Professor of Theoretical Physics, City College of New York
Co-founder of String Theory
Virtual reality is going to become more and more like real reality... it has a lot of advantages over real reality.
Father of speech recognition software
Before tying this together I want to give a a brief overview of virtual reality technology and a brief overview of the state of secular moral theory. There is still a possibility that some unforeseen difficulty will prevent virtual reality machines (we'll call them VR machines from now on) from being realized, but I will assume that they will be realized for the purposes of this post.
Virtual reality, in its idealized form, is a manipulation of the five senses in such a way as to create a completely convincing experience of reality that is, nonetheless, not actually taking place in space-time. In theory this is achievable and in practice we have achieved different levels of success for each of the five senses. When it comes to the auditory sense we have complete mastery, current audio tech is easily good enough to fool our ears, no more work needs to be done here. There is very little popular work available on fooling our sense of smell, largely because commercial applications for such a technology are scant, but I have no doubt that the current base of technology is sufficient for the job; it might take a few years of research from a major company but there's no doubt in my mind that our sense of smell can be convincingly fooled using only what we know right now. When the term "virtual reality" was first used in 1938 by a French author it likely would have been assumed that the visual sense would be the most difficult to fool, interestingly we are now very close to complete mastery of this sense. The human eye approximates a 100 Megapixel (Mp) sensor and a little under 60fps is the maximum "frame-rate" visible to the eye. Because our eyes are stereoscopic, however, we need to render 100Mp images for each eye which means that to fool our eyes we need to be able to render 200Mp/frame * 60fps = 12,000Mp per second as well as perform some sophisticated depth of field simulation. The current king of of single-chip consumer GPUs, nVidia's GTX 580, can render a theoretical maximum of 37,056Mp per second. Well over the rate required to fool the human eye. What that card cannot do, however, is create a photo-realistic scene that puts those pixels to good use. The real-time generation of photo-realistic scenes, even for resolutions much lower than 200Mp is still out of reach for current hardware but that will likely change over the next decade or two. This leaves us with the kinesthetic sense, and our sense of taste. These senses are more problematic than the previous three and the essential human task combining the two, eating, is likely the most intractable problem faced by anyone attempting to create a perfect simulation of reality. Currently, direct manipulation of nerves seems to be the only way around this problem as direct manipulation of the brain (à la The Matrix) will not be possible for the foreseeable future. While significant challenges remain, I think it is now realistic to assume that we will one day be able to immerse ourselves in a false world that is indistinguishable from the real world. The resulting product is going to have some interesting consequences. I expect VR machines to first appear as a military training product, then as a "ride" in amusement parks or theaters, then as the primary product of venues dedicated to selling virtual experiences and finally as a regular fixture in everyone's house. A number of ideas have been proposed as to which economic driver will be the first to produce this hypothetical product, most center on training but famed aerospace engineer Burt Rhutan believes that STD free "virtual prostitution" will be the winning economic driver. Which brings me to the part about secular morality.
