Photo Credit: The Matrix © 1999 Warner Bros.
The Fidelity Gap
Today the distinction between authentic sensory experiences and the synthesized experiences produced by memory, visualization (i.e. our mind’s eye), and computer simulations is clear. The fidelity of real-world sensory stimuli is incomparably vivid.
But this will not be true for much longer. Sometime later this century computing technologies will almost certainly close the fidelity gap, meaning that they will be capable of rendering totally compelling simulated realities like The Matrix as well as allow us to capture and recall perfect memories of any experiences we have – whether real, imagined, or simulated.
Science and science fiction alike have examined some of the problems this might create. But there a number of potential benefits as well, and they have so far received much less attention than they are due.
Mo VR Mo Problems?
One potential downside of closing the fidelity gap stems from the fact that we human beings are, at least in part, motivated by the differences between “authentic” experiences based on sensory stimuli and “synthetic” experiences that are either remembered, visualized, or artificially simulated. In other words, one reason we get out of bed in the morning is because nothing in our heads or on a screen compares to the real world. Yet.
But what happens when technology makes remembered, visualized, and simulated experiences just as vivid – or more vivid – than the real thing? In the relatively near future computing technology is almost certainly going to eliminate the fidelity gap for memory (via artificial total recall) as well as for both visualization and simulation (via fully immersive virtual reality).
In some scenarios, individuals become lost, trapped, or simply addicted to virtual reality. In other scenarios, entire civilizations retreat into virtual reality. The underlying cautionary theme is to beware the consequences of allowing virtual reality to become so captivating and rich that it offers more utility (variety, pleasure, control, etc.) than the real world.
Another potential downside is that the same technologies that enable us to close the fidelity gap will necessarily enable mind-reading as well, and so threats of abuse and oppression stemming from invasions of privacy are cause for serious concern.
This is well-trodden ground, so I won’t rehash the details here.
Virtual Reality, Real Opportunities
The potential benefits of closing the fidelity gap have received less attention, so let me highlight them in several broad categories.