'VIRTUAL' REALITY AND 'ARTIFICIAL' LIFE
Thomas A. Easton
Previously published in Aboriginal SF, Fall 1996.
It has been some 250 years since philosophers such as David Hume first said that all we can know of reality is what enters the mind through the senses. In the last century, this idea has become an obvious truism, for brain research has made it clear that mind is a function of the brain, and that the brain has no inputs other than the senses. People who believe otherwise are clearly fooling themselves about the nature of reality.
Can we fool the brain about the nature of reality? This has long been the aim of theater, television, film, painting, and mediums, all of which attempt to provide the brain with sensory input convincing enough to persuade the viewer to accept a new "reality" at least briefly.
Video games do the same thing, and if you doubt me just ask yourself where you are when Mario is bashing all those bricks with his head. I've been there, done that, and watched you, too--wincing at the moment of impact, putting on the body english, grunting.
Flight Simulator does it very well, to the point where--I hear--people can get airsick at their kitchen table.
The next step is what today we call "Virtual Reality." A computer synthesizes sound and vision inputs for the viewer and delivers them through earphones and goggles that block out competing inputs from the real world. The result can be quite convincing, and for those who object that the quality of the graphics is really quite cartoonish, that can be enough--consider "Mario."
Of course, the graphics are getting better. Researchers are also developing ways for the computer to synthesize and deliver inputs for other senses, such as touch. Here we're talking about "data gloves" that stimulate nerve endings in the hand and "body suits" that stimulate nerve endings all over the body. Since I have no idea how prudish some of you may be, the less we say about certain applications of this technology, the better.
Within the next 50 years, say researchers such as Hans Moravec, computers will be large enough to hold a human mind. Truly intelligent robots will at last be possible.
Moravec and others are also pushing the idea that the human mind in its brain is comparable to a program in a computer. That is, they say, it can in principle be edited, copied, and transferred from one "machine" to another. If this proves to be more than a metaphor (and researchers such as physicist Roger Penrose and philosopher John Searle insist that is all it can possibly be) it will one day be possible to "download" a real human mind into a computer. The resulting "silicon person" may then have a robotic body, making this technology pretty attractive to science fiction writers, as well as to quadriplegics and the aged. It really gets me down to think that I probably won't live long enough to enjoy the benefits of this new technology.
Many of us, however, find more interesting the thought that a downloaded mind must be able to enjoy a very complete sort of Virtual Reality. After all, VR works by feeding a mind synthesized sensory data. A mind in the computer will have every possible input channel available for feeding and will suffer no distractions from competing inputs. The computer will be able to synthesize a complete and convincing reality for its resident. And if the resident is able to tell it what to synthesize, that reality can be anything the resident wishes.
We're talking perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy here, ladies and gents. You can have a Batmobile, a James Bond killer car, a Rolls that drives like a Formula One, a harem, a zillion dollars. You can be handsome, beautiful, weird, and you can change your looks every minute on the minute. You can wear silk, fur, chain-mail, diamonds, or nothing at all. You can visit the Titanic or the Moon or Mars. You can be governor, king, emperor of the world, president of Harvard. You can be an animal, a plant, an extraterrestrial, the opposite sex. Whatever floats your boat. No limits.
Really? No limits? Well, that has been the thrust of a number of VR-download imaginings, both fictional and nonfictional. But we know better, don't we? We're talking here about "what a computer can do," and "what a computer can do" depends on internal memory, processor speed, multitasking ability, and so on. That is, the reality experienced by a downloaded mind will be defined by the availability of resources, just as is our familiar "meat reality." Of course there will be limits.
Let us now imagine that someday a single computer will hold many downloaded minds. Just think of how this technology will make possible the perfect vacation resort or retirement community, or the perfect place to tuck excess population! If this happens, we will surely see the dependence on resources show up in the form of a medium of exchange (call it money) which residents may use to obtain extra memory or processor time when they need it to fulfill their wishes. And this, in turn, has some very interesting implications.
To see what these implications are, I need to turn from Virtual Reality to the field of Artificial Life.
Well before this field had a name, there were people attempting to mimic certain functions or behaviors of living things in computers. An early example is John Conway's game of Life, in which neighboring cells on a grid are occupied or blank depending on the state of their neighbors. Here, very simple rules can yield configurations of cells that move, spawn progeny, devour neighbors, and die.
Later researchers devised small programs that could reproduce themselves in the computer, trade equivalents of genes, and improve their ability to function in a defined environment. These programs are necessarily quite abstract--nothing but strings of computer instructions--but they have been given visual appeal by embodying them in geometric figures, rough cartoons, and other forms. There are mice that generation by generation improve their ability to find the cheese, plants that generation by generation increase their ability to capture sunlight, and... You can find numerous images, software, and even interactive "artificial life" games on the Internet; see, for instance, http://vrml.arc.org/tierra/images/.
