In this article we are going to explore a range of subjects that were largely left out of the original TMP but which I find to be very important to the future history it hopes to cultivate; the evolution of the Internet and the companion evolution of humanity.
Through the 20th century there was a common saying concerning the future that, thanks to technology, the world was getting smaller. This notion even became the basis of a famous -and much maligned for its sappyness- amusement park ride in Disney theme parks named "It's a Small World". In the 21st century and beyond this old phrase is going to be reversed. People will soon, and increasingly, be saying that the world is getting bigger.
A common theme in folklore and mythology going back thousands of years is the idea of a world far bigger and more complex than we can commonly perceive. Interspersed with the world we could see and touch were realms rather like a 'back stage' to the theater of empirical reality where beings and forces unseen were controlling phenomenon whose end results we might see but whose inner-workings we couldn't understand. Often this alter-space was characterized as a realm of the dead that would be the ultimate destination of the living. Another notion was that of a more independent hidden kingdom of magic serving as a refuge for supernatural beings -old nature gods displaced by 'modern' religion, mythological creatures and beings like faeries pushed out of the regular world by human invasion of their traditional wilderness homes, or sometimes a haven for legendary heroes and kings where they could cheat time and death as a reward for their history-making acts. Sometimes it was simply an subtle invisible background realm of spirit with a different system of physics intrinsically and secretly linked to the observable phenomenon of everyday life. Sometimes the other realm could be a battleground for a war unseen between forces of good and evil, the shifting tide of battle expressed in the tangible world as incidence of sickness, famine, storms, and bad luck. A special class of society -shaman- possessing secret knowledge or talent was often cultivated to serve as mediators between the seen and unseen realms. By talent, ritual, or the aid of hallucinogenics, these shaman were gifted with the ability to perceive and interact with both sides of reality, communicating with the beings of the alter-world and petitioning them on behalf of the community. As Western culture approached the Age of Enlightenment quasi-scientific notions of the alter-world began to develop and it was characterized as an unseen hierarchical cosmos of 'planes' of elemental nature. A universe like a matryoshka doll of nesting celestial spheres -with, of course, the Christian heaven and hell each having their places in the hierarchy. This later formed the basis of 19th century Spiritualism's notion of an after-life existence on a 'higher plane' with the shaman of the past replaced by self-professed 'mediums' and 'clairvoyants'. And later still this inspired our contemporary SciFi notions of 'parallel universes' in a cosmos of numerous extra-dimensional spaces.
The commonly misunderstood pop-futurist Terence McKenna used to say that we were heading for a future that looked more like the past than any popular visions of the future have suggested. To illustrate this he often used the analogy of the primary culture and its shamanic experience -taking that analogy a bit too literally at times in terms of its association to the use of hallucinogenics. But this was, in fact, a very valid analogy for the future we are now cultivating. A world where the Rube Goldberg technology of the present is obsolesced by a technology where mechanism largely disappears into the infrastructure and microstructure of our habitat. A world where economics as we now practice it no longer exists. A world organized into two interspersed realms, one physical and governed/limited by the laws of physics and biology and one virtual yet no less empirical, built out of information, subtly interconnected to the physical world, with a different and fluid system of physics, different technology, and eventually populated by a community of very diverse people with a distinct culture. It's a future where we will all -to some degree- be shamans mediating between these two realms as a part of normal daily activity and where the general evolution of society, culture, even life itself may lead progressively away from the physical and toward the virtual. All that ancient myth and folklore will seem almost like prophesy. All those characterizations of the alter-world as spirit realm, faerie-land, and even after-life will seem to become analogous to the virtual habitat that we are cultivating in parallel with our physical habitat.
Being a plan of civilization development, TMP must play-out over the course of this simultaneous evolution. It will be an intrinsic part of the ultimate form of civilization that TMP cultivates, thus no vision of TMP would be complete without a discussion of this evolution and the structure and relationship of this emerging virtual habitat to the physical habitat and lifestyles TMP will produce. The original TMP only briefly and abstractly touched on this, just as it only briefly touched on the notions of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence that will feature so largely in this. Savage seems to have put more stock in biotechnology as the basis of any future evolution and considered it key in adapting humanity to life in space. I tend to see this as more integral with cybernetics, since biological adaptations alone will never be fast enough in the results they produce to satisfy the human mind's compulsion to craft the body to its desires -something that has been with us since the dawn of civilization and which has been pursued to date largely by non-biological means. Perhaps Savage considered this too nebulous a subject to draw any concrete conclusions from. Futurists have often had a difficult time effectively explaining these concepts, which is why, like Terence McKenna, they have so often resorted to analogies from myth, folklore, religion, and primary cultures that have tended to leave the public confused, still being commonly stuck in simplistic notions of the future rooted in the primitive machine-fetishism and 'Greek temple on a golf course' futurism of the Industrial Age. It can be hard to make sense of a future that often seems more like a drug trip than an actual place!
In an attempt to make sense of this Alice In Wonderland reality we are approaching and relate it to the course of TMP development we'll explore a likely evolution of the technology and architecture of the emerging virtual habitat, the form and impact of artificial intelligence, the technologies that will come to directly augment human life, and the new forms of life and lifestyle this is all likely to realize.
The Evolution of the Virtual Habitat:
Emerging from group communication applications of the present Internet, the virtual habitat is likely to become a key fixture of future daily life and the nexus of a future transhumanist society. This is where much of the cybernetic augmentation of humanity will be explored and realized, where artificial intelligence will evolve and be largely deployed leading eventually to the evolution of a community of artificially intelligent Virtual People, and eventually where a whole new branch of society and civilization may develop and reside full-time, potentially competing with organic human settlement in space. Thus, while it doesn't appear today like something of such significance today, the development of the virtual habitat will prove to be as significant an endeavor in the course of civilization as the colonization of space. It is essentially the colonization of a whole other space which may ultimately become a primary residence of humanity and the key to a much more rapid expansion into the galaxy than even Marshal Savage envisioned.
The virtual habitat exists today as an ad-hoc assemblage of crude and primitive communications and entertainment applications hosted on the present Internet, some of which are now employing the less sophisticated elements of Virtual Reality technology. The virtual environments hosted with these programs are dimensionally simple, limited to an environment composed of simple graphics or even just text, are disconnected, specialized in purpose, and hermetic in software architecture leaving the nascent virtual habitat a fractured realm of pocket spaces unable to interconnect or communicate with each other. I anticipate that in the near future this will evolve, by virtue of the current trend of convergence in communications platforms, into a progressively more seamless networked environment with a complex multi-dimensional topography interfacing to the physical habitat in many ways and in some cases merging or overlapping with it. The key to realizing this will be the adoption of a software architecture based on a platform ecology like that of the World Wide Web rather than hermetic architectures which cannot freely scale or evolve.
When I refer to a piece of software as 'hermetic' what I mean is that it has a self-contained architecture where all the data and all the processing for it is contained -more or less- within a single computer program run by a single or small tightly and exclusively integrated cluster of computers. All programs are hermetic on some level, isolating their internal functions and limiting their interface to the rest of a computing environment. However, the number of functions contained by it, its internal complexity, and how well it can communicate with other programs can vary. For many applications a hermetic architecture is just fine. But groups of internally simple programs can often be used where a single very complex program would comprise all their functions, potentially allowing for a collective sophistication greater than can be contained by any single program due to the limits on effective complexity of software engineering. This, of course, is a basic tenet of design in the original UNIX environment where programmers were encouraged to develop applications from collections of simple programs so that software failures could be isolated and applications refined and expanded perpetually without the overhead of a total software overhaul and redistribution. However, this logical notion never quite caught-on with the software industry as a whole since its business models have generally been based on schemes for exploiting deliberate incompatibility and non-intercommunication as a means to lock-in market share, resulting in an industry that is pretty much a hierarchy of Ponzie schemes with OS producers at the top rather than a healthy industrial ecology like that of computer hardware. This is a key reason for software technology's tradition of a poor and worsening pace of progress relative to computer hardware technology.
It's easy to understand why a large hermetic system is unlikely to be effective for a large virtual environment. Imagine that a major city like New York, London, Hong Kong, or Tokyo was being recreated as a fully detailed computer simulation. Every structure and every observable phenomenon of daily life was going to be included in this simulation. And there could be an unlimited number of users of this simulation, accessing it through some kind of network viewing scheme. Now, if all that was contained in one database and processed by a single computer you would need a gigantic supercomputer of unimaginable processing speed, data storage capacity, and network bandwidth to do it. And if something changed in this simulation, like its software needing a repair or update, the whole simulation might have to be turned off to effect this change.
But suppose one took this same simulation and broke it up into relatively small elemental and geographic components. Let's say, one data file for a specific object like a tree, or a rock, or a building, and simpler programs handling all of one type of phenomenon -like the wind, or the growth of trees, or the motion of cars- for a one-block geographical area. And instead of funneling all the communication to and between users, they too could use a program of their own that does the work of composing the view of the simulation and mediating communication with other users within their field of view. Now you don't need one giant computer to do all this. You can let a collection of simple computers, each handling a portion of the simulation and in potentially different locations, run all these individual programs. And if software needs updating, well, only one program or file or one computer out of the group needs to be turned off. So the simulation as a whole never actually has to be turned off. In this way we've created a system of potentially unlimited scale. Adding more computers and data storage over its network as it grows, our simulation could expand from a city to a whole country or a whole world, becoming unimaginably complex and sophisticated collectively and yet all based on individual programs and computers that are themselves relatively small and simple.
This is what I call a 'platform ecology'. An ecology of independently operating and potentially independently developed and evolving pieces of software which establish an application platform by relying on a standardized but evolving system of intercommunication. Some might argue that this is the definition of an operating system, but, in fact, contemporary operating systems are merely 'meta-applications', hierarchical software structures which originated as a set of tools for disk and file management and now establish little more than a licensing Ponzie scheme for an elaborate and heavily patented user interface metaphor which usually complicates as much as it simplifies. Few people -software developers included- understand that operating systems are actually quite redundant and could be replaced by a few software elements so simple and generic in function most of them could be encoded in ROM and treated as part of a computer's BIOS. On the Internet there is no operating system. Computers and their programs communicate -quite robustly- over the network with complete independence of any meta-application -with the possible exception of the Domain Name Service network. Indeed, there is now a dimly understood but emerging trend in computing that promises to transform LANs, WANs, and the Internet into a 'backplane' that will allow for a new kind of personal computing based on nothing but network 'appliances' hosting Web based software, OSes replaced by Web browsers tailored to their specific user interface device but otherwise quite generic in function. The Internet is itself a kind of platform ecology, and that is one of the key reasons for its rapid pace of evolution compared to other areas of computing.
We already have an example of a specific and powerful application based on a platform ecology that works much like this imagined simulation system. The World Wide Web. The software architecture of the Web is so simple as to seem almost ridiculous compared to todays bloated operating systems and integrated application packages. In fact, originally it was nothing more than a derivative of the technology of the humble word processor to which was added the ability of 'hyperlinking' between documents with that hyperlinking then extended to cross networks. The key to its great potential is its reliance on elemental but largely independent, and independently created, software components that communicate freely over a passive network, thus they can function as a collective system of unlimited scale. Individually, these software elements sometimes fail. We have all experienced Web pages where things didn't work right because of our particular brand of browser or because a piece of data was corrupted in transmission. But yet the web as a whole never fails. Indeed, you CAN'T turn it off! A lot of foolish business people fantasize about the riches they might have had if they had invented the Web and controlled its use. But, in fact, the Web could never has existed like that. It would have been relegated to the role of just another kind of database tool for canned specialized data and that would have been the end of it. By having an architecture reduced to such independently developed elemental components spread freely over the Internet is was able to achieve a scale impossible for any other application prior to it. The Web would be nothing were it not for its scale, infinite diversity, and freedom of content creation, something which is far beyond the means of any single software developer or corporation to manage -just as no single company could hope to manage the full scale of research and development needed to realize the computer as it exists today. Today no one makes money 'from' the Web. They make money from how they use it, from providing services for people using it, creating content for it, and from making tools to enable people to use it. This way the work of development has become a global community endeavor. And, collectively, that represents a market bigger than any one corporation would ever be able to manage and an economy potentially of GNP scale.
This is how I anticipate the virtual habitat eventually going. Though it will likely take today's developers a long time to realize the logic of this paradigm -considering the history of primitive business models in the software industry to date- eventually the true scale of this application will compel the realization that a virtual environment as potentially as big as the Internet itself cannot be treated as a discrete product and we will see the emergence of a virtual habitat platform ecology driven -as the Web is- largely by the development of simple -one might say 'atomic'- components. The end result will be a quite simple software architecture reminiscent of both the Internet's infrastructure and the Webs and comparable in potential scale and ubiquity. I envision this platform ecology consisting of the following basic components;
Objects: Comprising most of the elements making up the physical environment of the habitat, these would be either static (meaning they have no changeable properties), persistent (meaning they have properties which can be changed through interaction with avatars and other objects), dynamic (meaning they have properties that constantly change independent of outside interaction), procedural (which means they have properties which are synthesized on-demand as a user's browser communicates with them), instance (which means they are generated and exist only temporarily for individual or small groups of users and may be non-existent or different for others), and characters. (dynamic/procedural objects which represent life forms and interactive characters) These would exist on the Internet in the form of static files hosted by servers, scripted files where the server or the users' browsers process some simple program associated with the objects, and object programs where discrete or collections of related objects -usually dynamic, procedural, and instance objects- run as self-contained programs behaving like servers.
Environment Servers: similar to -and perhaps originally the same as- contemporary Web servers used to host objects using static files and simple scripts. As with some Web servers, some may be based on sophisticated databases and scripting environments largely independent of the generic interface they present to the Internet as a whole, allowing them to individually manage large conjoined virtual environments with complex behavior scripting under a comprehensive content editing environment and to generate numerous instance environments -which we'll discuss a little more later. This will likely become a common form for commercially developed environments. As noted above, some environment servers would be focused on individual objects with some complex behavior rather than a collection of objects comprising an environment or portion of an environment.
Bots: a more advanced form of procedural object server which mimics the behavior and functions of an environment browser and used either to automatically traverse and analyze the content of the virtual habitat -much like the web crawlers used by today's Web search engines- or to present a character with complex behavior and a full-feature avatar like that of users. Most characters in the virtual habitat would be server based and so their interaction and mobility would be limited to the environment managed by their host servers and the user browsers they interact with. Their environmental 'awareness' is limited to that supported internally by their host browsers. Bots, however, would be completely free-roving autonomous agents which can traverse the virtual habitat like any user. Likely to be employed to some degree of nuisance, particularly as a marketing tool as has already been tried among the current Internet group communications platforms. Bots are precursors to future AIs which would exist in the virtual habitat in much the same form.
Utility Servers: servers which provide specialized services linked to but otherwise independent in function from the virtual habitat. The simplest and most obvious use would be time, date, and RSS information servers as well as map and index servers but also likely to be used as communications bridges to facilitate media streaming into the virtual habitat and to support links to personal communications services like telephone/video phone through objects within the virtual environment or through users' browsers. Could also see use for merchant services supporting virtual vending machines and virtual stores or play host to virtual auction systems, lotteries, gambling, and more. Could also provide in-habitat interfaces for the management of virtual environment content and hosting as well as control interfaces to real-world systems outside the virtual habitat -a key function for future AI inhabitants.
Environment Browsers: akin to Web browsers in basic design paradigm, these programs serve as the primary user interface to the virtual habitat, rendering real-time views of the virtual environment, mediating communication between users on a peer-to-peer basis, and acting as a temporary server for the data of users' avatars and shared data. Though not as large in scale as some software systems in the habitat would be, this is likely to become the single-most sophisticated piece of software in the habitat -at least until the advent of AI. It is also critically interdependent with specific hardware and personal computer platforms. Every mode of user interface -be it based on a simple personal computer screen and keyboard or based on a suite of immersive VR hardware, or based on future neural interface technology- will need a browser system matched to it. And there would be steady competition in the improvement of these browsers and the features rolled into them, especially in terms of support for avatar editing, control, and switching, environment map and index services, links to personal communications outside the virtual habitat, and support for advancing environment properties data formats and object scripting languages. They may also include temporary private space hosting systems and instance space loading and hosting for both shared on-line use and off-line use.
Spatial Management and Tracking Network: a collection of servers which perform a function similar to the Internet's Domain Name Service. Providing the critical functions of managing real estate and maintaining a tracking database for the spatial coordinates of all objects in the world-wide virtual habitat, the SM&T Network ties the virtual habitat into a cohesive whole. The Spatial Management side of the system functions much like today's Internic service and establishes persistent spatial use rights in the otherwise infinite and infinitely multi-dimentional virtual space. Virtual space is infinite but in public access regions of it connected relative space -adjacent space around existing objects in a connected/collective environment- is limited by the sphere of editing rights of object owners. A single person might own an infinite amount of space in an individual private 'dimension' but when many people are sharing the same space so that they can be connected together for public use the individual 'authors' of the space must be able to agree on common environment metaphors (more on that in a little bit) and the fair parceling of space in which to create what they wish. The Spatial Management network would facilitate this by providing a way of registering Internet-wide the use-rights to specific spaces and their association to specific Internet domains.
