What if there was a virtual environment that was so real and so lifelike that it was completely indistinguishable from the real world?
What if you had an opportunity to upload the entire contents of your mind into that environment?
Would you do it? Even if you didn’t have a full measure of control over the environment, would you still venture into this virtual world?
I’m not just asking these questions as another thought experiment, nor am I asking it as an excuse to talk about “The Matrix: Resurrections.” Yes, the prospect of another movie in the mold of “The Matrix” did inspire me to pose these questions, but I also think these questions are worth seriously contemplating.
Back in 1999, the year “The Matrix” first came out, the idea of an entirely simulated world seemed like classic sci-fi tech, the likes of which we’d never see in our lifetimes. That’s understandable. In 1999, the most advanced simulations we knew could only be rendered by a Playstation 2 and those hardly looked realistic.
Since then, computing power and graphics technology has come a long way. These days, graphics in video game consoles are so realistic that it’s nearing Uncanny Valley territory. It won’t be that long before we have computer renderings that are so advanced, so lifelike, and so realistic that our brains can’t tell the difference.
At that point, creating an entirely simulated world is just a matter of computing power, scale, and interface. Since brain/computer interfaces are already being developed, it’s not unreasonable to think that we won’t have a Matrix-like simulation available within the next 40 years. Many people alive today who are under the age of 50 might very well live long enough to see that technology.
Once we have it, we’ll have some important decisions to make. Some of those decisions will be societal. If people suddenly have access to a virtual world where they can be anyone, do anything, and immerse themselves in any conceivable experience, then what does that do to society? What does that do to people, communities, nations, and social structures?
Those are far messier questions to contemplate, which is why I’m not going to belabor them too much at this point. Instead, I want to keep this question within the context of individuals. Everyone’s circumstances and beliefs are different. As a result, that may impact whether you’d take advantage of such an opportunity or what kind of environment you’d seek to create.
Personally, if I ever had an opportunity to upload my mind into a virtual environment on par with the Matrix, I would do it, but the extent and circumstances would vary. I suspect others may feel the same.
If I could create my own personal virtual environment before I uploaded my mind into it, then I would certainly be more willing. I think that’s an important factor. The humans in “The Matrix” didn’t have any measure of control over the environment they were in. I think that would complicate any that anyone would have in such a world.
It would also depend heavily on my physical state in the real world. If this technology became available and I was old, weak, and in poor health, then I would certainly be more inclined to use it. That assumes that any technology involving human enhancement hasn’t progressed significantly and people still age, get sick, and die.
Like it or not, our physical bodies in the real world will break down. If the technology to manage and reverse that isn’t available, then virtual environments might be the only way we can continue to live in any meaningful capacity. I certainly hope that isn’t my only opinion when I get to be that age, but if it is, then that simplifies my decision.
It’s hard to know what sort of options we’ll have. I still believe that technology involving human enhancement and creating virtual worlds will advance in parallel. One would, by default, need the other in order to properly interface with these environments. As such, it would complicate any decision about venturing into virtual environments.
Then, there’s the actual nature of those virtual environments. If we can control what environment we go into, then that opens the door to even more possibilities. Within these worlds, you could be a billionaire playboy, a medieval king, a famous celebrity, or super athlete. From your brain’s perspective, it would feel every bit as real as what you’re feeling right now.
Whether or not our brains would accept it is a different story. I suspect there may be some who, once they enter these worlds, would never want to leave. There may even be some who willingly erase their own memories of the real world so that this new virtual world is their new “reality.” That’s exactly what Cypher desired in “The Matrix” and I suspect others might share that desire.
It really does depend on the person, their situation, and what sort of virtual world they seek to create. We probably won’t know the full impact until we create our first true Matrix-like virtual world. I sincerely hope I live long enough to see that. If you’re reading this, hopefully you get to see it as well. It should give you plenty of time to contemplate these questions and whether you’ll venture into those world.
An Artificial Intelligence That Can Debate: The Promise And The Perils
Even in an era as divided and chaotic as this, there’s still a place for reasonable debate on important issues.
Yes, I understand it’s hard to say that with a straight face these days.
Yes, I’ve been to comments sections, Reddit, and 4chan.
Yes, I know how ugly the discourse is right now, but that’s exactly why I’m bringing this up.
In general, people are curious. Even though they cling to cherished beliefs and refuse to change their minds when confronted with evidence, we’re still curious about things that are different. It’s not always honest, but it’s a powerful feeling. Even if you despise those on the other side of the debate, a part of you will still wonder why they hold the opinions they have.
