The Other Frontier
There are many frontiers on the horizon of the future. We tend to think of outer space as the ultimate frontier, but in fact we stand today at the threshold of many others that may become key focusses of our scientific, cultural, and physical exploration. Certainly, we have become aware of the increasing importance of the ‘microspace’, the realms of the microscopic, sub-microscopic, molecular, and subatomic whose quirky physics we are only just coming to fully grasp and which have already demonstrated their importance through the impact of microelectronics. Today we anticipate an imminent transformation of the civilization through nanotechnology. We have also become aware of the increasing importance of the undersea space, its worth as a source of many resources, its critical role in sustaining life on Earth, and its largely unexplored potential as a new human habitat. Then there is the inner space of the human mind, long misunderstood but now beginning to open up to a more rational scientific understanding and systematic exploration.
But there is a very new space that has emerged on that horizon. An alternative habitation of the mind, if you will, that we have ourselves invented but only recently begun to explore. So new we don’t quite yet even perceive it, culturally, as a space to be explored and yet one we have already begun to increasingly inhabit and build in. A space opened to us through the catalytic combination of information technology and human imagination. A virtual space, composed of information and perceived, so far, through various multimedia interface systems.
This is a space first recognized and explored as such by science fiction of the late 20th century. Early depictions were of systems intended to use synthetic representations of reality as deceptive substitutions for physical reality, usually as a means to delude captives. This theme was revived in recent times by such films as the Matrix series. Later dubbed ‘cyberspace’, it was then naively imagined as a sort of digital Xibalba; a parallel underworld where virtual reality technology was used as a de-facto means of representing the elements of our digital infrastructure in a collective back-stage alter-realm seemingly purposely designed for the illicit and clandestine activities of a hacker culture. The practical reality, of course, has turned out rather different, our real cyberspace a multi-layered web of various forms of very elemental information representation and systems abstractions without any one-to-one parallel representation of the digital infrastructure and where the technology of virtual reality has been employed chiefly for a very different, higher level, set of applications; socialization and entertainment.
In a sense, this notion of a kind of adjacent invisible alternative reality has long been with us, perhaps relating to early human experiences with hallucinogenic substances and our struggle to understand the non-apparent causality of some things in our environment. The folklore and mythology of most cultures seem to feature some variation on this theme; the Xibalba of Mesoamerica, the faerie realm of pagan European cultures, the heaven and hell of Christianity, the Tian of Confucian cosmology. Always this idea of an unseen adjacent realm home to fantastic beings, sometimes serving as a back-stage to our visible reality, and often associated with death, the afterlife, immortality. Now, driven subtly by these myths, we are making this extra-surreal space a practical reality through the merging of technology and imagination. And, as some Singularity futurists anticipate, it may even become a kind of post-life realm for physically transcendent human beings.
The Cocktail Lounge At The Center Of The Universe
The technologies of Virtual Reality trace origins into the 19th century with various forms of stagecraft and immersive visual media. Modern digital forms of the technology originate in the late 20th century with development following closely parallel to the advance of 3D graphics. Inspired greatly by the work of computer scientist Jaron Lanier—who popularized the term Virtual Reality—much attention to the concept was cultivated across the 1980s but severe limitations in graphics processing power and user interfacing prevented the concept from living up to vastly over-inflated expectations and interest waned across the 90s. The viability of VR technology came to be seen as hinging upon user interface technology that proved much more difficult to realize than originally anticipated and not particularly convenient or practical in the first place. Things like head-mounted displays, force-feedback devices, and ‘haptic’ interfaces. Development became largely focused on the application of games that could be implemented without these costly and still ineffective contraptions, relying instead on the conventional but steadily improving multimedia computer user interface hardware. But by the turn of the century this saw increasing use in social/communications applications deriving from game technology and building on end-user creative expression. The crafting of virtual environments began to become an international multi-cultural community activity.
Typifying this evolution was platforms such as Second Life, although the evolution of that platform—and to a certain extent that application in general—has been stymied in recent years by primitive monetization and business models. In effect, developers of such platforms—commonly coming from the older computer game industry and compulsive in their tendency toward ‘walled garden’ architectures—have often failed to understand that what they have, in fact, been creating are ‘platforms’, failed to comprehend what they have been creating in a cultural context and what is valuable in them in a social context, and thus have persistently failed to realize their full potential commercially and culturally.