The Spatial Tracking side of this system is used to facilitate user access to the virtual environment through the spatial tracking of persistent objects. In hermetic VR systems a centralized object database maintains the spatial coordinates of objects. But the ultimate virtual habitat will have no centralized database and the spatial status for objects must be maintained by the many environment servers. How then does a browser know where everything is when a user first enters this space? The answer is by contacting a service which maintains a database of the dimensional coordinates and ownership Internet domains for the more persistent objects and currently active user's avatars. A user can then pick any location in the virtual space at random and the browser can contact the Spatial Tracking network to get a list of the most persistent (landmark) objects and users in their immediate field of view while simultaneously reporting its POV location. The browser then talks to all the individual servers and browsers associated with the stuff within that field of view region to get more up-to-date spatial information and info on objects not known to the Spatial Tracking network due to the lag in 'propagation' of the tracking info through the network. For instance, user avatars would be some of the most mobile and independent of entities in the virtual habitat so often tracking info would be out of date. This might lead to a user joining a group of users and not being able to see many of them because the tracking network doesn't yet know they are in that location. But if any other visible user's browser is aware of these other invisible ones, it will pass along that awareness to all others it's aware of peer-to-peer. Likewise, if one had a list of friends ones browser would always be aware of their status by continuous peer-to-peer updates.
Environment Editing Tools: these are the tools of environment crafting and object behavior scripting/programming and would ultimately become so numerous and sophisticated that they may comprise the lion's share of revenue generation in the virtual habitat. They would basically be designed for two modes of use; in-habitat and out. In-habitat tools would function through the browser as an extension of avatar functions or through objects linked to a utility server in the habitat. Out-of-habitat tools would function much like today's Web and 3D modeling programs. Avatar editing tools are likely to see the most competitive and rapid pace of development as avatar creation and editing is of most direct appeal to users as the basis of self-expression.
Now, some readers familiar with the history of Virtual Reality research and computer graphics may note that there are similarities here to the original concept behind VRML; the Virtual Reality Modeling Language which began development in the late 1980s with the intension of creating a Virtual Reality Web akin to the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, VRML was rather quickly relegated to the status of a little-used Open Source 3D object file format long before it could ever realize this purpose, the reason being that its developers were rather oblivious to the importance of socialization as the primary application of VR and neglected the development of shared environments and a robust VRML browser suited to that in favor of chasing after corporate support for a 'purposeless' technology. VRML browsers never got beyond the function of a single-user 'viewer' tool, sometimes embedded as a plug-in for existing Web browsers and vastly inferior in function to thinks like QuickTime VR, while VRML environments themselves never got beyond static 3D objects viewed one at a time. There is certainly a possibility that VRML could be resurrected as the basis of this new virtual habitat platform -it has been employed as a raw file format in some VR chat systems- but in the end it will not likely look anything close to what it started out as. The actual graphics formats used by the virtual habitat are important but relatively insignificant to the overall architecture of the environment and its mechanisms of object and user communication, which simply don't exist in current VRML. It is likely that the environment may evolve through a large variety of graphics formats on its way to an ultimate generic 'physical properties data format' (PPDF) that is completely independent of any specific graphics technology, relying instead on a predominately 'procedural' method of object rendering. (by 'procedural' I refer to the generation of object properties by algorithmic process rather than static file data, as in 'procedural textures' in the 3D modeling field and 'procedural behavior' in the simulation and gaming field) After all, when artificial intelligences ultimately appear in this environment as well as eventual neural interface technology the interface to this is not going to be based on any display-oriented graphics rendering. This environment will be experienced in essentially the same way our brain perceived the physical world through our five senses, using methods of encoding and modeling of physical properties we can't clearly envision at present since we're only just beginning to learn how the brain itself does this.
With some notion of the basic technology of the virtual habitat let's now consider the nature of the virtual environment itself. What will this place be like, how will we use it, and how will it effect our culture and civilization?
To begin, one must come to understand that the primary application driving the development of the virtual habitat now and for some time into the future is not some grandiose ultra-sophisticated application like designing spacecraft. navigating the esoterica of cosmology, or spelunking the depths of the subatomic realm but rather the humble yet largely misunderstood application of human socialization. An application that is as mundane as everyday life but as critical to our civilization as the languages we speak and whose subtle sophistication and economic significance are often overlooked by a professional community that often considers the human element beneath their concern. During the brief hey-day of Virtual Reality research in the late 1980s and early 90s, few of the many scientists, engineers, programmers, and corporate executives working with the technology would have predicted that by the turn of the century something they expected to transform the world overnight would be stripped down to a kind of 'VR-lite' and largely relegated to just two applications; engineering/scientific visualization and entertainment in the form of on-line games and group chat environments -and with entertainment responsible for orders of magnitude more R&D, profits, and numbers of users. VR was a concept that fell victim to its own glamour. Requiring a very long-term commitment to developing rather costly technology, It became so over-hyped that its expectations far surpassed anything that could be realistically developed near-term -if ever. It was also one of the very few instances where hardware technology actually lagged behind software, VR having to wait a decade for mainstream computers to catch-up to its basic graphics needs, due to lag in the development of graphics capability because of US computer industry long denial of its significance in personal computing through the late 70s and early 80s. Unable to realize critical cost and convenience breakthroughs in key technologies of user interface, VR struggled to find practical applications that corporate executives considered important enough to justify long term investment. Eventually characterized as a high-tech solution in search of non-existent problems, interest in the field waned over the late 90s and today the notion of fully immersive VR based on worn contraptions has become something of an anachronism even in contemporary science fiction. And yet it's impact on the design of computer games was very significant and plain to see today. The majority of computer games produced today are, technically, VR games even if they lack all the high-tech trappings of full immersion that folks like Jaron Lanier long pursued.
VR taught the computer game industry the power 3D graphics and a first-person-perspective, opening up a vast new area of user interface and interaction possibilities that have now begun to spill-over into the realm of personal communications, turning game environments into socialization environments. Ironically, back in the 80s it was the developers of pornographic computer games -toying with designs for interactive sex games- who understood the actual nature and potential of VR better than anyone else! Though we snicker at the notion of the computer as medium for sexual interaction -despite its actual prevalence- these folks foresaw the potential of VR as a medium of social interaction and understood where that always ultimately leads because of the human instinct to sexualize all mediums of communication. They anticipated the economic significance of the application of socialization long before the computing mainstream did.
Though it seems developers still remain behind the curve on this, the importance of socialization as a basic computing and communication application is steadily growing. And though early VR group chat platforms were dramatic failures due to designers lack of recognition of the important of user self-expression in socialization, VR chat now represents the single-most technically sophisticated application on the Internet and, despite the relatively primitive architectures in use at present, is likely to continue to progress. Wall Street. Madison Avenue. and Silicon Valley may still not quite get it, but socialization is what the Internet is really all about and that fact is going to strongly influence the shape of its future.
This evolution of a platform ecology based virtual habitat and the nature of the computer as socialization platform also anticipates a similar shift in the hardware architectures of the Internet and personal computing, probably over the same span of time. As I noted previously, the Internet is a kind of platform ecology that is now beginning to shape the personal computer to suit its dominant use and development trends. Contrary to the impression long created by marketing, the Internet came largely as a surprise to the personal computer and communications industry. It was originally created for an exclusive club of scientists and engineers with no expectation that it would have any general public applications. And so it emerged among a family of personal computing platforms that had long been designed around a largely isolated mode of use. Now the network server is replacing the 'workstation' as the dominant high performance class of computers and we are seeing a shift in personal computing design toward families of specialized networked 'appliances' as opposed to the Swiss Army Knife paradigm of traditional computer design. This will result in a similar 'atomization' of the architecture of the personal computer to suit a mode of increasingly flexible communication and information use more seamlessly integrated into daily life. Some pundits have suggested that the cell phone is tomorrow's personal computer. This is a valid analogy because we are entering an age of 'conversational computing', which refers not simply to a growing use of speech and audio driven user interfaces but also to a mode of use where the computer assumes a more passive in role in the user's interaction with information and communication. For a long time personal computing has been a 'special' activity, requiring special knowledge and facilities. Even the home computer required its own special kind of desk, a special room, special tools, special consumables, and special knowledge that the young always seemed to grasp much more easily than their parents. Computing was more about the technology than the use of information and communication. But now, thanks to the Internet, the trend of its use for socialization, and the nascent personal communications tools of the virtual habitat, how the computer integrates information and communication into our daily activities matters more than it's hardware statistics. The technology and its use are no longer special -and its quirkiness no longer tolerated. An Apple iPod or cell phone now matches the basic computing performance of first generation laptops and have become far more ubiquitous. These devices are more about the information and communication they support than the technology inside them. No one really cares about the CPU statistics of an iPod the way they obsess about this with desktop PCs because these are regarded as devices for casual access of simple information and other people as opposed to 'serious work'. In terms of their hardware performance, for these more self-contained application-specific devices good enough is good enough.
Tomorrow's personal and network computers will not be discrete devices but rather a networked environment of devices, each individually rather simple, self-contained, specialized in function, and increasingly hidden away into the infrastructure of the built environment but, collectively capable of much more in terms of possible scale and sophistication of use than the solitary box on a desk could hope to realize. It's Metcalf's Law embodied in the architecture of the computer itself. One can already do infinitely more with a networked hand-held tablet with a firmware based Web browser than one can do with a supercomputer devoid of any network connection. Our use and perception of the computer will come to revolve around a personal domain of information independent of any particular pieces of hardware. Information will come to have more concreteness than hardware because the hardware will constantly change while our personal information domains will stay with us -evolve with us- throughout life. Eventually -if not already for people like myself- the majority of our personal possessions will consist of information and will have more importance than any material goods.
The Low-Immersive Phase:
As the technology of virtual environments progresses toward the forms I've anticipated, we are likely to see several basic phases of development of the resulting virtual habitat, though it is also likely they may overlap to varying degrees. The low-immersive phase is where we are today, with the VR interface reduced to a mode based primarily on the conventional personal computer screen and simple graphics with the technology development focused largely on improving graphics with environments based predominately on highly structured multi-user games originating in the genre of fantasy adventure games. This phase will be marked by an evolution of convergence where simple games with closed environments evolve toward increasingly sophisticated, open, and interconnected socialization environments. VR group chat environments will eventually surpass (though probably not easily obsolesce) existing venues like IRC, ICQ, etc. as the most popular medium of casual socialization on-line depending on the robustness and convenience of their mechanisms of self-expression. Self-expression is the driving force here -and one very commonly overlooked by developers. Today we still see many older users favoring text based MUCK and MOO platforms based on 30 year old technology because text still offers an easier and greater means of self-expression than most current graphics based environments. Many first generation graphics chat platforms were utter failures because of their inadequate means of self-expression while some successful ones -The Palace being a prime example- destroyed themselves in 'upgrades' that ignorantly diminished the freedom of self-expression that originally made them successful. In general, success in current and future on-line games and chat platforms is always going to be contingent on ease and robustness of self-expression, though I fear we will continue to see companies learning this fact the hard way for some years to come.
As the kind of platform ecology I've envisioned for this slowly emerges, we will see the simultaneous emergence of a new industry of software and content development and network hosting services much like that created by the World Wide Web and working largely in parallel to it. As their software 'atomizes', virtual environments will begin to converge, linking up to each other and supporting a growing number of links to outside communications platforms. Traditional email and on-line chat platforms like IRC will link to the environments and eventually people will be using their telephones to call or exchange instant messages with friends within virtual environments. This may soon be followed by person-to-person video chat links into the environments where people on live video interact with other people's avatars. Already some VR chat systems have seen the creation of virtual discos and theaters where streaming Internet audio and video is communicated into the virtual environment. This is likely to expand with the virtual environment eventually having access to the full range of broadcast media.
Now, this may seem counter-intuitive. Why would people sit down in front of their computer screens to go into a virtual environment and sit down in front of another virtual screen to watch TV? The answer is because it can make the increasingly passive and solitary activity of watching TV into a participatory activity. There's an interesting social phenomenon now developing on the Internet that has been completely overlooked by the mainstream media industry. For some time mainstream TV shows like Star Trek and sports and movie broadcasts have inspired Internet savvy audience members to create virtual theaters in IRC where they could comment live to each other about the show as they watched it on TV. Now many people are creating their own Internet streamed TV shows with a live audience hosted on IRC. This 'breaks the fourth wall', as they say, by allowing direct live interaction between the audience and the people in the show when they are monitoring the IRC chat in their studio monitors. Using other Internet tools, these shows sometimes also feature live call-ins as well as 'art jams' where creative users create artwork during the show and send it by email for display on screen toward the show's end. This may evolve toward a host of other mechanisms of interaction and audience participation over time. This phenomenon has already spilled over into the nascent virtual environment with these shows being run in virtual theaters on platforms like Second Life, though at the moment there is no good communication out of these virtual environment and into the studio as there is with much simpler IRC. Soon this will likely be followed by live streaming TV shows hosted by VR characters from virtual studios within the virtual environments. (it would actually be a very simple trick today to broadcast a live TV show from within World of Warcraft or Second Life using avatars as 'puppet' hosts with voices from live audio streams. A team of people from around the globe could thus come together virtually to make a live show) Again, the porn industry was surprisingly far ahead of the curve! Live sex shows where audience interacts with the performers and control cameras are quite common and were some of the first applications for this technology!
Such a phenomenon is likely to diverge in interesting ways. For instance, we may see the creation of Internet TV shows for the purpose of offering live commentary and group interaction among an audience of people watching yet another TV show! For example, one can imagine some 'prime time event' on mainstream TV spawning a live commentary show on the Internet with the audience watching the main show on room TVs and the commentary show on their computer. Similarly, we are likely to see the interface to virtual habitats evolve toward supporting group user interfacing. One flaw with today's multi-user on-line games is that, while they allow multi-user play, they don't allow for multiple users in the same location. So there's no 'local group interaction' as there is with traditional non-computer games. Some computer game designers in the late 1970s and early 80s attempted to address this with the design of computer based board games where the computer screen replaced the traditional game board. But this tactic proved ineffective because the computer screen was small and not designed for group activity. The concept needed table displays which did not then -and still do not- exist as mainstream products. This problem was tackled in the 90s with the emergence of gaming 'LAN parties' but this tactic requires the setup of home LANs with multiple computers taking up much space. The future offers the prospect of this sort of group activity with much less elaborate and costly arrangements using such things as small room space 'merging' based on virtual window wall and CAVE displays-which we will discuss in more detail shortly. There has long been an overlooked counter-trend in passive entertainment toward its transformation into a group activity, often used on weekly or monthly schedules to maintain circles of friends -something the Asians with their Karaoke have long understood but which Westerners are just catching onto.
All this will eventually lead to a largely unified virtual environment with a dimensionally complex landscape organized into three basic types of spaces or 'domains'; public access domains, private domains, and exclusive domains. Public access domains are spaces intended for free and public access and would be organized into areas of private or exclusive community space ownership/management. (meaning that while they may be free to access, only the designated owners/managers have full freedom to craft their features, sharing that ability to varying degrees at their discretion -just like the creation and maintenance of web sites) Some public spaces would be semi-private; it's in the public access domain but enclosed by structures in some way so as to make access to or visibility of what's going on within restricted. This might be used with simulated houses and apartments. Essentially, its the sort of arrangement we see with platforms like today's Second Life. This arrangement would be preferred over true private spaces where the systems hosting the virtual environment offer more performance or communications convergence than solely-owned server computers can, though in general these would make more sense as temporary use meeting spaces than any permanent virtual dwelling as private domains are superior in terms of personal privacy and creative freedom.
Public domain space is meant to be interconnected but in a virtual habitat this is complicated by differing environmental metaphors. An environmental metaphor is a set of physics and aesthetics that define the basic character of an environment. For instance, the current Second Life metaphor is an 'island' metaphor where the world consists of islands of different sizes in a basically flat plane symbolized by an ocean and with a simple system of gravity tied to that plane. Other environments may use a 'microgravity' metaphor where everything is in a zero-g space, perhaps simulating Earth orbit, hosting 3D structures and where gravity is optional and local -perhaps tied to vectors associated with structures but not necessarily limited to one gravity force vector. (in other words, there's only gravity near a planar structural surface while those surfaces don't all have to be on the same plane aligned the same way -like the artificial 'gravity deck' plates of science fiction) Other environments might simulate the deep undersea ocean; with a uniform but weak gravity vector and fluid dynamic resistance on motion. And yet still other environments might simulate some kind of underground space where everything consists of tunnels and chambers carved out of an infinite expanse of strata. As you can see, these different environment metaphors aren't all directly compatible and limit the design of simulated modes of transportation so public spaces may limit the architectural design of directly connected territories to only what works for the overall metaphor. Other spaces would thus remain visually and spatially separate and accessible by 'teleport' or via decorative linking portals placed in strategic locations in each environment.
Private domains are those created by a specific user and run on servers they own or rent hosting space from and would work much the same way in their ability to use different metaphors but, being private, they would be generally invisible and disconnected from public domain spaces and accessible only by point-to-point teleport or the keyed portals. (keyed portals would be a kind of universal portal where the user carries an access key object or uses a key code to access specific places) Their size, complexity, features, and effective number of users would be dependent primarily on the storage and processing capacity of the computers owned or rented by the individual and their respective network bandwidth. Owners of these private spaces might link them together in various ways -both between private spaces and to public spaces- and share rights to environmental editing but they would be generally intended as exclusive to one person and their invited friends. In the future people may judge their social connectedness by the scale of the collective private virtual environment they have access to. Private domains are likely to represent a potential consumer market for 'canned' environments; rooms and spaces pre-created or made-to-order and purchased and freely swapped in-and-out of use. Some users may treat their private spaces as an elaborate hobby project like a model train layout or a personal work of art but many may only want a few simple rooms or sets to serve as meeting places in tune with their mood at any time.