That’s why debate is such a powerful tool. Humans are such a social species by nature. We’re hard-wired to interact, connect, and discuss things with one another, even when we don’t agree. It may frustrate us to no end, as anyone who has debated a creationist can attest. However, the fact we keep doing it is proof, in my opinion, that there’s still value in the process.
Regardless of how you feel about the merit and value of debating, the whole process might become more complicated in the near future. That’s because IBM, the same company behind Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, just created an artificial intelligence that can debate at the same level as a skilled human debater.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece in TechXplore on this new system. It’s not as scary as some of the things we’ve seen from Boston Dynamics lately, but it’s still intriguing.
TechXplore: IBM’s AI debating system able to compete with expert human debaters
Now, before you get too nervous, it’s worth noting that this AI is far from the kind of advanced artificial intelligence systems I’ve mentioned before. This is not the kind of AI that will become Skynet or Hal 9000, no more so than Watson or AlphaGo. This is a system is very much a narrow AI, as in it’s made to excel at a specific task.
We have AI’s that can beat world class chess players and Jeopardy champions. This AI just happens to excel at debate. However, that has implications that go beyond simply outclassing the best human debaters in the world at the moment. In fact, this is one form of AI that might not need human-level intelligence to incur a major impact.
Take a moment to think about how erratic and inconsistent most debates are. No matter how intelligent or informed you are, it tends to get messy fast. That’s why so many comments sections and Reddit threads devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks. The end result is people becoming more angry and unreasonable, which can have major real-world consequences.
However, what would happen if every debate on any issue included someone who was better than the best debater on the planet? Even if the two people on each side of the debate were dumb and inept, such a presence would have a major impact on the discourse.
That’s because winning a debate has little to do with how well someone knows a particular subject. It also has little to do with how forcefully and clearly someone explains a topic. Again, people who debate creationists know this all too well. Winning a debate doesn’t mean proving your expertise. It means proving the merit of your argument.
An AI that can do that may not convince someone that they’re wrong about something. However, losing a debate tends to have a lasting impact. Just ask any aspiring politician. It can also lead people to question their beliefs, even if they still cling to them. That, alone, can be powerful.
For proof, look no further than the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamously hateful and dogmatic Westboro Baptist Church. She was as locked into her beliefs as anyone could possibly be. She was raised by religious zealots and indoctrinated into strict religious dogma from the time she was a child. She’s not someone whose mind is prone to change.
Then, she got into a discussion with someone on Twitter of all places. That person began a conversation. It started as a nasty debate, but it evolved into something that led her to question her beliefs. Ultimately, she left that hateful and bigoted environment. She’s now an activist against the same religiously motivated hate that she once fostered.
It’s a powerful story, but one that couldn’t have happened without a debate. To date, people have only been able to have those debates with other people. Not everyone is equally skilled. In fact, I would argue most people are woefully unskilled at debating anything and I include myself in that category. I am not good at it, either. I freely admit that.
Now, there’s an AI system that can theoretically win any debate the same way other systems can defeat any chess player. That does hold promise if it can be used to temper the heated rhetoric that has caused real-life hostilities. At the same time, there are reasons for concern.
What side would this system be on?
Moreover, who decides what position these AI systems take?
If no one decides, then how does the AI determine which side on a debate it takes?
These are relevant questions because if you have an AI that can win any debate, then the side it takes really matters. That can be used for good when countering dangerous disinformation, like those from the antivaxx crowd or hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Like any tool, though, it can be weaponized for ill.
I can easily imagine political organizations getting a hold of these systems and trying to use them to benefit their agenda. I can also see some trying to use it to spam message boards, social media, and Reddit threads to derail certain movements or arguments. That’s a powerful tool and we can’t be certain that those using it will use it responsibly. That’s the dilemma with all technology. It can be used for good and for evil. With technology like artificial intelligence, the stakes are a lot higher, as are the perils. This technology may not be as dangerous as a more advanced AI, but it could be a precursor to just how disruptive this technology can be.
Leave a comment
Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, technology
Tagged as AI, AI Systems, Artificial General Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence, artificial superintelligence, comments section, debate, debate strategies, debating, futurism, IBM, IBM Watson, internet debates, Narrow AI, Strong AI, tech, technological progress, technological singularity, technology, technology and society, Watson, Weak AI, winning debates