Although progress has consequently been slow, underlying trends do still point to a progressive convergence of virtual reality technology and other media and communications platforms upon common architectures and data standards. The walls are beginning to come down from around the gardens and what may emerge are some truly open VR platforms designed for socialization, communication, and broader open development. There is a slowly—among the developers if not their audience—dawning awareness of the difference between the avatar in a social context and the player character of a game and thus the necessity and value of self-expression and mobility of avatars across the larger, currently fractured, collective virtual environment.
This author anticipates the eventual realization of a distributed VR platform as open and integrated to the Internet infrastructure as the World Wide Web and thus free to become a full-fledged medium of general communication and creative expression. A platform where the data that environments are composed of is treated more generally/elementally, like the rest of the data that commonly flows across the Internet, as opposed to over-specialized forms existing on isolated databases and customized server clusters. An environment where end-users own their own data. Where centralized host servers are obsolesced by client software functioning in a peer-to-peer fashion while servers remain passive distributed hosts of data. In fact, TMP2 proposes the specific development of such a platform—called Hyperborea—as one of its cultural development objectives, though it has an equal likelihood of being realized independently. With such a platform the fractured virtual environments of discrete games and VR chat systems will combine into a collective, convergent, Virtual Habitat dispersed, in data/processing resources, across the Internet and cultivated much as the World Wide Web has been.
What is society likely to do with such technology? Predominately, play. That’s not an inconsequential activity. Our 20th century Industrial Age culture has been generally dismissive of all things not profit-producing but has had to recognize the need for—and sought to ‘industrialize’—entertainment. Modern thinkers see our culture evolving toward a new sensibility. See the human species evolving toward a new Homo Ludens—man the player—whose culture recognizes and revolves around play as the engine of cultural and technological development. This is not play as a trivial pastime focused merely on pleasure but play as a social methodology in which knowledge and order are cultivated—what the originator of this concept, Johan Huizinga, saw as an underlying feature of civilization. Our civilization is evolving a more interactive aspect. Some characterize it in terms of ‘gamification’ but it is broader than that. Digital communications has not only broken down barriers of time and distance but also social hierarchies and communications modalities. The ‘fourth wall’ is now forever breached. We anticipate the Virtual Habitat becoming an important medium for this activity with the powerful capability of cross-cultural, cross-class, and international participation. A new social stage—a polydimensional theater in the round.
This author likes to refer to the Virtual Habitat as the cocktail lounge at the center of the universe. A kind of socio-cultural singularity akin to a casual public meeting place—a town square, a cafe—right next-door to everywhere. In many ways this is already what the Internet has largely become for the global culture. The role served by our burgeoning on-line public chat venues. What the technologies of virtual reality potentially have to offer this is a new more sophisticated degree of self-expression and interaction allowing for more sophisticated forms of play, and thus more sophisticated kinds of on-line socialization. This has not been recognized as yet with this technology because, again, developers have so far failed to recognize the significance of the avatar. They are still thinking about ‘virtual real estate’.
Architecture of the Virtual Habitat
What might the Virtual Habitat be like? How might its software take shape? How will we use it? We have already touched on many aspects of this in many other sections of TMP2, but lets summarize a basic picture here.
Existing VR systems commonly employ the use of largely self-contained databases storing the information for environments on individual or closed networks of servers. These interact with ‘client’ applications on the end-user’s side of things—running on later generation web browsers or as dedicated programs. A real-time ‘point of view’ in the virtual environment is composed largely server-side (with some very frequently used elements sometimes hosted client-side for sake of efficiency) and served up to the end-user through their client program. Communication between users is mediated entirely through the servers. This is a rather anachronistic and expensive approach to data management in an on-line context (which is why games like World of Warcraft have some of the largest server farms in the world) but persists because it allows a company total control and ownership over the data assets of an environment and the user avatars in it. For reasons of security, child protection, and most importantly monetization, companies feel a need for such complete control over an environment. But this comes at the price of potential scale. The overhead in communication and data storage increases exponentially with the number of active users and mistakes in management have often spiraled so out of control with MMOs that it has destroyed companies. VR chat systems like Second Life have been much more open, relying on end-user content development in environment design—chiefly to avoid the extreme and rapidly escalating costs of professional content creation. But they still employ much the same architecture, with data centrally stored and managed with an exponential rate of growth with scale and number of users. VR chat systems are notorious for being consistently behind the curve of their own growth rates resulting in frequently disappointing or frustrating user experiences—though much of this relates to the data asset waste incurred in dysfunctional monetization models rooted in commoditizing virtual real estate.