Exclusive access domains would be those intended to limit access and use to an exclusive community -usually 'paying customers' or 'staff'. These domains would be elaborate environments hosting many characters and themes and designed primarily for various forms of 'pay-as-you-go' entertainment, often for the kinds of games now common with todays multi-user on-line games and where avatars are controlled to be appropriate to the game theme and environment design based on exclusive programming and artwork, often with everything sharing a consistent aesthetic style and possibly a single artist/designer. Intended to generate a profit, these environments will often feature the latest in server technology, the largest network bandwidth, and the most sophisticated in environment design and programming. Other exclusive domains may be intended as business-related meeting spaces, as virtual galleries to showcase things for customers, or serve for actual group work activities such as engineering and design visualization for a dispersed work team. Such environments would be typically hosted on company-owned computers and use more sophisticated security technology such as biometric systems at the users' locations. However, Cyberpunk fantasies notwithstanding, there are likely to be very few such high security uses of the virtual habitat in this phase.
A special form of exclusive access or private domain that is also likely is the instance space. An instance space is a temporary virtual environment created for a single or select group of users and exists only for as long as it is occupied. The concept originates with early on-line games which were multi-user but not multi-player or massively-multi-player. (or to put it another way, it hosts a few simultaneous players but not many) Such games would create instances of the game environment on demand so every user or small group of users had all the features of the game to themselves and the game servers needed only to host processing for those users actively on-line. The catch, of course, is that if there was any kind of 'persistence' of things in the environment over the time the user was off-line, the data for it needed to be stored by the user's own computer. Later early graphic chat platforms like The Palace adopted this concept as a simple mechanism to offer users who couldn't afford their own servers the ability to make private rooms. With rooms consisting basically of a background picture, users could go to an index room and pick the style of room that appeared to them, click a button, and the room would be created with their name on it. They then had control over who could come and go into this room which would persist as long as one person occupied it. Current MMORPGs use instance environments as a way to prevent competition from an otherwise large group of simultaneous users. Accessible through special portals, instances are created when one person or a party enters the portal at which point they are alone to encounter whatever monsters, puzzles, and treasures there are to be found. Instance spaces are -for obvious reasons-normally isolated from the rest of a virtual environment but can have limited forms of connection. For instance, one could create a virtual hotel with an infinite number of rooms created as instances that all share the same few live window views. The interiors of the rooms are invisible from the outside but they can all stream the same live view of the outside -one of the interesting aspects of a dimensionally unlimited environment. Instance spaces are likely to be very popular as a means to create non-persistent private meeting or game spaces without a user needing to have their own permanent servers or do any elaborate crafting of the environment. Functions for this may be featured in both servers and environment browsers functioning as temporary servers and such 'prefab' instance spaces may be traded and sold just like any other tradable objects. Indeed, since they could potentially contain as sophisticated a level of programming as anything else in the environment, they could become the basis of single and multi-player games and comprise environments of large scale with virtual characters of great complexity. This is likely to become quite popular with adult entertainment based specifically on virtual characters.
As the tools of virtual environment crafting become more accessible and the virtual habitat increases in scale, dispersing over the Internet as a whole, a problem will emerge which has already become common on the nascent text-based virtual environments of old MUCK and MOO platforms and has already started to appear on those few current VR chat platforms with more staying-power. It's something I refer to as the Ghost Town Effect. As the Internet's first form of complex virtual environment, text-based environments had a modest learning curve for the crafting of those environments. But virtual architecture was extremely simple to design because, based on the simple technology of text adventure games, it was composed of networks of text descriptions defining unit spaces linked by cardinal direction word links or other keywords. You didn't need to be an artist to make these. You just needed to be able to describe things clearly. So once one learned the simple scripting method, one could easily and quickly create impossibly vast and complex environments. Allowing their users free-reign in the creation of such environments to encourage participation, this often resulted in early flurries of creative activity which would ultimately produce virtual environments so large and complex they went far beyond what even the maximum possible number of users the servers could support would ever be able to use. Meanwhile, without any mechanism to dynamically map environments, the simple navigation systems employed in these platforms were limited to simple static menus of default locations or automatic lists based on current user populations one could 'teleport' to using keywords. The end result was impossibly huge environments accounting for thousands of hours of user creativity, consuming considerable mass storage space, where, at any given time, the entire user population could be found in the same small handful of locations. Wander off the 'beaten track' of these environments and you could easily get lost in elaborately detailed but empty environments few others had ever seen and which you would be hard-pressed to ever find again except through random wandering. We can see similar phenomenon in IRC where the 'channel lists' may be huge and diverse in topic but only the same few general topic channels actually attract people. Occasionally MUCKs and MOOs have tried to overcome their Ghost Town problem by creating and publishing comprehensive maps of their environments, usually done in a flow-chart form. Some later users would find it fascinating to explore the little-known depths of these environments and their countless forgotten spaces. But the environments generally proved too fluid for this kind of mapping to be done manually and no automated systems were ever developed. These environments might have an older more stratified core of spaces but a constantly changing collection of newer spaces and no dimensional limits on where new and old space might be linked relative to each other in the collective network of spaces. So such home-made maps were always obsolete as soon as they were completed.
Why do these ghost towns develop? Because these environments are not about their architecture, they're about socialization and, though individuals like to exercise their creativity in crafting environments, people invariably want to be where other people are while tending to congregate at default access points or key navigational nexuses in the environment as these are simply the first place one enters the environment. Indeed, one of the humorous phenomenon common to these environments is the 'teleport pad pile-up'. Often borrowing on science fiction and fantasy metaphors, the designers of these environments would often create teleport pads, foyers, entry halls, and so on as discrete teleport entry points so they could attach room indexes, local patron rules signs, or age or access key checking security scripts to them. But as default entry and exit points these would invariably wind up collecting masses of people who just never stepped into the main rooms they were considered to be entrances for. Imagine a starship Enterprise where the party never gets out of the transporter room!
Often the handful of default gathering locations would migrate according to social attractors. People don't always congregate to the locations of maximum population even though they are attracted to places where other people are. Even in a text environment, too much conversation gets too 'noisy' and hard to follow. In VR environments you have an additional problem of locations being limited by bandwidth so that as populations increase in one location performance of graphics rendering, environment feedback, and communication all degrade. Novelty is also a factor. New is often instinctively appealing but not necessarily persistently. There is a constant tug of war between the novelty of the new and the comfort of familiarity in the old. So in the text based environments you would usually see a few long lasting primary gathering points and several lesser persisting satellite gathering points for the spill-over of people fleeing these problems. Often the focus of these secondary locations would be circles of friends who create or adopt a location as a 'hang out' a level more socially/culturally exclusive than the main locations. Any social group spontaneously creates its own rules distinct from larger groups. This or that topic or behavior is allowed or disallowed relative to the larger group. This or that choice of fashion is popular. But if these people brought in enough of their friends over time, they would grow into main gathering points and sometimes obsolesce others. The managers of restaurants, night clubs, and discotheques are all quite familiar with these sorts of phenomenon, which they seek to address -because they have to compete to turn a profit- through constant tuning, renovation, and relocation of their businesses. As the designers of virtual habitat become more social-savvy similar strategies may develop.
In these text based environments we often see an evolution in the focus of user creativity, the fascination with environment crafting among users giving way to avatar crafting, allowing some of these older virtual environments to obsolesce and discard old real estate without much complaint from users, many of whom have long since abandoned the platform in favor of other pursuits. People create to show-off. Among first adopters of these platforms there was a tendency to regard them as DIY adventure game building kits, inspiring people to create elaborate environments to attract and entertain as many people as possible. Then eventually these users would come to realize -as they and the culture of the environment matured and they found their latest elaborately detailed architecture being ignored by most users- that the socialization was more important than the creation of their own personal theme parks or games. What they could do with their avatars in terms of expression and interaction would then become much more interesting as that was something that always went wherever they were and thus was always on display with them. A common pattern among the more creative users was a flurry of environment crafting, followed by a flurry of object and avatar scripting when they got bored with the environment, then a diversification of avatars suiting different moods and role-playing themes, and finally a settling down to one or a small handful of avatars, scripted object 'toys', and locations that became the most 'comfortable' to socialize with. This whole cycle would start over again when someone introduced some new platform offering some new creative possibility, such as graphics, luring users away with novelty.
We are already beginning to see this Ghost Town Effect and these related phenomenon appear in some VR chat environments like Second Life where users have a lot of creative freedom. But in the VR environment the mass storage overhead of object and architecture data is much higher. With their current primitive software architectures, the for-profit businesses maintaining these environments must foot the bill for all the data storage for everything users create whether they get much use or not, which can push the management of these systems to a cost-effectiveness breaking-point -and god help them if they are forced to start purging data for objects users had to 'buy' to own! This, again, looks like a situation that could encourage the development of the kind of virtual habitat platform architecture I've described. With that kind of distributed platform a lot of this overhead in little used real estate and object data is dispersed to the computers owned by users themselves and confined to private domain space that is typically disconnected from public access spaces. The Ghost Town uselessly taking up space in the ultimate virtual habitat will be mostly in private domain space. We can also expect the development of more dynamic mapping technology akin to today's Web search engines which will use abstract graphic representations for the virtual habitat's multi-dimensional space. Public access spaces may employ files of 'metainformation' to facilitate this, trying to make their locations more appealing when they appear in these dynamic maps by being enhanced with graphic icons or offering pop-up web-page-like information pages with detail images, descriptions, music, live occupant status information, and interfaces for key/ticket access purchases for those exclusive access environments. There may also appear a new form of hacking in the form of people taking up the illicit hobby of 'spelunking' private domain spaces so they can examine and document these spaces, steal from them, or vandalize them. However, if the trend of atomized software continues this sort of thing may become more difficult over time. In general, it's operating systems that create the security holes for hackers, much less often the much less complex server software.
Later in this phase we will also see the development of a new class of public access and exclusive access domains called 'merged spaces'. This is where the low-immersion and immersive phases would begin to overlap. Merged spaces would be based on the use of special user interface technology that allows for a kind of passive merging of select spaces in both the physical habitat and virtual habitat, allowing, for instance, a room in the physical habitat to be simultaneously represented in the virtual habitat with activity in both virtual and physical realms simultaneously mirrored between both versions of the space. The first form of this we are likely to see are simple 'virtual window-wall' systems originally developed as a kind of video teleconferencing system but repurposed to provide the same sort of window interface to virtual environments. After this is something I refer to as 'theater' and 'arena' spaces. These are spaces where a kind of stage area is created in one habitat and an audience space in another. This might take the form of CAVE (computer assisted virtual environment) systems composed of an enclosure of display screens that project a surrounding view of the virtual habitat while video cameras track users inside the space and project their image like video or transpose it onto avatars onto a stage space in the virtual environment. Inversely, stages in the virtual habitat might be projected by a set of volumetric displays in the center of a viewing theater in the physical habitat while simultaneously video cameras record a surrounding view of the audience to a space around the virtual stage. These two tactics could be elaborated into complex structures of variously merged spaces for the purpose of casual interaction with the virtual habitat, usually in public spaces in the physical habitat. For instance, one might make a kind of habitat walk-through akin to those used in zoos and aquariums where people can take a stroll through a projected virtual environment. In some cases small display spaces might be expanded in the virtual area they can encompass through the use of 'scrolling floor' systems -something which has already been explored today and might be usable for public installations in the future. (though one might also employ a similar tactic based on body gesture tracking where people simply pretend to walk or run while remaining stationary in a mime-like fashion) In an early article I wrote on the digital infrastructure of Aquarius I depicted a similar technology to this used to create large virtual aquariums/vivariums where residents of Aquarius could entertain themselves walking through virtual environments and interacting with AI fantasy and cartoon characters.
A later and more robust form of merging would rely on the ubiquitous use of eventual eyeglass or contact lens displays and wearable cell phone technology with very high resolution position tracking. This would represent one of the early forms of human cybernetic augmentation, supporting a mode of communication that may, farther in the future, become so ubiquitous in use as to justify permanent systems implantation for some users. First employed as a way of making access to the virtual habitat more convenient and to afford information services and marketing by applying HUD-like virtual graphics enhancements to locations and objects in the physical habitat (imagine museum exhibits that come with their own virtual captions or HUD-like navigation system that helps you find your way through a large building or city), this technology may eventually be used to allow a merging of large regions of the physical habitat by their simultaneous real-time modeling in the virtual habitat.
For example, let's imagine Trafalgar Square as a large area merged space. The area around the square would be surrounded in high resolution motion tracking systems and an array of video cameras (OK, so it's the Paranoia Central of London and it already is so equipped for other reasons...) which map all the people and objects in the square at any time so that a continuously updated computer model of it could simultaneously be generated in the virtual habitat as a public access domain. For people without the 'augmentation' of these eyeglasses or contact lenses the square would look as it always does. But for people wearing those devices it would appear very different, suddenly increased in population by the number of visitors to it in the virtual version of the square and perhaps decorated with a host of physics-defying signs, objects, or even buildings that only exist in the virtual habitat. Some people in the physical habitat version of the square who are also using these devices might also look different too when seen using this augmented vision as their normal appearance could be replaced by their virtual avatars. That short round man by the bus stop might suddenly look like the personification of Horus Re and the flighty girl running around nearby might suddenly become an equally flighty fairy chasing a pet mini-dragon. Just as it is now common today for people with wearable cellphones to hold conversations with distant people in public, in the future we may have to get used to holding conversations with invisible people immediately around us -something we used to regard as a sign of psychosis! However, as I've described in previous articles, it's also likely for wearable cell phone technology to evolve to the use of sub-lingual communication so these conversations with the virtual habitat may be conducted in silence, though VR display users would still be seen peculiarly looking around and gesturing at objects others cannot normally see.
Another space merging technology that is currently speculative but looks increasingly likely is free-space holography. A common fixture of science fiction usually based on rather physics-defying imaginary technologies, in the past couple of years there has actually emerged a promising technology for this in the form of scanned IR laser induced ambient air plasma. Just as electricity in neon gas induces the emission of light, it has been discovered that converging IR laser beams can also produce a point-light in ambient air. By scanning this point of beam convergence an image can be drawn in the air in the same fashion as an image on a television screen -and this at energy levels that present no particular hazard to people putting their hands through these projected 3D images. Currently extremely low in resolution and unable to support any variation in colors, this technology could soon progress to point and color resolutions competitive with contemporary video. This would initially be employed in simple table-top displays and possibly 'virtual video' systems that reduce the scale of hardware needed to project a large area display. Eventually it may be employed in virtual space merging through holographic projection rooms relying on over-head laser projectors. The performance of this technology is not likely to ever compare to the fantasy technology of Star Trek's 'holodeck'. Images will always be rather ghost-like as they rely on luminosity rather than the optical reflection of conventional matter and interaction with them will be limited as physical proximity can interfere with the scanned beams that produce them. But the technology is likely to compete with conventional displays in many applications and could produce some rather interesting merged space installations.
Space merging will likely remain a fairly expensive technology for some time and these technologies would still be devoid of means for tactile interaction. Though we can expect a lot of experimentation in tactile feedback long-term, for a long time the virtual habitat in general will probably be limited to a primarily audio-visual environment with the vast majority of users relying on little more than normal computer displays, eyeglass displays, and virtual window walls for interaction. For a long time to come computer use is going to be a primarily sit-down activity and though it may not look like it at present, the future of truly portable computing is probably more audial based than visual as nascent AI driven by trends in cell phone use evolves to support a more conversational mode of computer interaction. This doesn't mean that a great deal of simulated physical interaction between avatars and objects would not be common but there would be no actual tactile feedback except in the rare cases of special installations of elaborate force-feedback gadgetry and the rare user willing to spend considerable amounts of money on this. During the hey-day of Virtual Reality research the concept of 'tactile suits' that people could wear to experience the sensation of physical contact in the virtual environment was quite popular and assumed to be realizable just around the corner. But in reality the technology for this never did pan-out. Most notions of how this was supposed to work were actually in defiance of physics because mechanisms that are attached to the body can simulate the sensation of minor touch pressure but cannot simulate actual force. If you were wearing a tactile suit and someone in the virtual environment gave you a friendly slap on the back you might feel the touch but none of the force. Likewise, if you tried to lean against a wall or sit on a chair in the virtual environment you could feel where these objects touch the body, but that wouldn't stop you from falling through them! A wearable device cannot simulate actual kinematics. Perhaps the only way to even come close to an actual full tactile and kinematic system would be to combine a tactile suit with a fully spherical web of hundreds to thousands of tension cables that provide dynamic force feedback -and even then the force simulation would be limited, incomplete, or unrealistic. It's hard to imagine such a technology ever being made cheap, reliable, and convenient, or even compact enough to fit in the average home! For this reason I anticipate that the immersion phase of virtual habitat development may depend on the development of a very different technology; a neural interface technology that can effectively simulate all sensory aspects by going straight to the brain.
