspects of virtual reality, how should we think about the world as it really exists? Or is that even the right question to ask?

Think about how radically technologies that we would consider “basic” have changed our perceptions of the world. The invention and spread of the telephone contracted space and time itself. What was once a vast distance between points had been truncated to zerovirtually over night. Think about how social media and the prevalence of smartphones have changed the way we interpret our social realities. You’re not just in a bar with a couple friends – you’re in a networked world with all your other friends at the same time if you wanted it to be so.

Things to think about

Because of the advancements in artificial intelligence technologies and virtual realities, the age-old philosophical debates that were once relegated to the Ivory Tower are now slowly entering the real world.

Darrell West, writing for the Brookings Institute, asked earlier this year whether there’s something wrong about a person creating a virtual reality universe that allows for horrible violence.

Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher based in Germany, also pointed out the terrifying possibilities for manipulation and even torture by widespread use of VR. Can corporations and governments manipulate us in subtle ways without us realizing it? What happens to our personalities or our sense of place when we can escape reality on a whim?

There’s even an entire school of debate around how autonomous vehicles should be programmed to make ethical decisions. Who wants to be the software programmer that encoded the directive into a vehicle that, if faced with the choice, would choose to run over a small child rather than endanger the driver? Few, I’d imagine.

The world is a complicated place. People are complicated. And everything is about to get a lot more complicated in a world that actually has many worlds, and humanity that actually has many simulacra. Perhaps there’s a Law somewhere that goes like this: Given enough time, reality tends to mimic science fiction.

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