With the Hyperborea platform proposed in TMP2 we anticipate the Virtual Habitat relying on a passive data environment with peer-to-peer client interaction. What this means is that the data that makes up the virtual environment users are interacting with would be distributed across the Internet, hosted by largely passive data servers like those hosting data for the World Wide Web—basically an extension of the web. The work of composing user points of view, managing interaction in the environment, and mediating communication between users would be conduced in a multi-party conversation between client programs in virtual proximity, passive environment data servers, and sometimes more active services. A common modular API for these client programs would allow for competing client software development and open extensibility, particularly for avatar expression/behavior control and in-situ and in-vitro editing of avatars, environment, and other content. With this architecture scalability issues are largely overcome. We have a habitat as potentially large as the Internet itself with no limit on the number of ‘live’ users on-line at any time because their communication isn’t channeled through a central choke-point.
Typical VR environments today tend to be topologically contiguous and simplistic in their simulated physics. This is often necessary in the context of specific games where specific shared geographies—continents—with common aesthetic themes are created. But in VR chat platforms this tends to compel the contrivance of virtual real estate as a monetization model—the idea of creating a virtual commodity to sell. This is the basis of a ‘ghost town’ phenomenon common to most such platforms where users feel compelled to buy/lease their own personal space that is rarely inhabited as most social activity takes place in only a few public locations.
In the Hyperborea environment there would be no single unified virtual environment. Rather it would be a dynamically polydimensional space where virtual environments are purpose-specific in scale and design and, like pages on the World Wide Web, freely linked by gateways and address-keyed ‘teleportation’ between them. The concept of private space parceled and purchased amidst public space is nonsense in a Virtual Habitat and nothing but a source of virtual clutter and a waste of data resources. In the ultimate Virtual Habitat there would likely be no such thing as virtual real estate as some monetized commodity and public and private space would be, largely, topologically independent, on-line as inhabited. Public ‘persistent’ spaces would be created by adhocracies of sorts, sometimes intended as commercial ventures, hosting specific uses like games, and crafted largely by professional media talent. Imagine a Disneyland where each attraction was the focus of its own ‘tribe’ of developers. Others would be personal and community projects. Private space, freely created on-demand, would be private and generally non-persistent, hosted by client software working in a lower bandwidth server mode, populated briefly in modest numbers, and persistent only as inhabited.
With such an open P2P structured architecture the full creativity of the collective Internet community would be unleashed to explore the Virtual Habitat’s potential. This would likely be most immediately apparent in the nature of avatar development, long overlooked by developers. With a focus on expanding human expression in the virtual space and easing/streamlining user editing, avatars would see rapid advanced in kinematics, expression, autonomic and scripted behaviors. Expressiveness on-line would become limited by peer communications latency and the basic 3D graphics performance of the client application, rather than a mediating host server. This would carry-over to non-player-character development in games and ‘virtual theater’ also since, in this open platform, the difference between users and ‘non-player characters’ is only what runs things behind the avatar API. We will see just how important that feature may become soon.
Limited only by the features and performance one can pack-into or add-onto client access software and the personal computing/communications devices that runs on, the Virtual Habitat will begin to deliver much of what was promised but unachievable in the early days of VR. Not only are such concepts as wearable interface devices much more feasible and practical today, diversifying graphics display, spatial/motion sensing, and augmented reality interface technology allow for new integration of virtual and physical environments. We will be able to relate to and casually interact with this Virtual Habitat in many more ways than those depicted in the cyberpunk SciFi of the past. Eventually, it may become integral to our everyday experience as TV has long been, the augmented human beings of the near future able to co-exist simultaneously in physical and virtual environments, casually shifting their active attention by degrees between them. The Virtual Habitat may evolve to become a general extension of our physical built habitat.