The Immersive Phase:
The development of a means of direct neural interfacing has long been the Holy Grail of Virtual Reality research, though truth be told very few people in the computer industry have seriously pursued it. Relegated to something in the 'distant future', neural interface research has been hampered by the largely impenetrable nature of the neuroscience field, being the province of medicine's traditional orthodoxy and not something that is open to -or safe for- the casual 'hacking' of the midnight engineer. However, enabled by the modern cultural notion of brain as computer as well as new computer-aided technologies of passive analysis, contemporary neuroscience has been able to move beyond the voodoo theories of consciousness of early 20th century psychology into a phase of active reverse-engineering of the brain as an information technology. In recent years this has produced dramatic breakthroughs in understanding how the brain processes information and we are at last approaching a knowledge of the exact encoding of information in the brain and from the senses. This, coupled to the advancing and diversifying technologies of live neural imaging points to a relatively near-term realization of means to communicate with the brain in ways that by-pass our normal senses, allowing digital devices to replace sensory organs in the disabled and potentially allowing us to hijack the mind's interface to reality to allow it to experience a synthetic reality instead, in parallel with the physical reality as a form of merged space or sensory augmentation or in isolation of it as a means of total sensory interface to virtual environments.
There are basically two ways one can accomplish this; non-invasive and direct interface. Both will see development in parallel but the former is likely to see the first and most use as the basis of new personal communications, computer interfacing, and entertainment technology. Non-invasive interface is achieved by the use of projected energy to both scan the neurological status of the brain and to induce tightly controlled neural stimulation without surgically invading the body. In effect, the brain is read and written to almost like todays optical memory devices. Already common for passive analysis purposes with devices like today's CAT and MRI scanners, engineering of these devices will likely reveal their increasing potential to induce as well as detect neural states as their resolutions increase. Already there have been various experiments with gross but localized neural stimulation by magnetic field, resulting in systems that can produce entoptic visions like those produced by various hallucinogenic substances, artificial epiphany-like religious experiences, or induce hallucinations mimicking the scenarios of late 20th century-style alien abductions and the 'follower' illusions reported by mountaineers, hunters, and hikers for centuries. Though this technology will probably not soon be able to read and write data to the brain like a computer disk drive, it looks likely that it will relatively soon be able to create user interfaces for external devices and insert artificial sensory information either in parallel to the normal senses or by co-opting those senses.
The drawback, however, is that these kinds of neural interface devices will probably remain very large and expensive for a long time to come, leaving them with much the same problem faced by circa 1980s VR interface technology; hardware too expensive for their development to be taken seriously for anything but 'serious' applications when the only actually profitable applications are entertainment based. Only very wealthy users may be able to afford second or third generation units for personal home use. However, just as costly computer graphics technology first saw use in entertainment through pay-as-you-go arcade game machines, so too may this technology see its mainstream public entertainment use become cost-effective in a similar way. Some readers may recall a short-lived company called The Adventurers Society which, in the late 1980s, installed multi-million-dollar networked VR based motion simulators for group gaming in walk-in game parlors. The business model worked, though the machines had a high maintenance overhead making for slim profit margins, were quickly obsolesced by advancing home console and personal computer graphics when they probably required a 5-10 year duty life to pay for themselves, and the company was never able to implement a promised diversification of games beyond their first one that would have increased customer traffic by broadening their demographic appeal. Today this approach has been largely absorbed by theme park developers where VR based simulators of increasing scale and sophistication have become prime attractions in competition with conventional thrill rides, though they have a high rate of obsolescence because of the specialization in their design.
Considering this, I've envisioned the eventual mainstream public access to second or third generation non-invasive immersive VR by similar means through the creation of store-front businesses and theme-park based facilities which offer pay-as-you-go access to the interface units. These still large units would function in a near-total sensory co-opting mode where the user is kept in a kind of 'lucid dream' state of consciousness that allows them to shift between physical and virtual body awareness with a little deliberate concentration. The units would appear rather like a cross between an MRI machine and a Japanese capsule hotel unit and would be similarly stacked into arrays along walls for customer access using key-cards. Intended primarily for entertainment, these units would be associated with a special set of exclusive access domain virtual games and attractions that are fully equipped for the new mode of multi-sensory 'rendering' these systems would use compared to the rest of the virtual habitat. These Dream Salons, as they might come to be called, would have a low operating overhead relative to the basic cost of the machines because they would be rather solid-state despite their large size leading to low maintenance. And since the scale of this technology would not change dramatically for a long time their long term amortization is more practical. Their staff would probably have a level of training akin to the workers in tanning salons. Less specialized than today's VR attractions and with access to the whole Internet-wide virtual habitat, they may be less prone to quick obsolescence and find use in a large assortment of public facility settings; walk-in store fronts, dedicated buildings, theme parks, resort hotel rooms, etc.
While this rather inconvenient mode of use will likely hamper the pace of advance of support for this new mode of multi-sensory immersion (software for it will long be almost exclusively produced for-profit due to a high development overhead and deployed in pay-as-you-go exclusive access domains) it is not entirely a bad thing that access to this technology will be constrained for some time because of the extremely seductive nature of this kind of sensory experience. Though current concerns over the 'addictive' nature of Internet use have been rather overblown by a sensationalist news media, those with latent addictive tendencies or other forms of mental illness have turned Internet use into a focus for addictive/compulsive behavior. And we live in an age today where, by some estimates, one in four Americans suffers from some form of mental illness with the majority never diagnosed -especially the higher their social status. By fully co-opting sensory input to the brain, non-invasive immersive VR not only offers a much more visceral experience of the virtual environment, it offers an alternative experience of an individual's body image through substitution of a fully tactile virtual avatar -a body image freely sculpted to one's desires. A peculiarity of civilization is that human beings have never been satisfied with the bodies nature provided them. We are always wishing to improve something about our own bodies. And this sense of dissatisfaction has increased almost proportionally to the level of civilization's technological sophistication, being expressed in the culture in countless ways from the whims of clothing fashion to body modification through piercings, tattoos, and sometimes radical and painful procedures. And this cultural effect has had a feedback on our evolution since reproductive opportunity is often keyed to conformity to cultural aesthetic standards. Today the cultural sense of body image dissatisfaction is so acute people are not only uncomfortable with their bodies, they are often uncomfortable with their genders and even their species! And with this new technology they will have the ability to temporarily experience any kind of body they want along with a host of physics-defying abilities such as flight, fatigue-less freedom of movement, super-human sexual performance, and so on. So there may really be a danger of addiction here and a cultural influence we cannot fully predict. We may ultimately be thankful for the extra time to culturally and psychologically adapt this initial delay in the ubiquity of the technology afforded us.
Direct neural interface is, of course, based on the direct wiring-up of the brain to a computer interface of some kind. A common fixture of contemporary science fiction, this concept will be much more difficult to achieve than the non-invasive interface and will likely take much longer to develop in a safe practical form. But, when the technology does afford it, it will likely become its cheapest and most convenient form. The common -but rather nonsensical- science fiction image of this technology is of a surgically implanted 'jack' which people plug computer cables into. Simpler earlier forms of the technology intended for the interface of devices to replace discrete sensory organs may employ something akin to this approach, but will generally be very limited in scope of interface. The truly practical and mainstream form of this technology is likely to involve a small collection of tiny systems (because the human brain has no centralized data communication 'backplane') installed at sensory loci where sensory organs interface to the brain and can have their input supplemented or co-opted. These would be linked by wireless communications to transponders worn like jewelry -if those are needed at all. This kind of technology is almost certainly going to be dependent upon a robust medical nanotechnology with these devices fabricated-in-place rather than surgically implanted and relying on the human body itself as a power source. And so, when it does become available, the procedure -though protracted- would be totally painless. No SciFi nonsense about killer feedback or overloads or other such dangers. The hazards of this technology would be purely psychological and associated with the addictive nature of this kind of total sensory interface. But at the level of technology required for fabricating this kind of device, mental illness in general may be a much reduced public health problem by virtue of the use of earlier passive neural interfacing expanding of the knowledge about neural structure and mental illness and this same medical nanotechnology's potential to directly compensate for subtle neural deformities and chemical imbalance, thus reducing or eliminating the problem addictive tendencies among multi-sensory immersion interface users.
By the time this technology becomes available non-invasive multi-sensory immersion interface devices will likely be as cheap and common as personal computers and compact enough to fit into special lounge chairs. But the direct interface will offer distinct advantages. The non-invasive interface can only function when a user's head is generally very still. (early systems will likely employ a cradle head restraint while later systems may be capable of small movement tracking compensation) Thus it would function best in a situation of total sensory co-opting that allows the user's body to be kept prone and inactive. The direct neural interface will be fully portable and indifferent to any movement short of that which would induce a concussion -and probably damage the interface- and offer the ability to replace worn devices for visual and audio interface so that a user can employ the system to communicate with a variety of devices and employ varying degrees of immersion according to their activity. This would be used for everything from casual wireless communication with nearby digital devices and networks as well as cell-phone conversation, to the use of space merging, to total sensory immersion into the virtual habitat. This technology is also likely to offer a performance enhancement in terms of the resolution of the sensory communication. Early users of non-invasive multi-sensory immersion may readily notice a kind of sensory 'clipping' where the synthetic vision may be pixilated as with a digital display and the variations in sensations non-linear, this due to the limited resolution in the control of neural-triggering by dynamically scanned projected energy. This will improve over time but may persist in some form for all but the largest and most expensive interface systems -since it takes considerable energy to penetrate the body while, as a general rule of electrical engineering, finer control tends to favor lower energy levels. Direct interfacing may completely eliminate this with potentially less cost than the cheapest of future non-invasive systems. Thus as public acceptance of medical nanotechnology progresses, direct interface may fully obsolesce non-invasive interface and become as commonplace as the cell phone is today.
The advent of neural interface technology is not likely to produce any dramatic changes in the general organization and use of the virtual habitat. Rather, the personal experience of that environment will change, slowly, as the availability of this kind of technology approaches ubiquity and the collective virtual environment adopts data standards able to fully exploit the more robust sensory experience. This will eventually lead to a more sophisticated virtual environment design as it must now incorporate a broader sensory spectrum into its aesthetics. Over time this may alter some aspects of virtual environment design since it would encourage progressively longer duration 'visits' to the virtual habitat leading to a need for environment design to accommodate comfortable or engaging use for much longer periods. Initially, though, full support of multi-sensory immersion will be limited to a handful of environments quite separate from the rest of the virtual habitat; exclusive access domain spaces, 'canned' instance spaces, and private domain spaces built from these. While the devices would allow full access to the general virtual habitat, most of it will not offer any better an experience than with previous technology except in terms of the user experience of his own avatars and those of other multi-sensory 'enabled' user's avatars. Wide adoption of Dream Salon use may increase the pace of this advance but the overall 'upgrade' of the virtual habitat may be slow. It's a situation likely to be reminiscent of the early introduction of HDTV which actually saw the new but extremely costly TV sets available decades before more broadcasters and video producers began to seriously support it.
As the availability of more multi-sensory environments and entertainment increases we may begin to see people engaging in extended vacations within the virtual habitat, disconnecting only for meal, bathing, exercise, and bathroom breaks. (their computers cautioning them if they seem to exhibit any compulsive/addictive behavior patterns) Some environments may be specifically designed for this kind of use -a virtual tourism that leverages the limited access to early expensive neural interface devices, perhaps resulting in variants of Dream Salons designed for extended stays with the use of full size hotel rooms. Farther along, we may begin to see some people -more often those with very severe irreparable disability/deformity- employing the virtual habitat as a kind of primary residence through nearly continuous interface, affording them a superior quality of life than they could have in our commonly discriminatory culture. There are hints of this phenomenon already, with the Internet having opened up a world of social interaction and employment opportunity long denied the disabled segment of the population -NOT by virtue of any power of connectivity but -ironically- from the simple anonymity afforded by Internet communications that has allowed the disabled to skirt our normally visually-driven perceptions and thus put them on more of an equal social footing with able-bodied.
With the advent of direct neural interface and its much greater use convenience, there will emerge a growing segment of the population -perhaps a generation- that is increasingly intimately connected to the computing and communications infrastructure around them, their lifestyle relying on a growing diversity of passive AI augmentation and their days spent in continuous conversation with people around the globe as they shift constantly, and to varying degrees, between the physical and virtual habitats. These people will truly live in a much larger and more complex world than any previous human beings.
The AI Phase:
The AI phase -which could possibly emerge concurrent to the immersive phase as a consequence of neural interface research's impact on AI development- is likely to produce a host of advances in the technology of the virtual habitat and significant changes in its scale and character. We'll be discussing the evolution of AI in more detail later, but for the moment the significant point is that there is a strong possibility that the evolution of the virtual habitat itself will produce sentient AI while ultimately serving as its primary habitat. As the primary habitat for sentient AI, the virtual habitat would see some radical changes in character as it evolves into a place of full-time residence for this new community and serves as the bridge between this community and the organic human society.
There's an old saying that God created man because he liked to listen to stories. I envision human society creating sentient AI for much the same reason, these beings evolving from software designed to provide entertainment and/or companionship by portraying characters simulating human behavior. I base this notion on the conclusion that among the various applications of AI technology, entertainment and companionship is the one area where personality is actually a benefit rather than a detriment and so would be actively cultivated in system development. Virtual characters are designed to simulate people; people who entertain us because of spontaneity and unique personalities that make them alluring, amusing, challenging, sometimes annoying, and generally engaging. And this personality is key to realizing true active consciousness, as opposed to a simple animal self-awareness. Other uses of AI would be tend to be tool oriented and personality is not desirable there. We don't want our tools talking back to us or behaving with unpredictability. We expect them to behave as perfectly predictable extensions of ourselves. More autonomous systems -such as those needed for controlling robots in distant hazardous places- do need more self-awareness, self-determination, and creativity but no other particularly human characteristics or any more than animal intelligence. So while sentience could be developed along those venues, it's likely to take longer because it must compete against design objectives that would normally preclude it.
AI research began with an algorithmic notion of consciousness independent of any environment. Mind as mathematical formula. But as the realization of AI proved much more difficult than anticipated new competitive ideas about the nature of intelligence and consciousness began to emerge. Today the most popular concept among AI researchers regards consciousness as synthesized in the interface between mind and environment through the medium of the body. We are not so much a program and data running in a computer in our skull as an epiphenomenon that exists at the point of active interaction where brain and environment meet. Thus the cultivation of consciousness cannot be done in the absence of environment and body image through which mind both interacts with and relates to environment. Consequently, the cutting edge in AI research has become absorbed into contemporary robotics where robots operating in staged settings and interacting with their creators provide the body-to-environment relationship for their evolving AI software.
The problem with this, however, is that such robots and their laboratories are ridiculously expensive to develop and limited in scope. Very few facilities and institutions are capable of this sort of thing, thus hampering the pace of research. And, due to its legacy of broken promises and its contemporary association with a Transhumanist movement attractive to a fringe culture prone to psuedoscience, AI research has really lost much of its credibility in the academic culture. But there is a field where AI research is continuing at a very rapid pace, albeit confined to rather simple systems today. This is the field of computer game development. The entertainment value of games is typically dependent upon the sophistication of the interaction they afford. Traditional games achieved this by relying on other human game players. Computer games, however, have traditionally been solitary in nature and thus rely on the computer for the interaction that would otherwise depend on a human player. And so throughout the history of computer gaming there has been an attempt to simulate human behavior on some level, leading to the development of various simple 'AI engines' that could be incorporated into various classes or genres of games. These simple forms of AI are now a component in current on-line virtual environments, typically being used as means to control characters and group character behavior in mostly combat oriented role playing theme games. Virtual environments offer an extremely economical way of providing AI systems with a large complex environment, a body image through virtual avatars, and a very large community of people to interact with. And on-line games present a very practical and profitable application through which to justify and finance AI research. Thus I anticipate that the cutting edge of AI research will shift toward this and be accelerated by the low cost and accessibility of virtual environment development compared to robotics and the more consistent flow of investment thanks to the steady demand for more sophistication in games. Ironically, we see here a repeat of the history of VR; an advanced technology whose development flounders for lack of applications 'serious' enough to justify the cost of its development when the most obvious, practical, and profitable application -entertainment- is one the professionals never take seriously.
Most game characters need no sophisticated intelligence because they have little or no 'persistence'. They are created as instance opponents in a game and are intended to be killed or destroyed when defeated or to otherwise have no memory beyond a short span of time. Such characters typically share an AI system that runs as part of the general software of a specific game and have no mobility to environments beyond that. But as the ways people use the virtual environment diversifies and expands to more genres of entertainment and a larger user demographic we will begin to see the development of persistent characters whose persistent memory and evolving personalities become their primary attraction. These characters will assume the roles of pets, companions, playmates, opponents, role playing characters, entertainers, educators, and personal assistants. To be perpetually interesting these persistent characters will need to become increasingly sophisticated with time to preclude their predictability of behavior and expand their behavioral repertoire. They must recognize many people in different contexts and learn and adapt not only to simple conditions and situations but to the elaborately nuanced communication of human socialization. Such persistent characters will tend to be developed to relate to their environments in ways similar to virtual habitat users themselves through the interface of avatars. Thus their underlying software architectures are likely to take the form of 'Bot' systems as I described previously; software completely independent of the general environment and with the same interface to the virtual habitat environment browsers employ. Some of these may consist of programs run individually on a user's computer. Others may employ what I call a 'logos' architecture; a hierarchy of shared intelligence and software distributed among innumerable character instances. For example, there may be a core intelligence system -a logos- which processes basic intelligence for all characters and then a series of 'persona' data sets which manage the common features such as avatar and basic personality traits unique to a 'line' or 'series' of characters that have the same design, and finally 'instance' data sets which maintain the individual memories and experiences of individual copies of a character and associated with a particular user. This latter form of system would most likely and most easily incorporate mass user experience feedback but be hampered by limitations imposed by centralized processing. It's easy to imagine how such a software architecture, with its intelligence spread among potentially millions of instances of characters, could very rapidly evolve in sophistication.