Officially, western civilization based its morality on Judeo-Christian values for well over a thousand years, it never did a very good job of actually living according to those values, but then, they're probably impossible to perfectly adhere to. The decay of Christianity as a background fixture of political life and judicial authority has left a hole in ethical and legal theory that has proven very difficult to plug. For example the most famous secular ethicist, Australian Peter Singer, takes a utilitarian viewpoint of morality and from it draws conclusions that seem intuitively absurd. Namely that it is not always wrong to kill an innocent human and that sex with animals can be morally acceptable. Nonetheless utilitarianism is the dominant theory of secular ethics, so dominant in fact, that I won't be devoting much time to any other secular theories of ethics. The foundational ideal of utilitarianism is that those actions which create the greatest good for the greatest number of people are the most ethical actions and that those actions which cause the greatest harm to the greatest number of people are the most unethical actions. These seem like perfectly sound statements but they raise questions that are much trickier to answer. What is good? and what is harm? Again there is a standard utilitarian answer to these questions, the answer is: good is whatever maximizes pleasure/happiness and harm is whatever maximizes pain/suffering. From here things get more complicated, should the goal be to maximize the average pleasure/happiness of a given population? If so then killing off those with below average degrees of pleasure/happiness will serve this goal. To avoid that conclusion, the goal can become producing the maximum amount of pleasure/happiness regardless of levels of happiness, such that even the most miserable person on the planet is considered a positive contributor. From this point of view however, you are morally obligated to have as many children as possible. Because of these difficulties with broad principles, exceptions to the rule are often made where a principle's consequences counteract our moral intuition. This leaves us with a sort of codification of moral opinions but does not represent a coherent and consistent theory of ethics that flows logically and necessarily from a set of principles. But these disputes are not seen as directly countering the primary claim of utilitarianism (the claim that creating the greatest good, meaning the greatest happiness/pleasure, for the greatest number of people is the ultimate aim of ethics) rather they are seen as implying that the consequences of that claim have not yet been fully worked out. Another secular theory of ethics, Ethical Egoism makes the claim that the greatest good for the greatest number can be achieved through well-educated, but purely selfish means; essentially that enlightened selfishness is the most ethical motive. From this perspective ethical egoism can be said to fall under utilitarianism though it is considered to be a different (though not necessarily separate) theory of ethics. I only mention this to highlight the confidence with which the foundational ideal of utilitarianism is held.
Now lets toss VR tech into the mix and see how secular morality deals with various scenarios. Michio Kaku, in his quote at the top of this post, expresses elation at the prospect of not being limited by real-world constraints. This is the essence of the attraction of virtual reality, the inconveniences foisted on us by real life can finally be avoided and since we have literally nothing to stop us, there is presumably nothing to stand between us and the highest joy achievable. I'm going to examine four scenarios here, each under different assumptions as to how experiences in VR machines will affect us.
Scenario 1: We are aware that the reality we are experiencing is virtual and not real, and it is everything we hoped it would be, life is great and after work everyday we jump into our VR machines and travel to Tokyo or whatever. We can't wait until we retire and never have to leave our virtual worlds again where, through whatever means, all physiological needs are met unbeknown to us and our previous real life experiences are somehow forgotten or explained away.
Scenario 2: We are aware that the reality we are experiencing is virtual and not real, and it is a let down. Despite being able to experience absolutely whatever we want it is not fulfilling, it is nor exciting, it quickly leaves us annoyed with the limitations of real life and disillusioned by the falsity of our virtual life. Life is depressing and after work we contemplate selling our VR machines but then think of one last experience we want to have before doing so and jump in.
Scenario 3: We are not aware that the reality we are experiencing is virtual and not real, through whatever means all physiological needs are met unbeknown to us and our previous real life experiences are somehow forgotten or explained away. We exist in a world that is however we want it to be, and it is everything we hoped it would be. Life is great and everyone living such a life experiences astronomically high levels of pleasure/happiness. The goal of life for those not "plugged in" is to make enough money to get permanently plugged in and the goal of society is to make robots that are smart and efficient enough to eventually put everyone in such a plugged in state.
Scenario 4: We are not aware that the reality we are experiencing is virtual and not real, through whatever means all physiological needs are met unbeknown to us and our previous real life experiences are somehow forgotten or explained away. We exist in a world that is however we want it to be, and it is a let down. The ability to do anything, makes everything mundane. Like Heath Ledger and so many others who have risen to the top there is simply nothing that stands out from the everything of possibilities. Unlike The Matrix, suicide probably won't work here, bummer dude.
We'll call scenarios 1 and 3 the optimistic scenarios and scenarios 2 and 4 the pessimistic scenarios. First let's discuss the optimistic scenarios.