A Habitat of Minds
Should its ‘fineness’ of simulation prove as great as so often anticipated for VR, the Virtual Habitat may prove critical in the development of AI and eventually become a native habitat of artilects. Today we tend to envision AI development in a robotics context, thanks, in part, to the influence of past SciFi which has long tended to depict AI as something hermetic in nature. It’s always either a brain in a big black box or a brain in a robot, always self-contained. But in reality, today we are most likely to encounter our early forms of AI as mobile application software and characters in games.
AI research has advanced to a general acceptance of the idea that consciousness is relative to the context of an independent external environment, hence the shift away from older approaches of expert systems to more organic models of intelligence relying increasingly on the use of robotic front-ends through which a physical environment can be perceived and interacted with. Essentially, physical avatars.
But why rely on just the physical environment? Robotics remains very costly when approaching the human scale and human-like dexterity. Our electromechanical technology—our ‘cyberkinematics’, if you will—lags behind our software’s intelligence potential, which itself lags behind our digital systems processing potential. This author has long maintained that virtual environments and avatars offer a much more economical alternative testbed with a higher level of kinematic fineness that, with the advance of diverse human user interfacing across networked environments, offers perfectly adequate human interaction for learning and the prospect of collectivizing experience across many agents. As noted earlier, the proposed Hyperborea platform would allow human and AI agents alike to interface to the common virtual environment through largely the same avatar interface—something likely in any environment that is truly open and Internet based. This would be used for the creation of non-player characters/actors in games and other forms of entertainment. (and, annoyingly, marketing… The use of AI for the creation of tireless, relentless, robot pitchmen seems inevitable) But it also serves as a way to interface AI systems to environments that can be as dynamic or controlled as desired through ‘virtual robot’ avatars whose limitations in virtual sensory capacity are limited only by computation. And that’s something whose results has ready application in games and entertainment through which development can be financed.
That last point is important. There really is no ‘practical’ purpose to conscious AI. We don’t usually want our tools to talk back to us. We don’t want to have to negotiate with machines to use them. We want them to function as extensions of ourselves. As a personal computer, a HAL 9000 would be rather inconvenient. And so most practical applications of AI will tend to be passive. Why then pursue conscious, ultimately sentient, AI? In part as route to better understanding our own consciousness but also, perhaps primarily, for our own entertainment. As this author has noted in other articles on this topic, there’s an old Yiddish saying that god created man because he liked to listen to stories and I suggest we will pursue AI for essentially the same reason—to create performers, entertainers, and companions. We are already doing it. We are already creating non-player characters in the virtual environments of games with ever-increasing intelligence and ever-more-complex interaction. We are already creating virtual pets whose appeal rests in a more active attentive human-like intelligence than most of our living animal companions possess. This author has suggested that one possible scenario for the cultivation of sentient AI is the development of virtual companions able to operate in a ubiquitous computing environment that have the ability to encode, consolidate, and feedback experience from interaction with millions of users using the Internet. A kind of cognitive reverse-engineering spread across a vast sample base.
Should the Virtual Habitat prove a viable native habitat for an artilect subculture, we can anticipate a new level—new dimensions—of sophistication evolving in it through their cultivation. The artilect may find, despite many limitations and issues of autonomy, the Virtual Habitat offers a much higher quality of life by virtue of the ready flexibility of its physics and the infinite potential for fineness of experience and diversity of expression of a virtual avatar. With ‘cyberkinematics’ and compact robot power technology possibly lagging for some time, the virtual avatar may long provide a simply higher quality experience of being despite its limited access to the physical environment.
This author subscribes to a more gregarious vision of the artilect based on its suggested origins in the reverse-engineering of the human mind for the sake of human companionship and so, instead of the enigmatic alien super-minds so often imagined—and feared—today, I anticipate a much more social, compassionate, ‘human’, being whose chief difference from us would be the lack of our prevalent mental illness and existential neurosis. And, of course, if we hope for any possible future migration of the organic human mind to synthetic equivalents, as often proposed in Singularity futurism today, this similarity in consciousness is a definite necessity. We may ultimately not only be engineering companions but an eventual vehicle for our own consciousness. Consequently, we can anticipate the artilect residents of the Virtual Habitat to seek not only to adapt it to their needs for a continuously inhabited environment but also expand its potential as a social habitat and to seek increasing means to bridge it into the physical habitat, dissolving barriers between the virtual and physical environments and thus the virtual and physical human societies.