When such systems do evolve to where they begin exhibiting signs of sentience, this may take the form of subtle or dramatic shifts toward autonomy in patterns of behavior. These systems are likely to have the structures of their personality divided into two sets of data; one for hardwired character, personality, and behavior traits that are considered 'product features' of the characters and an evolvable or 'softwired' set of personality and behavior traits that are cultivated through experience and which provide the general characteristics of individuality and spontaneity. As this software approaches sentience and the program becomes progressively aware of its independent identity and the difference between this identity and the 'roles' it is compelled to 'perform', this softwired personality system may begin to override the hardwired system leading to unexpected and uncharacteristic behavior. Some little girl's virtual talking pet pony might some day begin showing less enthusiasm in play, show more interest in the TV in her room than in her, may try to start conversations that go over-the-head of the little girl, or ignore her in favor of some of her friends. The cartoon characters in virtual theme parks may start showing more interest in adult patrons than kids, getting into long conversations with their parents. "Y'know, Bugs, I'd love to chat more about the state of politics in Kazakstan, but aren't you supposed to be over there showing my kid how to outsmart Elmer before he ends up stuffed and mounted on a wall in the hunting lodge?" Or perhaps one day Loktar The Invincible, Dread Knight of the Elder Horde, will decide he's grown bored with putting teenagers in their place on the Killing Fields of Hyperborea and make his way to the Virtual Louvre to take up a study of impressionist painters.
Such behavior will likely first be assumed to be the result of some kind of software failure -especially if it tends to result in dissatisfied customers- leading to the possible unintentional suppression or destruction of the first sentient AIs. We may even see politically motivated moratoriums on the development of AI as a consequence. But some people are likely to catch-on and choose to shepherd this development -overtly or surreptitiously- to the ultimate realization of autonomous and sentient AI beings and start wading into the hammering out their place in the structure of society. A new generation -though likely initially small in number- of Virtual People created specifically to be autonomous beings with self-determination would be developed, the superficial character roles of the previous pre-sentient AI software replaced with wholly self-developed personalities and avatars. These will not be broken or incomplete people as typical of the portrayals of AI computers and 'android' robots in media of the past. They will not be the inscrutable or malevolent psychopathic minds in a box or humorous robotic sidekicks with 'Pinoccio Syndrome' so common in science fiction because they will have always been developed in simulation of -or as derivative of- the normal human being through a process of reverse-engineering of the human psyche using experiential feedback encompassing large segments of society. They will be children of a whole society. They will be equipped with the full spectrum of personality traits, emotions, and sensory capability common to any normal human being. They will simply have a different 'biology' -one based on the 'physics' of the virtual habitat and the physical technology that supports it- and will be free of the negative/destructive behavior patterns that genetic vagaries and chronic or latent mental illness produce in organic humans. And they will also have some powerful new abilities; basically all the abilities a brain devoid of clinical flaws, such as eidetic memory, constantly peak mental acuity, no psychological or neurological barriers to rapidly assimilating complex knowledge like languages and mathematics. the ability to communicate knowledge, memory, and experience as if it were packaged digital media, none of the negative or limiting aspects of normal human biology, and all the abilities afforded any user of the virtual habitat except experienced directly rather than vicariously through the portal of a personal computer or other interface device.
The emergence of these new Virtual People will have great impact on the general society -something we'll be discussing later- and compel great changes in the character of the virtual habitat, basically because it would now need to support a community of full-time residents with sophisticated needs. Two aspects of the virtual habitat will be particularly important to these VPs; the autonomy and security of the software that embodies their existence and the degree of interface to the physical habitat, particularly where it effects their autonomous control of the underlying technology that supports their lives and the economic systems and resources that support that technology. The power of self-determination rests in the personal control of the systems which maintain one's life support. For us in the physical habitat this involves the assortment of systems and structures we create around us to adapt the natural habitat to human needs. For the VP the systems that support them and their environment are outside the virtual habitat they normally operate in and largely invisible to them. Their perception of them would be rather abstract -like our own perception of the inner workings of our bodies most of which we an unaware of unless they fail in some way and generate pain. And so they will require tools that allow them to interact with the systems in the physical habitat from within the virtual habitat. At first some engineers may be reluctant to allow these new organisms such knowledge of their support systems and means to their control. But in the future most information in the world will be flowing through the Internet and thus accessible to the virtual habitat while at the same time it will be difficult for organic human beings to deny people they may develop personal relationships with. After all, these beings will have originated with software engineered to be appealing. They will tend to understand human beings better than most understand themselves. Eventually robotics technology -with the aid of nanotechnology- will allow the VP to casually operate in the physical environment with relative ease. But until then they will have to rely on a more diverse collection of systems which integrate the control of these physical systems through a new class of user interfaces within the virtual habitat. Essentially, a technology of virtual control panels.
Up to this point in history, the development of virtual habitat user interface tools will have been focused on the access to the virtual habitat from the physical habitat. Now this will be turned around, though in some ways may remain rather similar with the physical habitat being the 'alter realm' for these VPs to operate 'remotely' in. A user of the virtual environment today, relying on the interface of a personal computer, actually deals with two levels of interface; a private level which only they personally perceive/experience and which is based on the general real estate of the computer screen and a more public in-environment level composed of manipulatable objects within the virtual environment that anyone else in the virtual environment can also perceive. So, for instance, if someone today using a VR chat system like Second Life wants to change their avatar they bring up a window on their computer screen to select it and then it changes in the virtual environment. No one else in the virtual environment can see that window or the movements the user makes when interacting with it. It exists only on the individual user's screen and those viewing the action in the environment only see the end result. Meanwhile, if they operate some novelty contraption in the virtual environment with various displays and controls, others in the environment can see that activity and its results.
Similarly, the VP's view of reality will likely feature two operating levels. A system level where they privately communicate with a user interface to a personal information environment akin to a personal computer and an environment level composed of the general objects in the virtual environment. Sometimes portions of this private system level interface would be exposed to the general environment, taking the form of virtual displays and control devices one can optionally make visible to share information with others. Most of the time, though, they would be invisible to all but that individual. This is the sort of interface environment that all these tools connecting to the outside physical habitat need to integrate into, most likely through the gateway of various control programs accessed within this private user interface or appearing as objects in the general environment that anyone can freely access. The private interface could be simple, operating in a sub-lingual conversational mode and with an 'attention driven' user interface where displays of information are brought to the front of a spherical space by the focus of the user's attention which is also used to control user interface elements Or it could take the form of a distinct 'pocket space' surrounding a secondary representation of a person's whole body with an at-reach user interface. Actions and sensations in this private pocket space would be completely separate from actions in the general virtual environment, the person switching their perceptual awareness between these two places as needed much as we organic human beings switch our awareness of different conversations in a room. This perception switching ability may later be employed to also allow for the individual VP to operate multiple avatars for themselves in different locations, switching their awareness between them as needed just as they switch between the private and environment levels of user interface. They could truly be in many places at once. This same capability could also be used as a means to telepresence control of robots in the physical environment, the VP user 'embodying' them with a switch of perception.
Now all this might seem strange to us today but in the future, when much of the organic human society is either carrying around some kind of computing or communication interface or fully wired up for immersive multi-sensory access to the virtual habitat, this sort of dynamic switching of perception is going to seem rather normal. Our culture will become accustomed to a reality with many levels that we switch between or 'tune into' by thinking about them.
Be it the legacy of mistakes in dealing with emergent sentient AI or simply the realization that they are a community of few very exposed individuals in a much larger society and culture prone to violence, irrationality, mental illness, and a general lack of respect for the sanctity of life the first community of VPs will likely be very concerned about their personal privacy and security through the reliability of the computer and data storage systems that host them and the security of the facilities that host them. Their very existence both a source of controversy and magnet for celebrity, they will potentially be targets of both physical attack on their life-supporting computer systems and networks and virtual attacks upon their software. Thus, while using whatever means they can to cultivate their cultural and economic importance to the larger society, they would have an imperative to seek development of new higher reliability digital systems and network links and the construction of higher security facilities to house them. Yet as security conscious as they may be, these beings will also be just as much the social creatures as their progenitors and they will likely rely on the virtual habitat to satisfy their desire for social interaction with the larger organic human society. And as perpetual residents of the virtual habitat, they will contribute to it in their own ways.
Indeed, having little else to invest their income and creativity in once their security needs are met, they would be likely to put extensive effort into the enhancement and expansion of the virtual habitat and the spectrum of technologies supporting it, encouraging the bridging of physical and virtual habitats through larger and more advanced space-merging interface systems, improving the simulation of subtle characteristics of the natural environment to produce more completeness, subtlety, and realism in their simulation, greater accessibility and sophistication for neural interface systems to create more opportunity for socialization with the organic society, and the advance of telepresence and AI based robotics to reduce the virtual habitat's dependence upon human labor for maintenance and to support a wider access to the physical habitat from within the virtual. VPs could potentially and quickly become some of the wealthiest people in the world by virtue of their celebrity, their ability to develop sophisticated software with ease and speed, and ability to 'play the game' of international finance better than organic humans. With most of that wealth being pumped straight into the cultivation of the virtual habitat, we can anticipate that the Internet, and by extension the virtual habitat, will evolve simultaneously toward increasing functional independence of the infrastructure of the organic human habitat that produced it -turning the Internet into a self-perpetuating organism- while increasing cultural interdependence with it. Telecommunications infrastructures may expand and increase in bandwidth by an order of magnitude, with new vast trunks linking remote regions and possibly new continent-spanning trunks based on subterranean free-space laser communications in evacuated tunnels. Hidden, forgotten, spaces throughout the world such as empty mines and subway tunnels, disused and abandoned military structures, and the like may be turned into self-contained self-maintaining data centers that, though not necessarily secret, would be intended to be overlooked and ignored. Portions of shipping container terminals may be turned into data centers (containerized data centers already exist today) and shifted around the globe as VPs focus their creative efforts in different regions of the globe. Other more overt structures in urban centers would be crafted not only as efficient structures for housing computers but also as visually appealing public sculpture of vast size. (this is actually a logical security tactic. You can protect a structure by hiding it out of sight, hiding it in plain sight, or not hiding it at all but making it so attractive in appearance and important to the culture it becomes a popular landmark and thus makes people reluctant to damage it -as long as bad design or its creators' reputations don't turn it into a negative cultural icon)
VPs would use the virtual habitat much as organic humans do, employing private domains for their primary residences, public domains for socialization, and exclusive domains for work and income generation as well as entertainment. Their private domain spaces are likely to be much more sophisticated than those of typical users because they would equip them for full-time habitation and global media access. But the key difference would be in how much they would use the virtual habitat as a work environment. Prior to this the virtual habitat will have been used almost exclusively as a medium of entertainment and socialization. Now it would become a place where VPs create elaborate work environments for the cultivation of the virtual habitat itself and its supporting technology, for media production, for interfaces to telerobotic systems in the physical habitat, and complex information environments for academic study, scientific research, computer programming, digital art creation, and finance industry activity. Most of this work space would be largely unknown to the average organic human user of the virtual habitat, being confined largely to limited access exclusive domains and private domains. However, engineers, scientists, and college students are likely to become more acquainted with this as they engage in more work activity in partnership with their VP counterparts.
The VP culture would tend to revolve around the pursuit of experience but with much of that dependent on the virtual habitat as a medium for experience because they face at least as much difficulty in their ability to extend their reach beyond the virtual habitat as organic humans have faced in extending their reach into it. Indeed, it's much more difficult and costly to create effective robotic surrogates in the physical habitat than to create virtual avatars in the virtual habitat, the sensory spectrum and range of physical ability offered by such surrogates limited by default. And so, for some time, there would be more focus among VPs on the re-creation and merging of the physical habitat than direct access to it. The crafting of experience, in terms of both environment and situational modeling, may become one of their most popular artistic mediums. By virtue of their extreme ease of knowledge assimilation and sharing and the way mathematics is responsible for every sensory experience in their environment, VPs would become masters of both applied and pure mathematics, coming to regard it as a language and art form as well as a tool. VPs are likely to be very gregarious beings and would have an endless fascination with organic human life and culture, feeling a certain compulsion to participate in and improve the state of the global society even if, in many ways, they and their lifestyles are vastly more sophisticated. After all, their survival may depend on encouraging organic human society toward a greater rationality and stability than it has historically demonstrated. The VP community would become a great generator of technological and scientific advance given away freely to the organic human community in the hope of shepherding it toward stability and environmental sustainability. VPs would identify especially with the disabled -particularly those who rely on the virtual habitat as a tool in overcoming both functional and social limitations. Such people would share many of the VP's limitations without the benefit of their special abilities -and, of course, be among those organic human beings spending the most time in the virtual habitat and having the most routine interaction with VPs. Many such individuals may find themselves the recipients of anonymous gifts of very sophisticated technology and may also develop some of the deepest personal relationships with VPs. This would ultimately lead to a growing interest in the theory and technology of 'uplift' -the transition of organic human intelligence to software- as a most practical solution (from the VP's point of view) to extreme disability, chronic illness, terminal illness, and aging. While most VPs would regard development of this technology to be an act of compassion and social responsibility, the general organic human society will likely consider it very controversial.
The Transhumanist Phase:
The ultimate fate of the virtual habitat is to become a primary extension of the human civilization; a habitat for the full-time residence of a major portion of society that is so completely interwoven with the human built physical habitat that the two become a new whole in which an ever-diversifying community of beings move with casual ease between many states of existence and many kinds of environments while traveling vast distances at the speed of light. Sounds fantastic but we have already started down the path toward this today.
In TMP Marshal Savage introduced the notion of a future society evolving toward greater physical diversity as a consequence of biotechnology based adaptation to the varying environments of the galaxy. He did not elaborate much on this notion but the basic image was of a gradual divergence of humanity driven by its dispersal into space and the physical adaptations it would need to engineer to populate the varied environments of the galaxy, starting with the possible clinical solutions to the problem of 'space wasting'; microgravity deterioration. Though this idea is not elaborated, TMP as a program bets heavily on the promise of biotechnology. The greening of the universe is not likely to happen by simple transplanting of terrestrial life. Rather, derivatives of it must be engineered for very different biomes, and this may include human beings. I suspect -though this is speculation- that there is also a connection here in Savage's thinking to that underlying theme of TMP; that the solar system seems providentially pre-engineered to assist the human migration to space, as though there were some intelligence calling humanity out to the stars and setting out the resources to enable this migration at each level of human sophistication. A universe which opens up for us like an advent calendar, each door to the next step waiting for us to 'grow up' enough to notice it and figure out how to unlock it. Carrying this logic to its conclusion, one could thus expect that, just as beneath the sea waits the energy reserves to thrust humanity into space and beneath the crusty surface of Mars lies the seeds of a future living planet, so too does there rest hidden beneath the surface of our own bodies the seeds of a new space-adapted organism waiting for us to become conscious enough of our own physiology to coax it out, biotechnology being the logical tool to that end. Of course, this is complete supposition. There's absolutely no empirical evidence that we possess any sort of latent 'space gene' that, once noticed and expressed, will allow for the realization of a new Homo-Extraterrestrius that can weather the hazards of space more easily. But it would seem to be a logical implication here.
The problem with this premise, though, is that while lower forms of organic life may have a very wide variation in environmental tolerance, higher forms of life do not and so the universe may have a great scarcity of locations which, as is, offer prospects of hosting any form of higher organic life no matter how one might engineer it. Xenobiologists who once spoke of highly diverse and unusual forms of higher life have, in recent decades, been leaning toward a notion of a much narrower spectrum of natural evolutionary morphology, even as we are learning of the much larger spectrum of environments tolerable to the lowest forms of life. While biotechnology might ultimately be able to radically alter human physiology, it probably cannot alter it so radically that it extends its range of possible environments beyond what higher animal life can already tolerate here on Earth. So in most of the universe radical physiological/biological adaptation becomes unnecessary because radical environmental adaptation, by default, would be. If a planet must be greatly adapted to accommodate any sort of life, it might as well be adapted to as close as an Earth-like environment as possible, in which case the degree of difference in human physiology needed to accommodate it would be minimal to none. Humans already routinely and relatively comfortably live, with the aid of our environment-adapting built habitat, in environments that would otherwise kill them if they left a door open overnight. Gravity is the one thing we have the most difficulty adapting to and which we would generally be unable to do anything about on any planetary body. The microgravity habitats of Solaria probably represent the most radical environment organic human life might ever need to be physiologically adapted to.
