Virtual reality. The term itself is an oxymoron. How can something be virtual—that is, not physically existing—and at the same time real—that is, actually existing?
In the techno-world we inhabit, however, such a dichotomy is not only possible, it is pervasive. Today, we can slip behind a high-tech, VR mask and subject ourselves to almost any experience we desire.
Examples might include free-falling from a bungee-platform without the cord, performing magic alongside Harry Potter, or doing open-heart surgery on a patient who is thousands of miles away.
None of these things is really happening, but you feel as if they are.
Artificial intelligence—another contradiction of terms. How can something that is artificial, not genuine, be mistaken for intelligence, an innate, genuine ability to discover and utilize knowledge and skills?
Yet today, we know of many tasks being performed by AI machines that were formerly the sole purview of human beings.
Smartphone banking, Siri or Alexa speaking to us from our computers, and the genius of Pandora in predicting our musical tastes are but three examples.
We know these robots and techno-bots are not really human, but they do many of the things only we could do, once upon a time.
Augmented reality. This is a somewhat more easily-understood concept, where the elements of a real-world environment are supplemented by computer-generated sensory input—sound, video, graphics, or GPS data—almost as an overlay to the reality being observed.
Anyone who has played Pokemon Go, or who has modified a facial selfie with the addition of a dog’s ears and nose, has experienced AR.
Quantum computing—based on quantum theory, the nature and behaviour of matter at an atomic and sub-atomic level—is still in an embryonic stage, but it’s what enables these modern-day paradoxes. Quantum computers, once fully developed, will function in multiple states, and perform tasks using all possible permutations, simultaneously. Like the human brain can do.
The difference between that and the technology we know today dwarfs the span between the abacus of ancient times and today’s supercomputers by many-fold.
A revolution is upon us.
So, what do we do, we mere mortals, as the transformation hurtles toward us? Do we resist, as Luddites of old? And if we tried, would it make any difference? Would we be drowned by the waves of change?
Or, do we embrace the onslaught, strive to understand it, seek to control the extensive influence it will have on us? Do we even know how we would do that?
Perhaps a third alternative—chill out and accept whatever change is approaching. Will it be a saviour to humankind, taking us in spite of our shortcomings to a more perfect state of existence, a Valhalla?
Or might it be more akin to what W. B. Yeats, the great poet, called, a…rough beast, its hour come round at last, [slouching] towards Bethlehem to be born?
Much depends, I think, on our continuing, collective will to exert control over our environment, a hallmark of human beings since first we stood upright on two legs. We have unfailingly stridden toward our future, determined to overcome (or, failing that, to adapt to) the challenges we have faced. We have never shirked from that reality.
But in a VR world—where reality is virtual and nothing is authentic—how do we continue to do that? Blind to the physical world around us, and to its authenticity, enslaved behind our masks to the make-believe worlds we will have chosen, we will be tossed like so much flotsam and jetsam on the seas of change.
Will we collectively continue to assert our dominance over the world in which we live, or will we succumb to the comforts of AI entities we have created, with their false promises and reassurances?
Of all the pestilences that might afflict our world over the next decade—nuclear war, pandemic disease, mass starvation, lack of potable water, catastrophic climate change—the most likely, in my view, is the ascension of artificial intelligence in all its forms, and the threat they will pose to humankind.
Dictators of the past, to consolidate and expand their power over their citizens, adhered to an ancient Roman maxim, postulated by Juventus: panem et circenses—[Give them] bread and circuses. Distract the rabble, entertain them, and they will leave you alone to work your will.
Is that we have today—VR, AI, AR, and their ilk—a techno-version of the circus? Will quantum computing spell the end of our human autonomy as it quickly subverts our will to compete?
A decade ago, the question would have been unthinkable. Now, not so much.