In scenario 1 the VR machine is just a highly effective means of entertainment like other things such as watching a good movie. Because pleasure/happiness is greater when in virtual reality, it is most ethical for us to work in the VR industry so we make this great joy accessible to more people, though it is debatable whether going to work for this noble means is as highly ethical as being in, and enjoying our own VR machines when we get off work because time spent working gives us so much less pleasure/happiness than time spent in virtual reality.
In scenario 3 the human race is moving slowly to that mythical utopia. There will be no wars because people who aren't living in a VR machine are feverishly working to perfect a system where everyone will be living in such a machine. This brave new world achieves a far higher score on the secular ethics index than the current reality, hopefully we can reach this nirvana soon.
These scenarios suffer from a serious problem. Anyone reading this will likely consider the conclusions of utilitarianism to be nightmare material, these conclusions are clearly wrong. They are wrong because utilitarianism does not hold truth as morally valuable. Who cares if everyone is superman in their own little universes if it's all an illusion? To be fair some utilitarians have tried to work concepts such as truth into the theory but it really throws the system for a loop, for instance what if you come to the conclusion (as Bertrand Russell did) that life is meaningless and "unyielding despair" is the most truthful state of mind? Acknowledging this "truth" would conflict with the foundational ideal of utilitarianism... and if you're going to let truth in what other virtuous things might come knocking at the door?
Next lets look at the pessimistic scenarios. Scenario 2 portrays virtual reality as an addiction, one that makes you happy in the short term and unhappy in the long term term. From this perspective, use of the VR machine as entertainment is unethical if the long term unhappiness outweighs the short term happiness. This seems like a reasonable conclusion but what does it say about the human condition? Think about it, if absolutely anything is within our grasp and none of it can make us happy, what the heck is the problem with us? Well it could be that the knowledge that all these experiences are fake is ruining it for us but what about scenario 4? In this case that knowledge is not there to ruin it for us so again what is our problem? Here I'm going to have to refer to CS Lewis who stated: If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. The fundamental insufficiency of man and the utter futility of selfishness are things people have been trying to deny for millennia. Despite the fact that nearly all human history is defined by us killing each other, despite the fact that anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug on the continent, humanists still manage to convince themselves that people are basically good and self-sufficient. If scenarios 2 or 4 play out this will be yet another nail in the coffin of humanism. Really, secular theories of ethics have always been little more than exercises in philosophical alchemy, as the great atheist David Hume said: it is logically impossible to get an "ought" from an "is." Utilitarianism has been trying to conjure "oughts" from "is(es?)" for quite some time now and while there certainly is some element of truth to current theories, they are all inescapably post hoc and as such are unlikely to embody the whole truth. Real moral law can only come from a real moral law giver, if morality does not reach beyond the individual, then there is no reason why an experience which does not reach beyond the individual is morally different from one that does.
I personally think that what will be encountered should VR machines enter reality is the optimistic scenarios for a short while followed by the pessimistic scenarios, though perhaps I'm just a pessimist. I certainly don't share Michio Kaku's enthusiasm for a "virtual Christmas party" because frankly I want to give my dad a big hug and poke my cute little nephew's cheeks for real. In fact I think the idea of substituting fake experiences for real ones is somehow deeply pathetic. In my eyes something is lost when we desert the real world, I think what it is that is lost is that actions have no possibility of being truly significant in a virtual world. There are few enough things in the real world that truly matter and living in a VR machine seems to me to be the ultimate farce, or perhaps the ultimate tragedy. I doubt that I am the only one that feels this way and at root, the reason I think that living a virtual life instead of a real one would be a farce is that we were actually designed for a purpose. A purpose that can't be fulfilled in a VR machine. I think there's a reason why we can go back and forth in three dimensions but are forced in a single direction in the fourth. So that our actions carry the weight of finality, so that it's possible for actions to truly matter, so that stories with genuine weight can unfold. The price of purpose, the price of belonging somewhere, is that you cannot just go anywhere. I think at least it is apparent that going through life in a simulator is a place that we don't belong, I think this suggests that there is a place where we do belong, I intend to find that place.