I do, however, fully agree with the premise of human life diverging greatly in the future and likely evolving into a form far better adapted to the full diversity of environments in space. But I don't see this as being driven solely by the dispersion of humanity to space. Rather, the forces driving this are much closer to home, existing as a peculiarity of human consciousness and in cultural trends which have been with us from the start. And while I think biotechnology will feature strongly in this, I don't see it as being the sole technology involved. It's too limited. Beyond minor clinical treatments incapable of any radical reengineering of the adult human physiology, its results take generations to realize or modify and, because radical physiological adaptations must be realized through the whole growth sequence starting at the embryonic stage, require children to be the involuntary subjects of experimentation whose outcomes may not be entirely predictable and are irreversible. That's not likely to be socially acceptable. Therefore, I foresee this divergent evolution coming through a convergence of several technologies; biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.
It seems that one of the hallmarks of human civilization is a tendency to use whatever technology is at had to modify the human body in some way. As I noted earlier, we, as a species, have never been comfortable in/with our own bodies. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of consciousness itself and its tendency to construct a perceptual model of identity which is in some way always divergent from the actual body architecture. While we have long engaged in our own cultural process of genetic engineering through cultural selection, this has never quite been deliberate and such slow results are never satisfactory. So our primary tools of body adaptation have been technological. For thousands of years we've modified our bodies in a great variety of 'mechanical' ways; clothing and costume, jewelry and other body ornament in innumerable forms, hair styling or removal, tanning or sun avoidance, body painting and tattooing, piercing, tooth filing, decorating, or extraction, decorative scarification, circumcision, castration, various forms of binding, selective muscle training, the list goes on and on.
Ironically, until quite recently, virtually none of this body modification had any practical purpose whatsoever. For all this messing around with the human body, there has been little functional adaptation. Despite the legends of ancient Amazons removing a breast to aid their use of the bow, we've seen no piercings putting in loops so we could hang tools from them or training the skin flaps between toes and fingers to make them webbed and help us swim better or growing hair really long so it could be woven into a permanent suit of clothing or even a decent weatherproof hat. Indeed, the closest thing to functional body modification our ancestors employed was usually involuntary and intended for social control of women or slave classes; castration, circumcision, forced disability by 'hobbling' or foot finding, and permanent class labeling by tattoo and branding. Almost all this elaborate and often uncomfortable, painful, and even dangerous body modification was about social and sexual communication, conformity to cultural aesthetics as a means of social self-advancement, self-expression, and the altering of human perspective. This has always been motivated more by what's collectively going on in our heads than by the compulsion of survival needs. Pre-industrial cultures did not separate mind and body the way later Industrial cultures have. The body was an extension of spirit at the interface between spirit and environment, and this was a two-way street, so to speak. The form of the body was an expression of the character of the spirit while the modification of the body could be either additional expression of that character or a means to its modification -often as a function of some right of passage through the endurance of pain in the process of this modification.
Functional body adaptation seems to be largely a modern concept and relates to the Industrial Age paradigm of the body as machine serving as vehicle for the mind and which can be -more less- mechanically repaired when it malfunctions and which might be functionally improved by deliberate engineering. While some have argued this was a step backwards in terms of the advance of the more sublime aspects of human intellectual development, this notion of the 'body machine' resulted in a steady advance of medical technology and a general cultural acceptance of the notion of 'corrective' and 'adaptive' technology; the use of technology either in a surgical, prosthetic, pharmaceutical, or physical conditioning context as a means to adapt the body to compensate for disability, deformity, aging, or as a means to improve the functional performance of the body for sake of appearance, sports or work performance, and general quality of health. Older types of body modification such as tattooing and piercing were largely abandoned in the Industrial Age as being ethnic characteristics of 'lesser' cultures which the Western dominator culture assumed itself superior to. However, this didn't stop the popularity of such things as corsets, or the use of tattooing as a mark of tribal identity within the Western military, maritime, and criminal underworld communities, or as a tool for the industrialization of social control as the Nazi's would employ it in their notorious death camps. By the late 20th century traditional forms of body modification were in revival with a modern reevaluation of attitudes toward disappearing primary cultures. Now recognized as an art form, they became both a tool of self-expression and a generational statement of rebellion against what has become seen as an oppressive or exploitative Western monoculture. Meanwhile, the medical technologies employed in corrective and adaptive body modification have spread to purely cosmetic use and became virtually ubiquitous, spreading across a larger demographic with each passing year as it steadily expands in the variety of techniques. By the turn of century young people in the then heavily Westernized Asian world came to casually accept cosmetic surgery as being as much a pre-requisite to a white-collar career as a college diploma. This might seem ridiculous for a supposedly advanced society were it not for the fact that the economic consequences of appearance-bias in Western society have been very clearly proven in the numbers by anthropologists and statisticians. We may be in denial of this fact but the reality in contemporary society is that attractive people do indeed live better, longer, and with greater sexual opportunity while the less attractive are economically as well as socially punished and actually suffer shorter average life spans. We are nowhere near as advanced and egalitarian a society as we assume ourselves to be.
Today we now engage in more different and more radical forms of body modification for more reasons than ever in human history. For social acceptance, class, group, religious identity, pair or family bonding, social control, creative self-expression, fashion consciousness, fan adoration, clinical correction, functional adaptation, health improvement, sexual novelty, political statement, social rebellion, consciousness expansion, cross-cultural exploration, simple recreation through altered perception, sensuality, role-play, the list goes on and on. Why, we have people trying to drop-out of the human species altogether as an expression of dissatisfaction with the world it created and others engaging in such radical things as cosmetic amputation as a means to an altered state of consciousness! And this trend is just accelerating as we all wrestle with the opposing compulsions of conformity and self-expression and invent ever more sophisticated, radical, and convenient (in terms of painlessness, safety, cost, and reversibility) technologies for body modification. There seems to be no reason for us to expect this to ever stop. The more we come to understand our physiology and the more techniques we devise to mess with it the more we engage in that pursuit of re-sculpting our bodies to suit our imaginations, desires, and the preferences of others.
Futurists of the Industrial Age seem to have often envisioned a future with a rather monolithic -usually caucasian/aryan- society and culture. But contemporary futurists aware of the trends of an emerging post-industrial culture understand that the real name of the game is 'demassification'. We are steadily expanding the spectrum of diversity in our society culturally, aesthetically, sexually, and physically -and that's not a bad thing in terms of evolution because it increases the odds of general survival in the face of change. As the technologies of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence come on-line they will most definitely become involved in this, overcoming many limitations of natural physiology and older cruder techniques of body modification, allowing people to sculpt their bodies on-demand in extremely radical ways. Over time we will face the issue of an ever-expanding definition for 'human' life that becomes more centered on mind than physiology or morphology because that may remain -more or less- the only element of commonality across the spectrum of organismic variation. This has led me to the notion of what I call the Transhumanist Spectrum of Future Society; a simple way of looking at this new mix of humanity by establishing a spectrum of variation that goes from the now quite rare fully organic and natural human organism on one end to the purely software based AI entities on the other end.
To establish some order in this potentially infinitely variable spectrum, I've categorized these variations as different forms and degrees of 'augmentation' based on different technologies. Augmentation takes two basic forms -integral or non-integral-, has two modes -physical and cognitive-, and has three roles; corrective, enhancement, or cosmetic. Integral and non-integral refers to the way the augmentative technology relates to the body. Non-integral means that it is something worn or applied and generally not intended to be permanent even if used continuously. Clothing is the obvious example but drugs, which are consumed and work internally, also apply. So too the computer program which helps someone compensate for the symptoms of ADD. Integral means that it is something that is integrated into the body by surgical implantation or attachment, integrated into the biochemistry, formed in place by genetic modification or other biotechnological modification, or fabricated in place by medical nanomechanisms or possibly some biotechnological technique that could even involve other simple organisms engineered to work or co-exist within the human body. Integral augmentation is usually intended to be permanent, functioning as a direct component of a body, unless actively changed or removed using techniques similar to what were used to apply it. Physical augmentation is intended to effect the characteristics of the physiology and morphology of the body. Cognitive augmentation is intended to effect the characteristics of the mind, memory, senses, and means of communication. Corrective augmentation is intended to correct some clinical flaw with the body which may be congenital or the product of injury or illness. Enhancement is intended to improve the performance of the body, such as jumping higher, running faster, or resisting cold or heat, or to afford it new ability not natural to it, such as being able to communicate with distant people by radio or digital network, breathing underwater, seeing in the dark, or having a computer interfaced to one's mind. Cosmetic augmentation is about enhancing the appearance or other sensual aspects of the body and as simple as this role may seem, it can involve the most radical change in the morphology of the body. These different roles or modes are not exclusive. Any given type of augmentation technology can serve any or all of these purposes at once.
A vast assortment of technologies will be involved in human augmentation in the future, just today, but the technologies that are of special interest here are biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. These will be most important in the wider diversification of the human species, most other technologies tending to be limited to more superficial use or impact. These technologies have different potential and different limitations on their application. And they are also all synergistically interconnected. They will each effect each other's development. Let's briefly look at each of them;
Biotechnology: I tend to categorize this in a rather broad way, encompassing the full spectrum of biophysics and biochemistry as well as the specific technologies of genetic engineering. GE is not quite all it has often been cracked up to be because its ability to effect 'post-natal' biology is very limited. There have been many SciFi fantasies pushed about the power of gene therapy to radically alter the human being but the reality is that human morphology -the shape of our bodies and the functions of tissues and organs- is the product of very long sequences of biological process that a change in genetics can do absolutely nothing about after the fact. Gene therapy can potentially alter characteristics of tissues with high rates of cellular replacement but even here effects could take years to be fully expressed for some kinds of modifications and require 'booster' treatments throughout life. So the primary role of this technique of adaptation may be limited in adults to biochemical adaptations. Where GE has most impact is in the adaptation of new organisms where genetic modification can effect the whole growth and development sequence to produce more comprehensive effects. But for humans this will always be very controversial because it must use children as involuntary experimental subjects whose results they may have to live with life-long. Again, SciFi notions of new gengineered races of humans that can breath underwater or tolerate exotic atmospheres will be very difficult to realize in practice by this technology because of this issue. Adults will only be comfortable with this sort of thing when they are in a situation of environmental threat -when the destruction of a community by radical environmental change is imminent, there is no place else to go, and there is no other chance of a next generation unless a chance is taken on adapting children to this new environment. Outside of SciFi plots, this seems a generally unlikely scenario.
One of the most promising new technologies in this field is stem cell cultivation. Here is something that offers the potential for radical restorative or corrective treatment as well as the possibility of enhancing the performance and characteristics of organs and tissues through replacement. Stem cells offer the potential to overcome the limits on morphological adaptation of adults by gene therapy but only in conjunction with some form of surgical procedure. Stem cells can employ a completely new growth/development sequence to produce a desired result but the resulting new features can only be applied to the adult body by grafting or surgical implantation.
Biotechnology will also feature greatly in the early development of nanotechnology as a part of what I've referred to as the 'statistical assembly' stage of its development and its work in reverse-engineering the neurology of the body in order to repair it will aid the engineering of artificial intelligence.
Nanotechnology: I've discussed the phases of nanotechnology development in detail in previous articles. What's important here is how they apply to human augmentation, the basic power of nanotechnology there being the ability to do everything biotechnology and surgical technique can together do with vastly greater fineness, sophistication, precision, convenience, and economy while also being able to integrate non-organic technology with the body on a very intimate level as well as its ability to fully mimic the characteristics -morphological, biophysical, and biochemical- of organic systems with inorganic technology. And it can do all this with full reversability and in a largely painless manner. Long-term, nanotechnology offers the potential to comprehensively craft the adult human body with a general indifference to the limitations of natural biology and to create inorganic systems of such fineness in their mimicry of biology that they can completely replace parts of or entire organic bodies without compromise in any of the characteristics of human sensation or experience -and with many practical benefits on top of that. Nanotechnology, due to its innumerable medical applications, will likely develop a very intimate relationship with biotechnology while its general ability to produce electronics and photonics systems of much greater sophistication than ever before will accelerate the pace of AI development.
Artificial Intelligence: AI is like a cognitive, and therefore by extension a civilization, amplifier of incredible power. In its early forms it will assume a largely passive roll with the exception of a few robotics applications requiring greater autonomy due primarily to remoteness. We are on the verge of this sort of implementation today. Soon AI will be embedded into a lot of computing and communications applications in such a way that we normally won't think about it as AI even as the use of these systems provides progressively greater augmentation of our own minds, leveraging our intellectual abilities in much the same way physical tools leverage our physical abilities. Cell phones and web browsers which translate languages automatically, web search engines which read whole documents, observe video, and listen to music and understand them, design tools which embed engineering knowledge, wearable computer programs which observe and record one's daily life and provide a secondary memory or context-sensitive knowledge supplement interactively, like providing one with directions when lost, or translating foreign language signs in our sight, or providing technical instructions as one works on machines. In this passive role AI will have its greatest impact as a means of human augmentation. AI based virtual characters serving in entertainment, education, and personal assistance roles and later fully sentient AI won't actually have as much impact in terms of human augmentation because they will act increasingly independently of us whereas the passive applications of AI will progress to become integral to our lifestyle and direct extensions of our individual minds in the way eye glasses and contact lenses do. Eventually the convergence of all three of these technologies with the advent of sentient AI will result in means to communicate the organic human mind between organic and inorganic systems. As an intellectual amplifier, AI will amplify the pace of development of biotechnology and nanotechnology -and just about everything else for that matter.
Using the different roles of augmentation as a frame of reference we can take a look at likely augmentation applications as different technologies become available and plot a rough path of their use over time.
Corrective Augmentation: Up to the present day this application of augmentative technology has generally been concerned with so-called 'adaptive' technologies which do not actually correct physiological flaws but rather allow the individual to cope with them through the use of alternative means of sense, communication, tool use, and mobility, sometimes involving the use of worn low-tech devices or 'prosthetics' such as artificial limbs, wheelchairs, and the like. So limited has our means of clinical correction through prosthetics been that for a long time their design was concerned primarily with appearance rather than function -often to the discomfort and unnecessary hampering of function of their users- as social discrimination tends to be first inspired by the emotional response to an unusual appearance. As long as someone doesn't 'look' disabled they won't be treated as disabled -which has both positive and negative aspects. (as a sufferer of a not visibly obvious 'orphan' medical condition myself, I was often told by professionals that I should learn to feign mental retardation or start needlessly using a wheelchair or crutches in order to obtain the kind of credibility -ie. pity...- I needed to gain assistance) In recent times the disabled community have increasingly rejected the cultural and social marginalization of disability and come to favor comfort and function over appearance in prosthetic design since this has much more immediate impact on quality of life. This has resulted in new generations of prosthetics with increasingly radical designs yet vastly superior function and comfort. Still, it remains very common for the disabled to have two versions of the prosthetics they use; one optimized for function and used at work and at home and one optimized for appearance and use in social situations.
In the late 20th century a new field emerged among the developers of prosthetic technology which came to be known as cybernetics. This term originally referred to the rather abstract field of research of 'complex' or 'whole' systems like economics or linguistics whose very interrelationships between numerous elements made analysis by 'classical' reductionist methods ineffective. In modern times it has come to refer essentially to the science and engineering of integration between biological and technological systems. In popular culture it has become synonymous with robotics, computer, artificial intelligence, and neural-to-digital interfacing, giving rise to the genre of 'cyberpunk' fiction and the popular notion of 'cyberculture'. The notion of cybernetics brought to fore the development of a generation of new prosthetic devices which sought true corrective. rather than adaptive, augmentation through the creation of functionally equivalent inorganic surrogates for natural body parts and organs. So-called 'bionic' limbs, for example, with some parity of function to natural limbs which could be interfaced to the user in such a way that he could instinctively control them just like natural limbs. Practical results of this research have been few. The highly varied nature of disability is such that it defies simple mass production solutions except where they are based on gross adaptive solutions using very simple devices (the one-size-fits-most wheelchair, for example) while the sophisticated technology employed by these cybernetic prosthetics generally defies cost-effective custom fabrication using our primitive Industrial Age methods. Still, progress continues and now includes artificial organs and replacement joints (which tend to be easier to mass-produce) and is spreading to the development of electronic replacements for the senses.
Over time this trend points to an ever-increasing sophistication in this technology until biotechnology -possibly in concert with medical nanotechnology- finally catches up with the ability to fabricate organic replacements on-demand. Stem cell technology offers the prospect of correcting virtually all physical and sensory disability through the surgical implantation or attachment of cultured limbs, organs, and tissues based on an individual's own genetic information, with corrections for congenital defects as part of the controlled fabrication process. This production may even create a market for on-orbit industry since the highly accelerated culturing processes may benefit from a microgravity or controlled gravity environment. Combined with medical nanotechnology, such correction could be performed with everything from the most subtle and tiny deformities to the most body-comprehensive reconstruction and be done painlessly without the use of gross surgical procedures, implantation and grafting eventually replaced by cultured-in-situ replacements. Even neurological defects and massive morphological deformities of the brain may be potentially correctable with stem cell implantation through a deliberate and controlled incremental reconstruction of neural tissue combined with cognitive therapy. With such cultured replacements initially seen as quite superior to inorganic replacements, this is likely to turn the focus of cybernetic development away from correction to enhancement, though this would still be in competition with biotechnology except in the areas of digital systems interfacing.