Now, let me quote from "How I Created Life in a Virtual Universe," a 1992 paper by evolutionary biologist Thomas S. Ray, one of the founders of this field. Talking with an artificial intelligence researcher over a game of GO, he realized that one could start with a self-replicating computer program, add mutation, and get evolution. "A very simple formula for life: self-replication with errors, should generate evolution, the essence of life," he wrote. Years later, he was actually able to set up such a system, running inside a simulated or virtual computer of particular design. Here is how he describes his first successful run, on the night of January 3, 1990:
"All hell broke loose. The power of evolution had been unleashed inside the machine, but accelerated to the megahertz speeds at which computers operate. My research program was suddenly converted from one of design, to one of observation. I was back in a jungle describing what evolution had created, but this time a digital jungle. There was an amazing menagerie of digital creatures, unfolding through the process of evolution. Describing them was an adventure, because they inhabited an alien universe, based on a physics and chemistry totally different than the life forms I knew and loved. Yet forms and processes appeared that were somehow recognizable to the trained eye of a naturalist.
"The most striking and strangely familiar feature of my digital universe was that evolution found an endless succession of ways for creatures to exploit their neighbors, and to defend themselves against such exploitation. Evolution is basically a selfish process, in which every individual is out for themselves, and success is measured in leaving more of your genes in future generations. But evolution is very inventive about how that ultimate goal is achieved. Evolution mindlessly takes advantage of whatever is available in the environment of the organism.
"Significantly, once the environment has been filled with creatures, those creatures become the most important resource in the environment. In that first night that my virtual machine ran, my creatures quickly found out that their environment was rich with" the resources they needed. They promptly invented parasitism and predation, symbiosis and sex.
In a more formal 1992 paper ("Evolution, ecology and optimization of digital organisms," Santa Fe Institute working paper 92-08-042), he made no bones about what he had done: "Digital organisms [self-replicating computer programs] have been synthesized based on a computer metaphor of organic life in which CPU time is the 'energy' resource and memory is the 'material' resource. Memory is organized into informational 'genetic' patterns that exploit CPU time for self-replication. Mutation generates new forms, and evolution proceeds by natural selection as different 'genotypes' compete for CPU time and memory space. In addition, new genotypes appear which exploit other 'creatures' for informational or energetic resources.... From a single ancestral 'creature' there have evolved tens of thousands of self-replicating genotypes.... Parasites evolved, then creatures that were immune to parasites, and then parasites that could circumvent the immunity. Hyper-parasites evolved which subvert parasites to their own reproduction and drive them to extinction. The resulting genetically uniform communities evolve sociality in the sense of creatures that can only reproduce in cooperative aggregations, and these aggregations are then invaded by cheating hyper-hyper-parasites."
Ray had clearly invented an astonishingly fertile system, evolution on an electronic roll, inventing on its own a great many familiar features of the ordinary "meat" world. What next? Artificial Life researchers want to see just how far such approaches can go. Ray's software (Tierra) runs "on any IBM compatible personal computers (as well as larger Unix workstations and mainframes)." Copies (as well as images and reports) are available on the Internet (visit the Santa Fe Institute at http://www.santefe.edu). Ray has also proposed setting up a "digital 'biodiversity' reserve" on the Internet where his digital "creatures" would be free to evolve toward whatever possibilities may be waiting.
As a field, Artificial Life has found itself in the center of a controversy over the definition of life--is it possible to call these self-reproducing, evolving computer programs alive? (Some of the opposition to "artificial life," as to "artificial intelligence," seems based in the lack of meat; this may fade when and if mental downloads become possible.) But really, I think, a very important point has already been made: Once we have people living in the computer--the ultimate Virtual Reality--they will be subject to much the same rules that obtain in the real world and that Ray showed apply to Artificial Life. The requirement for resources defines limits and specifies an environment to which living things must adapt.
That is, if we ever build "Download Heaven," its residents will still use resources. They will compete with and exploit each other. They will be victimized by parasites and predators. There will be burglars, muggers, murderers, and even lawyers. It will of course need cops and jails. "Download Heaven" will thus look a lot more like real life than many of us might like.
On the other hand, it will last a lot longer. As meat, our lifespans are seriously limited--we actually do seem to have built-in expiration dates. As software residing in silicon, our lifespans could last as long as technical civilization, ending only when the electricity stops flowing. And even then, our recorded minds should remain, stored on the future equivalent of hard drives, perhaps to be reawakened by far-future archeologists.
Now, I'm not a Virtual Reality or Artificial Life researcher. I am a theoretical biologist by training. I also write science fiction, and in Silicon Karma I deal with much of what I have just been talking about:
-- The downloaded mind version of Virtual Reality.
-- The need, even in a virtual world, for resources.
-- The reality, even in a virtual world, of competition and
exploitation--or parasites, predators, and crime.
-- The equivalence, in important ways, of "Virtual" and "Real,"
of "Artificial" and "Natural."
I think all this makes for an interesting--though weird--story.