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Virtual Reality and the Future of Society

While we have talked at length about what the Metaverse can – and can’t – do, there hasn’t so far been a great amount of debate regarding its philosophical implications. Until now, that is, and the University of Toronto (UoT) has been the host to a huge international and essentially limitless – I.E., no questions were deemed too barmy to ask – discourse on what the Metaverse actually is, and where it could, theoretically, take us as a species.

The Metaverse is a huge, fully interactive, synthetic universe in which everything is possible. Some people believe that the Metaverse is simply the next stage in the development of the internet. It is a virtual universe in which you can project yourself and engage with other individuals who have already done so. Other people can also project themselves into this world. The manner in which the interface functions have a direct bearing on the level of reality. People play virtual reality games with hand controllers and 3D headsets at the moment, but the field is evolving at a breakneck pace every single day. Some people have the opinion that the Metaverse is bad for society because it will make people value virtual reality more than real life, which would eventually lead to people being unable to properly operate in the real world.  Metaverse founders and proponents are essentially selling it on the basis of developing greater ties to other people, achieving perfection, and discovering beauty ideals that do not exist in the world that we live in today. In a really ironic twist, virtual reality could be instrumental in robbing us of all of these facets of everyday life, and this becomes a more urgent philosophical debate. The question is whether the adverse impacts will far outweigh any potential benefits, and it is critical that we continually have a conversation about the influence it will have on our culture.

The fact that VR will impact society is not in question, however, the extent and outcomes of that impact are not really known at present, and from where we are now, it could go either way. Professor Karina Vold from the University of Toronto’s Department of Philosophy, specialises in the philosophy of artificial intelligence, and recently organised the event aimed at understanding where VR rose from and, perhaps more importantly, where it could take us.

Suffice to say, VR has the capacity to give people far greater experiences than any other form of electronic interaction, but where it is likely to go has split academia.  At the meeting, Professor Karan Singh was not convinced that the current levels of VR are not sufficiently unlike other experiences.  She asserts that at this time, virtual reality does not provide an experience that is significantly different from others such as watching television. However, throughout the course of his study, Singh spoke about some implementations of robotic arms that could be used in conjunction with VR that were described as “very engaging.” These applications gave users the ability to easily assume that virtual things are real because of the potential to engage with things in the real world, but in a VR environment. Even if virtual reality is limited to sight and sound, Professor Brain Cantwell Smith, who holds the Reid Hoffman chair in artificial intelligence in the UoT Department of Philosophy, responded that we are still interacting with the people and ideas behind the virtual representation and can be immersed in them. He compared this to how we interact with a writer and not the actual ink when reading a letter. It is the notion, not the physical matter, that sometimes counts for more.

Avery Slater, an assistant professor in the Department of English told the meeting that how the current Metaverse has been built and aligned is very much in line with popular science fiction, and there is a large degree of copying evident in the current structure. Slater told the symposium that the notion of what the Metaverse was in fiction has driven its development, as though people have used purely fictional works such as Snow Crash and films like Ready Player One as a blue-print for its development. This is a clear-cut case of what exists being driven by what developers think they should produce, because it’s what is in their minds, rather than developers really using their imagination. For the most part, the Metaverse that we have is simply a soft extension of reality, and while that makes it comfortable for many, it leads to an ersatz version of what we really could have. Of course, this is a double-edged sword and were the Metaverse to be ‘too wacky’ a huge section of civilisation would be turned off from it – just as they currently are because it is seen as difficult to access. However, with technology forever marching forward, many believe that the technological barrier in accessing the Metaverse will quickly be broken, and we are not far away from technology that is as easy to use as a mobile phone.

Other areas of this philosophical debate asked more fundamental questions, and considered whether the Metaverse could ever evolve to the point where we would be able to truly understand the nature of consciousness, or experience what it is to be another creature. Thomas Nagel, who has spent his career investigating the qualities of consciousness posed the question of whether a Metaverse user, knowing what a bat is, and to be able to essentially, virtually, fly like a bat, be able to access feelings and experiences that would be akin to being a bat? While this might seem a bit far-fetched at present, mind-reading AI software is now starting to make huge strides in interpreting brain signals and if we can reliably do it in humans, doing the same in bats or any other creature cannot be too far off.

While many of these musings may seem like a bit of an aside, many technological developers are considering the philosophical arguments in order to engineer better virtual experiences, and in many ways are just as important as purely technical work. The UoT symposium is likely to be the first in many such investigations and if they help drive a better Metaverse, we are all for them.