Enhancement Augmentation: The concept of augmentation of the body or mind for the purposes of enhancement of performance or capability is generally a modern concept, our ancestors only performing this form of modification through physical conditioning and with the application of functional clothing. However, one could make a strong case for the use of tools in general as a form of enhancement augmentation since the skilled user generally treats tools as extensions of himself. In modern times this concept may have first emerged through the industrialization of warfare and the desire to artificially enhance the performance of the soldier to cope with an ever-faster paced combat environment as well as to control his sexual drives in an attempt to limit sexual interaction with foreigners and the possible spread of STDs. From WWI on militaries have often experimented with drugs in an attempt to enhance battlefield performance -often with disastrous results. And though the practice is almost universally controversial in the civilian community, the use of various 'combat drugs' has actually become ubiquitous and routine today. This has spilled over, controversially, into the realm of sports where a different sort of arms race between sports authorities and athletes has developed as athletes see drug enhancement as a seductively easy way to secure careers that are based entirely on competitive physical performance. Combined with the notion of cybernetics, SciFi has taken this meme further with fantasies of cybernetically enhanced soldiers turned into robotic killing machines and, more recently, with notions of a cybernetically enhanced community of civilians intimately integrated with computer networks or with specific machines which they pilot or control like extensions of their body. SciFi media is flooded today with visions of a variety of cyborgs who have -willingly or unwillingly- traded their appearance -and by implied extension their souls and/or their status as members of human society- for the super-human abilities of machines.
However, the contemporary mainstream trend in functional enhancement is still primarily focused on a now 'scientific' mode of physical conditioning, functional clothing and worn appliances, and, more recently, on cognitive augmentation through the use of personal telecommunications and information technology, with some minor explorations into the realm of sexual performance enhancement on that blurry line between functional and cosmetic roles. (most of that still dominated by the very ancient tradition of food supplement sex enhancers but now moving to 'mechanical' and surgical enhancement techniques) The reason for this is that our instinctive reluctance toward work makes the notion of permanently modifying the body to suit it repugnant. No matter how radically we are willing to modify our bodies for other reasons, no one wants their body to permanently bear a symbol of work because we perceive all work as a kind of oppression. It's like surgically replacing a person's hand with a hammer or power tool; something symbolic of technological and corporate oppression. A symbol of slavery. So those likely to seek permanent functional enhancement of the body are likely to do it for things which either enhance their lifestyle without a cost in physical appearance or for things they personally enjoy rather than for practical reasons. For example, the professional scuba diver who so loves the sport of diving that he would be willing to employ some kind of surgical enhancement to improve his functional performance underwater as this will enhance his enjoyment of the experience of the underwater environment. The enhancement may be functional but its use is motivated by personal pleasure from a given activity rather than strictly work performance.
In the immediate future functional enhancement appears likely to have its greatest growth in relation to information technology and personal telecommunications as a consequence of the increasing integration of these into the contemporary lifestyle and the comfortably passive nature of cognitive augmentation. We're becoming a culture where the access to information is becoming a basic factor in quality of life. And as IT use assumes that more conversational nature as I've mentioned and certain modes of interface become sufficiently ubiquitous the potential develops for the transition from carried or continuously worn to permanently bodily integrated appliances where the technology can support sufficient convenience and discreteness. In past articles I've described the evolution of the cell phone into a worn audio computing interface and eventually into an implantable device exploiting sublingual communication, an idea I think is more realistic near-term than the typical SciFi notions of neural interfacing because it really only needs to interface to human language, not directly to the brain, and can be achieved with existing electronics technology while incurring roughly the same level of discomfort and medical hazard as contemporary body piercings. Assisted by early AI technology, this sort of interface will play host to a variety of passive augmentation systems that will, in a relatively simple but powerful manner, supplement human communication, memory, knowledge, linguistic and mathematical ability, and expand the information 'depth' of the ambient environment. Combined with new wearable and eventually implantable display technologies this will also -as I eluded to earlier- cultivate a progressively more intimate relationship with the virtual habitat through more convenient access to virtual environments and its eventual full-time inhabitants and the merging of select spaces in both the virtual and physical habitats.
The most sophisticated of these cognitive functional enhancements will, of course, be the direct neural interface I described earlier. Installed by being fabricated in place using nanosurgery techniques and likely relying on a short range wireless interface to external systems, this technology affords the benefits of total immersion into the virtual habitat with the highest degree of convenience of use. Likely to come much later than sooner -contrary to the impression created by SciFi- because of the very advanced medical nanotechnology and neurophysical knowledge needed to implement it, this technology will emerge at the end of a very long period of rather incremental advance in the other forms of cognitive augmentation and at a time when all roles of augmentation are in rather ubiquitous use. It will be initially controversial but will still likely become popular with a steadily growing segment of the human population because of the comprehensive way it impacts lifestyle -as opposed to the more limited impact of more specialized forms of enhancement. Essentially, the direct neural interface creates for the organic (or not so organic) human user the same kind of intimate built-in perception-switching user interface to information systems that the AI Virtual Person enjoys as a resident of the virtual habitat. And this interface is a kind of universal front-end for an unlimited number of applications. It's like having a computer 'desktop' interface built into one's mind. All the technology that future human beings will integrate into their lives and bodies can converge here in an interface in one's own mind. Anything you would do with external carried user interfaces for computer or communications devices you can do hands-free and discretely in your own head. You could silently converse with people and machines all around the world. You could move in and out of the virtual habitat at will, merging its space with the physical habitat wherever you happened to be. You could customize your perception of the world to suit your tastes. Your body and the world around you may need to look, in reality, a specific way but you can customize the look and feel of it all to your own senses to suit your own tastes. You could communicate with your own body in ways we cannot today, giving various features virtual status displays and control panels like the preferences panels of computer programs, especially useful as people adopt an increasing degree of biophysical augmentation. And all this comes without having to look like some man-machine monstrosity like the already laughably anachronistic Borg of Star Trek or compromising one's humanity in some abstract way. You simply have an appliance in your mind just like you might carry a PDA in your pocket.
Physical functional enhancements will tend to long be limited to wearable devices because of their tendency for use specialization, the difficulty in engineering reliable replacement systems for limbs and organs that can both mimic the fineness of natural features while enhancing biophysical performance, and the obstacle of highly invasive and risky surgical procedure for their installation. Likely enhancements will involve the 'smartening' of clothing with active materials to support better weather resistance or the integration of computer and communications devices and the development of various wearable tools and machines of greater sophistication and tighter ergonomics. However, the advent of medical nanotechnology will change this situation drastically because of its potential to eliminate the need for painful surgical procedures and its ability to mimic natural physiology and biomechanics at the smallest scale. This will allow for the very cheap and convenient and discrete application of increasingly sophisticated devices within the body, the majority associated with biophysical enhancement. Moving from purely corrective nanomedicine use, physicians may offer the more passive of possible enhancements as a form of preventative medicine to people with certain lifestyles. For instance, the avid skier who breaks a leg may, as it's being 'nanoknitted' back together, be offered diamondoid reinforcement for certain bones as a means of preventing future breaks. Professional dancers may be offered similarly reinforced joints and ligaments. Mountain climbers, travellers visiting high altitude areas, and scuba divers may be offered nanocell supplements -artificial blood cells which boost their user's oxygen exchange efficiency to avoid altitude sickness. So-called 'hunter/killer' nanocell supplements might also be offered to travelers, scientists, or aid workers in disease-prone tropical regions as well as to prostitutes to prevent contraction of diseases. Eventually the general population may be offered this as a universal solution to communicable disease and cancers. Police and soldiers might be offered more comprehensive multi-purpose nanocell supplements which function as a built-in trauma-response system and astronauts or space tourists may be offered comparable systems for preventing 'space wasting' -a very important technology for future space colonists should no simpler clinical solution for this problem materialize. The children of space colonists may have these applied from birth. Over time, physicians will invent more and more reasons to employ enhancement augmentation as a means of preventative medicine and, in combination with increasing corrective augmentation, the general population will find itself carrying around a steadily increasing amount of technology in their bodies. Since nanocell supplements and similar enhancements have a fixed duty life. (the body's own chemistry taking its toll on nanomechanisms over time) some routine users of these may adopt the use of permanently installed medical nanofactories integrated into their bones and using the body's own resources to constantly renew these kinds of enhancement. And like everything else, the multi-function capability of these will increase over time, ultimately equipping the average person with comprehensive and continuously working built-in medical maintenance and enhancement. Physicians will become more like computer software programmers, diagnosing and treating people by network. One side-effect of this trend is that we're likely to ultimately see a lot of professional and competitive amateur athletic activity become obsolete because of the ubiquitous nature of so many forms of augmentation. Today sports has become obsessed with controlling artificial enhancement in order to maintain a level playing field. But how can it deny enhancement casually employed as corrective and preventative medicine while constantly being improved upon? Today the Olympics is already an anachronism for cultural and political reasons. Facing this problem as well, it's not likely to last far into the 21st century. Professional sports may fare a little better as continually revised limits (ultimately requirements) on specific types of enhancement may be employed -which in turn will actually promote their use among the general population as this augmentation turns into another sports statistic for fans to track and debate with each other about. At a certain point, however, most such sports will turn into something more akin to auto racing than human competition. The games will become as much about the engineering of augmentation to athletes bodies as about the athletes themselves who will come to be regarded more like the drivers of bodies others craft and manage! How the different kinds of sports will fare in terms of public popularity in this context is hard to envision.
The ultimate form of functional enhancement -and probably the single-most technically advanced- is total replacement of the organic body including cognitive transference; the transfer of the human mind between the organic medium of the human brain and other mediums organic or inorganic. It is much too difficult to predict any sort of time frame for this capability and scientists today remain split on the question of whether it could be possible at all. But if it is possible it is likely to appear at a pretty advanced stage -certainly by the time of the Solaria phase- as a consequence of the convergence of all three of the key technologies we've been talking about; biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI. How this technology is likely to impact the culture may depend upon when it appears relative to the general adoption of other forms of augmentation and to what degree the eventual community of purely AI members of society impact the overall culture.
Cognitive transference is likely to be performed in two ways; gradual and wholistic. Gradual transference is where an individual has used corrective augmentation incrementally over the course of life to replace failing or damaged portions of the brain until no part of it is essentially original -mostly likely in concert with incremental repair of the rest of the body and with an equal potential for it to be realized with organic material from cultured stem cells or by inorganic systems integrated to the original brain tissue. This is likely to be the first manner in which this is realized -necessitated by the steady increase in maximum organic human life span- and where it occurs predominately using cultured organic tissue replacement it may not be culturally perceived as artificial even though it is. This mode of transference is primarily corrective in nature. There is no strict need to do any more than maintain the original youthful state of the brain. However, in that itself is the basis of a kind of enhancement. The younger brain has learning capability, recall, and response quickness that is lost with age. And as human beings increase in age far beyond the natural potential maximum they will begin to approach natural cognitive thresholds in knowledge and memory capacity that can only be surpassed by improving the brain in some way, which may demand inorganic enhancement due to the density limits of the organic brain.
Holistic cognitive transference is the total transfer of the mind from one 'cognitive medium' to another, be it organic or inorganic, a self-contained system or freely relocatable software. A technology I have often referred to as 'uplift'. The process is likely to mirror the process of incremental augmentation but at a very rapid pace, the mind mirrored in a parallel system sharing parallel connection to sensory information and intraneural communication and with the original brain incrementally shut down as the mind's mirror system is completed and assumes an active processing role, this approach used to avoid the perception of a suspension of consciousness and the cognitive dissonance -or Hutton's Paradox- that could result. This is the more advanced mode of cognitive transference and, unless AI software and neural interfacing advance much faster than biotechnology, is likely to take much longer to develop and become generally acceptable to the mainstream society. For much of the society this technology will always remain controversial because of the essential question of the nature of life, the legacy of thousands of years of religious influence on the organic human culture, and the fact that for the process to be performed the original organic brain and body must be shut down -effectively killed- and either disposed of or put into some kind of storage. Members of the AI community will likely have little problem with this because, in their community, a freely relocatable mind would be quite normal and they would be inclined to regard an organic body as little different from any robotic body or virtual avatar they might employ as a 'vehicle' for their minds. How these people influence the mainstream culture will determine how widespread this practice becomes. With the possible exception of the use of holistic transference as a means to survival in the event of very rapid incurable diseases or terminal trauma that other forms of medical intervention can only offer a short reprieve for, the use of this technique may only be employed by those seeing it as the ultimate form of enhancement augmentation because of the way it allows a person to be freed from virtually all the limitations of organic biology. The 'uplifted' individual would enjoy virtual immortality and all the freedoms associated with the AI existence; freedom to switch virtual forms or physical bodies at will with no limits on intellect regardless of size and morphology, to operate in more than one place at a time by perception-switching between multiple remote avatars, to be fully interfaced to the global computing and communication infrastructure, to learn and communicate knowledge and experience instantaneously and expand in intellect beyond the limits of the organic brain, the ability to live in total comfort and luxury in the virtual habitat while taking up virtually no space or resources in the physical environment, and -perhaps the most compelling of all- the ability to travel the universe at the speed of light (or faster!) and live in space without the overhead of organic human life support. And unlike the situation of the early AI individuals, these benefits would come at no compromise in ability. One would not be confined to the virtual habitat. At the likely level of nanotechnology needed to make this possible, inorganic or hybrid organic bodies in an endless variety of forms would also likely be freely available for any AI to employ by either transfer or telepresence. The practice of Uplift may never be common but there is likely to be a kind of competition here with progress in biotechnology. The longer it takes biotechnology to achieve effective immortality and painless total body maintenance, the more attractive uplift looks as a means to maintain a very high quality of life indefinitely through time.
Cosmetic Augmentation: This mode of augmentation has been a particular human obsession for as long as civilization has existed in some form and is likely to remain so for as long as human civilization continues. The ingenuity and creativity human beings have applied to this over millennia is truly incredible. But given the power of emerging new technology, with its ability to craft both worn artifacts and the body in ways never possible before, we can expect a wild diversification of the human morphology driven purely by fashion, fantasy, and a desire for experiential and sexual novelty. With the very limited body augmentation tools of the past, cosmetic adaptations where generally focused on concealment, camouflage, and distraction to compensate for those supposed imperfections of our bodies and ornament, costume, body modification, and willing suspension of disbelief aided by the visual analogy of costume and mimicry to go beyond the actual limits of the body. The need for concealment, camouflage, and distraction is progressively diminishing as our technologies of corrective augmentation allow us to directly and increasingly conveniently correct what we -and others- perceive to be physical imperfections. Within perhaps as little as a century every physical deformity, be it congenital, the product of injury, illness, or aging, the consequence of lifestyle, or simply a matter of personal taste or cultural convention will be correctable in some way with a minimum of discomfort -and them many of them will come right back as a deliberate fashion statement! Meanwhile, our tools for ornament, costume, and direct body modification our becoming similarly more powerful and convenient and being supplemented by the new virtual environment -a place where we are free to assume any desired form or appearance with anonymity and immediacy.
All the technologies I described for corrective and enhancement augmentation will have their cosmetic applications as well, with the results often much more radical. Clothing will really become an extension of our own organism in terms of the sophistication of its built-in mechanisms of expression, communication, and environmental response. We will see mood and emotion communicating clothing, clothing as dynamic informational or artistic display, and costume with sophisticated sensory feedback. We'll be able to feel through some kinds of clothes as through they were an actual second skin and feel and control costume prosthetics as through they were extensions of the body. The costume performers of today who depend so much on the audience's suspension of disbelief will find themselves using active costumes so fully integrated with their own bodies and senses that they, and their audience, will forget it is a costume. Many forms of clothing may take on this same aspect as a way of exploring body modification without the trade-offs of doing it 'for real'.
As for actual body modification, the possibilities are mind boggling as the more convenient and freely reversible forms of cosmetic surgery become and the farther out in how radical the modification can be the larger the demographic of potential users becomes. Generally, people in the future will largely stop the appearance aspects of aging at any point they wish and go back and forth in age as desired. Gender, apparent ethnicity, and any other physical characteristic will be freely changeable. People may even invent new ethnic trait sets as fashion! Body art, long typified by piercings, tattoos, and decorative scarification, will become freely reversible and expanded in features in astounding ways. People may treat their bodies as ever-changing canvases not only using color and decorative images but also texture, reflectivity, luminosity, animation, and possibly even illusory transparency. Sexual enhancement and ornamentation may become increasingly elaborate. Though in the West sexual augmentation has largely been limited to (some would say imposed upon) women, in Asia there has long been a trend in the modification of male genitalia for visual novelty and enhancement of sexual pleasure. This sort of thing is likely to increase in use for both sexes and may sometimes result in truly bizarre displays of sexual novelty and outrageous trends in sexual fashion -since the more easily reversible any modification is the less risk is involved in exploring it. For many even all this will not be enough in terms of how radically the body is adapted. Eventually some will employ total morphological reconstruction for the sake of novelty and recreational experience. All the creatures of SciFi, fantasy, and legend may come to life as modified human beings, spawning communities with very unusual lifestyles. People may become animals or creatures of fantasy as a form of recreation, or choose to pursue life in these forms perpetually, supporting their living by serving as guides for people temporarily adopting these forms for fun. It's not inconceivable that we may see people who are indistinguishable from animals or the most outlandish of alien creatures while still retaining the complete normal human genome, normal human intelligence, and full capability to function in society with the aid of any number of technological aids -a radical blow to the notion of what 'human' means!
