The Singularity Q&A

Q: Shouldn't we worry about the collapse of society if people end up spending most of their time in "virtual reality"?

A: While almost certainly an exaggerated -- even unfounded -- fear, this concern is worth discussing because virtual reality (the use of immersive input and output devices to create realistic simulated environments), is a technological landmark that seems likely to be reached prior to the Singularity.   If it does have some sort of stagnating or detrimental effect on progress, this could push back the time to Singularity significantly. 

There is no question that virtual reality (VR) could become a very compelling use of technology, especially if neural interfaces are used to create a high-fidelity experience involving all the senses.  But even leaving out the senses of touch, taste, and smell, the way we work, play, and socialize could all be revolutionized by affordable, powerful devices that capture our movements to tailor what we see, hear, and project in a virtual environment. Looking at each of these areas individually will help us see whether VR poses any great risk to the economy in general, technological progress in particular, or society as a whole.

Over the past 5-10 years, a growing number of workers and employers have found telecommuting -- working from home -- to be a viable alternative to physically congregating in a place of business.  These programs have had their drawbacks, however: most notably the often distracting home environment and the lack of immediate, face-to-face communication with coworkers and supervisors.  For these reasons, telecommuters remain a small minority in most of the occupations that could theoretically accommodate them.

Virtual reality, however, through its sensual immersion, may help workers to stay focused on work more easily than they could in a traditional home office.  Facial expressions and hand gestures could reenter a telecommuter's conversations.  Workers could even share virtual environments reconfigured at will to suit the needs of current projects, rather than squeeze themselves into dehumanizing cubicles in brick-and-mortar office buildings.  The reduced need for daily commuting and office space could be boons to both quality of life and economic productivity.

The virtually commuting worker may well find the same equipment used to earn a living to be his primary home entertainment technology as well.  Immersive or interactive movies, games, and clubs -- some involving thousands of other human participants -- could become cherished new leisure activities.  This is the aspect of VR that seems to most worry some people; these artificial environments could be so enjoyable that nobody would want to leave them to do anything productive.  There is almost certainly some truth to this -- just as there is truth in the idea that people would rather sleep in and watch TV than wake up early, fight traffic, and produce widgets during the better part of the day.  People can seemingly become addicted to anything that they find more enjoyable than whatever it is they are "supposed" to be doing.  But the nice thing about addictions to electronic entertainment is that they tend to be self-limiting.  Virtual realities, like today's online gaming experiences, are likely to cost money.  People will do what they need to do to make the money required for what they want to do.  When the money runs out, so does the fun.  (Hopefully, this will not be true after the Singularity!)

A world where people work from home during the day and play from home at night may sound like a sterile Planet of the Hermits.  This is a false impression.  Humans are social animals by nature, and can be counted on to use virtual reality to increase their interconnectedness.  A face-to-face visit or night out with distant friends or family can happen "virtually" anywhere, at anytime, without the need for costly, time-consuming travel.  As an added bonus, virtual reality could break down barriers of prejudice and reduce the importance of physical appearance; in a virtual environment, you can appear however you want to.  Throw in expected advances in real-time language translation, and people from all over the world might get along splendidly without knowing -- or even caring -- about the particular bodies and nations playing host to each others' minds.

Additional benefits from VR could come in the form of stimulating virtual schools, where every day is a hands-on learning experience and a field-trip.  On the cutting edge of learning, VR could boost collaboration in the scientific community as well.   Each of these areas could have a direct, positive impact on the nature and timing of the Singularity, and there are surely many other useful applications of VR that have yet to be anticipated.

So, virtual reality, far from being a likely threat to continued progress, will probably serve to strongly accelerate it -- and even strengthen the very social ties some fear it would threaten.

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