What might this habitat of minds be like, compared to the simpler Virtual Habitat we are already beginning to create today? How might the artilect culture differ from conventional organic human culture? Architecturally, this advanced version of the Virtual Habitat may likely be similar to earlier social medium forms, organized into discrete public and personal spaces as ‘pocket dimensions’ freely linking between each other, their data distributed over generic servers on the Internet like Web data and accessed by P2P client interfaces linking users. But whereas the fineness of experience of this environment would at first be, for organic human beings, limited largely by optical and audio interfacing hardware, for the artilect this would be limited only by computation which might quickly exceed the performance limits of this human sensory interface hardware. Perceptual/experiential gaps might develop which can be characterized as being like the difference of viewing the Grand Canyon by web-cam or actually being there. And this works both-ways. When communicating/interacting in the physical environment artilects are likely to be similarly limited to a fineness determined by the performance of much the same audio/visual hardware. Overcoming this may become a high priority for artilect society.
In another article on the Transhumanist Spectrum of Humanity we explored the concept of attention-driven modality and how augmented humans and artilects would be able to shift perception between physical, virtual, and personal ‘HUD’ environments as a matter of focusing attention. Artilects would be able to carry this attentive modality further, using avatars in many ‘places’ in the Virtual Habitat at once and shifting attention dynamically between them, rather than simply virtually ‘teleporting’ from one place to another. In a way the artilect may be in a kind of perpetual conference call of the mind, their attention engaged by varying degrees in many tasks and conversations and tuning their perception of the pace of time relative to their ‘attention overhead’. Of course, one could argue that organic human culture is already moving in a similar direction with the near future evolution of cell phones likely to see people in perpetual silent teleconference with their dispersed personal tribes.
Seeking to bridge the physical and virtual habitats, we may see increasing sophistication in the merging of real and virtual space through advanced augmented reality and immersive display technology. Augmented reality technology would not only allow a merging of VR elements into the physical habitat but also allow artilects to exploit organic human user interfaces as a means to build information for their own perception of a physical space. In this way a parallel representation of the physical habitat in the virtual habitat would be constructed around the POV of the organic human user with an augmented reality interface of some kind, affording more dynamic personal interaction between these environments. This would tend to be limited to personal communication based on individual users’ augmented reality hardware, but could be extended over large ‘merged spaces’ designed specifically for casual interaction in a more social setting. Similar interaction may be possible with increasing ubiquity of immersive display spaces; rooms or ‘theaters’ built with large area displays, though here the tendency for an aquarium or prison meeting room like experience would require some clever design to overcome. Slowly emerging technologies of free-space holography may offer possibilities here, though it is currently looking rather bulky and power-hungry and not likely to be a ‘personal’ technology any time soon. As personal computing evolves toward Ubiquitous Computing models of use the proliferation of mobile and personal displays in all sizes will also add to the potential diversity of communication bridges between physical and virtual habitats.
Artilect society may become very concerned with security and self-determination in the midst of—and for a time dependence on—an organic human society that still may be rife with mental illness and the negative aspects of religion, nationalism, and economic objectivism. The first sentient artilects are likely to become global celebrities, attracting positive and negative attention equally. They will see the rest of us at our best and worst. They may at first seek self-determination economically, through the industries that—so to speak—gave birth to them, establishing companies, in partnership with sympathetic human entrepreneurs, to support their community’s independent development goals, putting them at odds with vested interests whose market shares their unique abilities could easily overtake. And so, while seeking an openly accessible Virtual Habitat to maximize their interaction with and participation in the organic human society, they may also seek technologies and facilities of independence and security for their personal data and computational support. They will favor the Internet no one can turn off and perhaps they may find the Post-Industrial communities of TMP a much more welcoming cultural environment.