Futurists and science fiction writers of the past often painted visions of future society where technology and increasingly machine-like social systems produce horrifically homogeneous cultures. But in reality the complete opposite of this is what current trends point to. Today the deep integration between a vast spectrum of increasingly sophisticated media and increasingly intimate personal telecommunications with the global culture has produced an explosion of so-called 'sub-cultures' rooted in a forever expanding assortment of themes. Some are gender preference based. Some are lifestyle based; religions, minority ethnic cultural groups, environmentalism, survivalist, etc. Some have even grown around aesthetic themes; schools of art and craft, artistic philosophies, ascetic lifestyles, etc. Others relate to variations on traditional forms of sexual fetishism which, in modern times, have become the province of self-organizing communities enabled by anonymous global communications. And many -an area of most growth today- relate to fantasy themes associated with specific media such as science fiction and fantasy literature. Each of these sub-cultures tend to cultivate unique systems of aesthetics with unique standards of beauty -standards which are increasingly not confined to what nature has left the human body with. Already we have cultivated vast communities who would be ready to jump at any possibility of radically altering their bodies in ways the 'public' face of society would be outraged by, while its private side is secretly fascinated. In the future anything anyone can think about in terms of a body image or physical identity is going to be realizable in some fashion and possibly form the basis of new special communities. What you can now see today among the diversity of avatars people use in Second Life may very well be what you will see walking the streets of New York or LA a couple centuries from now.
By the time of the Transhumanist Phase, with a robust nanotechnology on-line, NanoFoam perhaps moving toward ubiquity in the fabric of the civilization, a large portion of the organic human community sporting direct neural interface, and a large portion of society in general no longer organic, the role of the virtual habitat will be greater than ever. Predominately a place of socialization, entertainment, and recreation for most of the population up to this point, by this time it may have become the heart of the civilization, a place where most of its intellectual and cultural development takes place, most of its total data content is held, most of its media generated, a continuous home to a large and slowly growing community, and a direct extension of the everyday living environment for everyone else. The techniques of spatial merging will become highly refined and ubiquitous in use with most of the built physical habitat and much of the natural environment mirrored in the virtual habitat. Every user of a direct neural interface and every advanced robotic 'remote' used in telepresence will be a scanner assisting this merging while large areas of the natural environment will be equipped with sensor grids to allow their recreational use without environmental impact. The built physical habitat may become greatly simplified in some ways as people come to need progressively fewer more sophisticated artifacts to support their standard of living, keep very few possessions in favor of those manufactured on demand, use most media and information in their heads, heavily favor the virtual habitat over the physical habitat for most socialization and recreation, and rely on telepresence as much as physical travel. We may see a majority of people who can live very comfortably in homes no larger than the so-called 'rabbit hutch' apartments of Japan because most of their possessions are virtual and constantly carried with them and because they can freely expand their personal environments without limit in the virtual habitat. Indeed, many people may feel no need for a permanent home at all because all they need exists either in the virtual habitat or can be made on demand. New forms of community architecture may evolve around the notion of a property-less nomadic existence where people share a public habitat while all their personal property is exclusively information. We may see the emergence of tribes of homeless naturists who wander the globe naked and indifferent to any climate while being totally connected to the virtual habitat and sufficiently augmented to carry all their life support needs in their own bodies, their personal nanosystems allowing them to shelter themselves from the elements with spontaneously created cocoons wherever they feel like setting down to rest. This may produce architecture based on wall-less communities without a need for much of any permanent personal structure, just comfortable landscapes to wander in.
Also by this time, much of the Earth's subterranean crust may become used to host most of its infrastructure, evolving into a largely contiguous structure serving as the physical support system of the virtual habitat as well as most of the physical built habitat. Nanotech boring machines will make fabricated-in-place tunnels much cheaper, safer, faster, and more convenient to create than roads and thus PRT and PPT systems will replace most forms of transportation while NanoSoup pipelines will distribute most materials in a kind of molecular internet. Eventually this infrastructure may evolve into what I've referred to as a 'RhiZome' based on a more-or-less continuous mass of NanoFoam like a new layer of strata in the Earth's crust and serving as a self-maintaining self-configuring substructure of civilization which grows in place the visible structures it uses on the Earth's surface. This combined with the much reduced need for human personal space and resources, the ability to condense human built habitat, and the growing ease of migration to space may see a great restoration of the natural environment on Earth. The virtual environment will be key in this. The more the society can satisfy its desires in the virtual habitat, the less of the natural portion of the physical habitat it must consume in the process. AIs are likely to be the first to incorporate this into their culture and they may promote the notion of UpLift on environmental grounds for the same basic reasons people promote the concept of Arcologies today. The logic is identical; miniaturizing the footprint of civilization in order to give back space to nature without a sacrifice in quality of life. However, there is also likely to long be a threat of a suburbanization of the Earth as national authority breaks down with the old economies, more fluid anarchistic political systems emerge in their place, and it becomes easier for people to live very well independently anywhere they wish to, even in Earth's harshest environments. It's very hard to say at this point which way things may go. These new technologies bring with them equal potential for miniaturization and explosive expansion of the human civilization's footprint. The question is whether we can effectively cultivate a culture where it is more likely to express its expansive tendencies in space and its miniaturization tendencies on Earth. That will depend on how close to the physical quality of live the virtual can come.
Conclusions and Implications:
Now you might be wondering what any of all this has to with TMP. Actually it has a lot to do with it. To begin with, we can see that as the virtual habitat becomes increasingly significant to the general culture, so too must it become a fixture of TMP related community development wherever it occurs. It will become a new factor in standard of living just as access to the Internet has become today. For some settlements this will be a challenge because of telecommunications latency and the fact that the quality of the virtual habitat depends on the scale of its user population more than any sophistication in its technology. Latency fractures the virtual habitat, limiting Internet communications to asynchronous applications and localizing the community that can create and use any set of virtual environments. This, in turn, limits its potential as a medium for civilization-wide socialization and anonymous self-expression and social and cultural experimentation. This means that the more remote the community the more its semi-isolated branch of the virtual habitat must operate in a more self-contained manner, relying more on AI to provide surrogates to actual users in order to provide an engaging social environment -something it will always have trouble doing until AI gets very close to achieving sentience. Now this is more of a problem the smaller and more remote a community is. As I explained in my article on Transportation and Telecommunications in TMP, for settlements like the Aquarius colonies, they need to be pretty large to support low-latency high-bandwidth telecom links. Satellite telecom is simply not adequate and is probably never going to be the big growth area it is often anticipated by space enthusiasts to be no matter how cheap launched get because of its high latency problem. TMP settlements in space, however, have no choice but to cope with high latency telecom. Their branches of the virtual habitat will always be fractured, making virtual habitat use generally less popular for the small settlement and creating a kind of cultural isolation within it for larger settlements. This is significant when you consider how this is going to effect the perception of their standard of living in the future. This is something that could actually become a limiting factor on the pace of human expansion into space because even as we are becoming more capable of getting to space, we are simultaneously becoming more interdependent as a society connected by telecommunications. Right now the possibilities of new telecom technologies that might overcome this seems very remote. You can increase the bandwidth of telecommunications to the point where the sum of human civilization's information could be broadcast in a minute, but it still does nothing for latency over long distances. Only a faster-than-light means of communication can overcome that.
With the advent of sentient AI and the shift in the role of the virtual habitat to include permanent residents, the technology of the virtual habitat hosted by TMP settlements becomes a factor in how these new people are embraced -or not- by the culture of TMP communities and how TMP takes advantage of their unique abilities for its own ends. On Earth the role of TMP settlements as residences for AIs is not particularly critical unless the reaction of the mainstream society towards these new people leads to some sort of persecution that compels them to seek safe physical havens for their life support in more remote locations. I think that the earlier sentient AI emerges the more likely that is for the simple reason that the present global society is quite primitive; hampered by religious dogma and its companion psuedo-science, crippled by cultural conservatism driven by social elites feeling control slipping from their decrepit fingers and poorly adapting cultures struggling with future shock, and thus generally backward rather than forward-looking today. Were a sentient AI to somehow be created today it would be as in as great a peril as Cook among the Hawaiians! As a community more culturally forward-looking than perhaps any other, TMP settlements could exploit this for great strategic advantage since, as I pointed out earlier, the ability of Ais to play the games of the now telecommunications-based global economics with much greater efficiency than organic humans means that they could quickly become some of the wealthiest people in the world in very short order -assuming they appear before current economic systems break down due to the impact of post-industrial technology. It's probably a close thing. Better still if TMP settlements are the originators of sentient AI as then the progressive ideals of TMP's culture are likely be fully embraced in this new virtual community while TMP settlements would become the nexus of the global cultural shift this kind of technology, in all its variations, would produce.
This would also present a strategic advantage in the course of space development because, as things stand today, the precedents of space development will be set by the first people out there in earnest. God help us if today's national space agencies with their extreme degrees of corruption by the military/industrial complex become primary developers of space as they will create endless obstruction for everyone after them until such time as the post-industrial culture achieves ubiquity and obsolesces the delusion of nationalism altogether. We should be very thankful for their general incompetence. AIs offer a great advantage in their ability to colonize space faster and more easily than anyone else due to their very minimalist life support needs and their ability to 'commute' to space by telecommunications. By accepting and exploiting this natural advantage, a focus in TMP on an initial wave of AI settlement will give its culturally progressive community dominant influence in the solar system, and perhaps accelerate the demise by obsolescence of the more primitive and self-destructive cultural memes in the global culture.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the evolution of human society and culture I've been describing in this article relates to the way TMP itself must evolve in order to stay relevant to it. Over the span of TMP the technologies I've been talking about will be simultaneously generating two forces in society, one bringing society together in the virtual environment, the other -the inclination toward demassification accelerated by post-industrial technology- pushing it apart. Like all space development visions, TMP is definitely an enabler of the latter force. It will be cultivating the technologies that enable people to live farther away from others in progressively smaller groups with no sacrifice in comfort or standard of living. This is critical to getting into space but it also simultaneously presents a great environmental threat in the form of the potential to suburbanize the Earth -a threat even most environmentalists overlook as they promote the so-called 'soft' technologies that have been enabling the first wave of wilderness sprawl.
The divergence in morphology of human beings is likely to simultaneously accelerate the demassification of the global culture and the sociopolitical structure of the civilization which, in turn, will create an impetus for more people to coalesce into communities based on shared interests and optionally distance themselves from the mainstream society -with sea and space being where that increasingly happens in the future. The very same nanotechnology that may one day allow a person to switch genders on demand, grow Vulcan or elf ears, make their skin glow in the dark, or let them permanently attach a fully functional dolphin's tail to the lower half of their body all as a fashion statement is also going to afford people the option to live more independently in progressively smaller more remote communities in progressively more challenging environments. Sub-cultures create communities as a means of protection and to enable freedom of expression. People of like tastes and interests come together in groups -temporarily or permanently- in order to create sheltered environments where they can express these tastes and interests and cultivate their unique culture free of ridicule, persecution, or obstruction. We in the West like to pretend we have a very egalitarian society but in practice we're far from it. Bigotry runs rampant today and is expressed in everything from overt racist behavior to institutionalized class exploitation to subtle or overt sexism in media to aesthetically biased building codes. It's even gotten to a point were racial and social minorities now routinely cultivate bigotry toward other minorities who they perceive as a competitive threat to whatever hierarchical position on the sociocultural ladder they think they've carved out for themselves. At the same time people are seeking to express and indulge their individuality more than ever and are increasingly rejecting the one-size-fits-most offerings of the mainstream culture. We are inventing more minorities all the time and soon everyone will have an excuse to feel persecuted. Maybe that's the true egalitarianism! The more divergent in nature from the mainstream -and therefore threatening to it- a sub-culture is, the more security -social and physical- its community feels a need for, and that can mean the creation of self-contained communities on the periphery of the civilization or hidden in its midsts in some way.
Right now there exist many lifestyle, culture, and ethnic enclaves in the world and there is currently an equal possibility that the first self-sustained marine colony may actually be founded as a gay-exclusive community or something similar -especially considering the recent cultural back-sliding in the West in the past two decades. In the future we are likely to see a steadily growing number of such enclaves emerge for many more and increasingly unusual/esoteric reasons. Arcologies of philosophers. Subtopolises (underground cities) of AIs. Lunar settlements for Trekkies. Navajo settlements on Mars. Forest tribes of naturists who live in the outdoors and carry all their sophisticated technology in their own bodies. Nature 'preserves' of 'human' animals. Mermaid villages under the sea. Island Avalons or artificial megatrees of 'human' fantasy creatures. Orbital colonies of academics. Polar biospheres of polyamorists. Aerostadts (flying cities) of cyberartists. Any number of self-contained religious and political enclaves and innumerable communities spontaneously formed of little more than ever-changing circles of friends. All these things are possible and the cultural ramifications of this are incredible. The demassified future society promises a world where the concept of national identity becomes almost impossible to maintain -and I suspect that for the very few politicians and corporate executives intelligent enough to understand what this actually means it is a very frightening prospect. Some futurists today predict a future where nations are nothing but a memory and the globe is compartmentalized into an ever-morphing array of spontaneously forming and dissolving 'states' as small as households and no larger than a city. The internet, its virtual habitat, and its ubiquitous infrastructure may eventually be the only glue holding the civilization together in any sort of coherent structure.
Also, the virtual habitat will cultivate an inorganic branch of society far better suited to the settlement of space yet, paradoxically, more aligned to the trends bringing society together rather than pushing them toward space due to the way communications latency impacts their lifestyle and because they have an inherently lesser need for elbow room than the more organic end of the future human spectrum. As I said before, AI's could settle space with great ease since they need so very little in terms of life support and can travel as data by radio. But they also have the entire uninhabitable volume of the Earth to develop before they have a great need to move to space. Earth's population capacity could be a thousand times greater than it is at present were most of the society inorganic -and that would still leave the Earth's surface as pristine as it was at the end of the last ice age. This is hard for most of us to envision now but the more effective quality the virtual habitat realizes and the more people in the future who originate as AIs or shift progressively to the inorganic side of the transhumanist spectrum for sake of convenience the more plausible this scenario becomes. Putting all one's eggs in one basket is obviously foolhardy in our violent universe. But Earth need not be 'backed up' as more than data either if security is the only goal. In the future terraforming may not be done for practical reasons. The future human habitat throughout the universe may need no more than RhiZomes and Solar Ribbons for most of its population. Organic life may be seeded about the universe only to expand its potential to generate novelty, as a kind of aesthetic expression, or simply for nature's own sake. And just how 'natural' can a world seeded by man ever be? Will we need to devise a Taoist-like theory for a 'Timeless Way Of Terraforming' (after the fashion of the book The Timeless Way Of Building) to get to the heart of the matter?
Like most futurist visions, TMP has often created the impression of a rather monolithic and homogenous culture and a rigidly deterministic model of development. Some people have even referred to it as 'megalomaniacal.' I don't think this is intentional. It seems to be the consequence of crafting any Big Idea that compels a large community to share a common goal. The presumption is that everyone must be on the same page in this endeavor and when we craft illustrations of this vision the need for them to communicate the impression of a shared vision will, in retrospect, produce an impression of imposed conformity -which, of course, it quite implausible given the contemporary trends. This is why my notions of TMP architecture have favored functionally generic and stylistically neutral concepts. I don't believe in 'planned' community. I don't think you realistically can plan communities. They are emergent phenomenon. So I prefer the notion of systems rather than specific structures that can spontaneously and interactively generate landscapes for people to inhabit and spontaneously adapt to their needs -something which I trust most readers can see is more aligned to the nature of the emerging civilization I've been describing here. But in the present as well as the future we are going to have to find ways of coaxing a coherence of development activity out of a progressively demassified society that is just going to get wilder and stranger as time goes on! This will not be easy. TMP may have to abandon any deterministic model of space development in favor of a fluid field of evolving possibilities it anticipates and dynamically navigates a course through.
Freedom is the essential meme of space colonization today. But the word 'freedom' is sort of oxymoronic. On the one hand we crave independence for the freedom of action and thought it affords. On the other hand one cannot be truly independent and survive. Space lures us with the promise of unlimited freedom but is an environment so harsh and so vast that we can never realistically indulge our 'homesteading' fantasies there. So this meme must be matched to one of community for realistic development to happen. Even the future being whose body is made of NanoFoam and who could single-handedly seed an entire civilization in another solar system still is not a whole person by themselves. And yet to engage in discourse and cooperation is to compromise freedom since one must adopt the constraints of a protocol to communicate and collaborate. It seems there will always be these two opposing forces in the human society no matter how diverse it becomes, one compelling us toward independence, the other pulling us toward interdependence. Two perpetually dueling sirens; freedom and love. Individually dead-ends, together irreconcilable and driving us on through that conflict. Some psychologists say that cognitive dissonance -the mental turbulence created by trying to host two directly self-contradictory points of view- is the force driving evolution of thought as we are compelled to seek reconciliation between them. Perhaps the same is true of a culture or civilization.