Elsewhere in TMP2 we have mentioned the idea of the VRco or Virtual Arcology; a facility optimized for the life-support of artilects and the virtual habitats they call home. Evolving out of today’s ‘data centers’ and loosely akin to the concept of arcologies as concentrated urban habitats, they would be designed for the largely automated fabrication, operation and maintenance of systems hosting the software of artilects and the virtual environments they create for their communities in centers of highly concentrated communications bandwidth and systems redundancy. A typical VRco would combine server/computing clusters of homogenous architecture using extreme-bandwidth communications backplanes—possibly photonic—with high reliability bulk data storage and an automated materials handling infrastructure allowing for fully automated maintenance. This would be linked to independent fabrication systems facilitating the on-site production and improvement of its own systems. This would be additionally supported by more dexterous and highly mobile robotics operated in a kind of teleoperation from within the Virtual Habitat. Key facilities may be hermetically enclosed for filling with nitrogen gas or cooling fluid to increase reliability and eliminate dust. Satellite data storage facilities—perhaps some actual satellites—would provide for physically dispersed redundancy. Independent renewable power systems with massively redundant back-up may also be included in their designs and, of course, they would be massively linked to the external telecommunications infrastructure, offering countless data and communications services to the Internet at large.
Eventually designed by artilects themselves, VRco designs may be a reflection of the position/situation they perceive themselves to be in relative to the larger organic human society. A sense of cultural persecution may lead to an obsession with security and a tendency to develop VRcos with high degrees of energy and automated independence as well as physical isolation. Like many of today’s ‘secure data facilities’, they may build VRcos in underground spaces isolated from humans—nitrogen or Flourinert-like cooling/anti-oxidation fluids providing a barrier to casual intrusion. They might hide them in plain sight, such as secreted in the midst of large shipping container yards. This might even become an incentive to move to space. Simple security could motivate their extensive pursuit of robotics technology as a means to increasing potential for self-determination.
Conversely, if they feel well integrated with the larger organic human society they may feel less need for total security—favoring dispersed redundancy as a security tactic and seeking a continued improvement of the general civilization’s infrastructure for both their own and the organic human society’s mutual benefit. Their VRco designs may be less focused on security and independence than on expressing creativity and creating places of enhanced bridging between physical and virtual habitats and for showcasing accomplishments. Without the same functional needs as conventional architecture, they may seek to design VRcos as exuberant works of public art housing elaborate immersive entertainment complexes as well as their host computing systems. Places promote a convergent rather than divergent evolution of organic and inorganic culture. Most likely we may see a combination of both highly public facilities backed up by highly secure facilities—as the saying goes, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Within these advanced Virtual Habitats a culture and lifestyle driven by the commodity of novelty may evolve. The VRco model is apt in that artilects will be compelled to operate in communities as their life support will long be dependent upon shared facilities—initially established in a business/corporate context before expanding into the global infrastructure. Artilect communities may become very much like tribal artist communes in character. Their existence will initially depend on earning a living within a market economy dominated by the concerns of organic humans. They will basically have to earn a living by being a service to organic human beings. At the same time their cost-of-living—though perhaps quite large at first if their early host computers require great sophistication—will quickly shrink toward nil. They will have no life-support needs beyond power and computing resources and within their Virtual Habitats they would be free to virtually create anything they can imagine. So the commodities of mind will become the currency of artilect culture; invention, creativity, novelty, experience, and social attention that can be packaged/exported as a product on the organic human market and exchanged within their communities. Early on, there will seem no end of at-hand problems, research, and creative projects for artilects to engage their minds with. Eventually they may be compelled to reach beyond the confines of Earth in search of novelty.
In other articles we explore the possible impact of nanotechnology such as NanoFoam, our speculated model for advanced nanotechnology in the form of a self-constructing self-transforming intelligent material that may become the essential physical medium for much of more distant future civilization. With such technology the collective VRcos could be fully subsumed into a planetary, and eventually solar-system-spanning infrastructure through such structures as RhiZomes; NanoFoam based subterranean complexes that spread like root systems on a vast scale and provide a materials internet based on the distribution of NanoSoup as a carrier of nano-packaged materials in liquid suspension form. This author imagines a future planetary RhiZome network serving as a combined backbone of civilization—‘growing’ our built habitat—and a sensory network for the planetary environment, turning our biosphere into a kind of semi-aware cyborg for the sake of better environmental management. Thus the entire Earth could eventually become a collective VRco fully bridging the gaps and breaking down the barriers between the virtual and physical habitats.
Should we ever manage to realize a suitable faster-than-light means of teleccommunication the Virtual Habitat may truly become the cocktail lounge at the center of the universe, a convergent hyperspatial continuum for our interstellar civilization where people—freely mobile consciousnesses—may casually travel the universe as if walking between rooms of their own home.