Are we inventing The Matrix?

By Michael Phillip Nelson (twitter @midwestmike__)

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By now, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Oculus Rift reaction videos floating around the Internet.  In case you haven’t— Oculus Rift is essentially the first accessible, high quality set of stereoscopic virtual reality goggles.  Typical reactions to trying the goggles include awe, disbelief and mild confusion about voices in the room, due to the user’s brain being tricked into thinking they’re actually in the virtual space they’re perceiving.  If our brains are so easily tricked into accepting a new reality within minutes, it seems plausible that we aren’t too far from a virtual world so real, seductive and full of sensory stimulation that we might actually forget we’re in it, or just not want to leave it.

Admittedly, adorning a nice VR headset is not enough to seamlessly integrate us into an electronic world, but coupled with a technology known as a BCI (brain-computer interface), it might be.  The idea of a brain-computer interface may sound like straight up Science Fiction, but scientists have actually been experimenting with, and researching BCIs thoroughly since the 1970’s.  Animal and human subjects fitted with BCIs have been able to manipulate cursors, games, implants, objects and yes, three-dimensional VR environments in a shockingly wide variety of ways just by thinking about it.  How is this possible?  As it turns out, the human brain has quite a knack for changing and figuring things out on the fly, often with basically no learning curve.  Scientists call this phenomenon “neuroplasticity.”  Take, for example the case of 14-year-old teenage boy fitted with a subdural (beneath his skull) BCI. He was able to play Space Invaders within minutes of being connected to it.  Even DARPA has taken notice of and experimented with BCIs in a myriad of ways, including synthetic telepathy.

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So imagine, if you will, what the combination of Oculus Rift, a BCI, the Internet and the proper software would look like. You could, conceivably, control an avatar in a virtual world, which you could navigate using only your mind, socializing with others doing the same.  If you’re a gamer, you don’t need to be told how exciting, and perhaps, dangerously seductive that proposition is.  Imagine being literally immersed in your favorite game.  Now let’s compound that seductive, probably addiction inducing cocktail of technology by taking it yet another step further.

Through a neural interface, we may even be able to experience sensory stimulation.  It has been suggested that BCIs have the propensity to restore motor function in stroke victims.  So, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to assume sensory experience may be possible via BCI.  Add this dimension and there’s basically nothing separating the virtual world and the reality we’re experiencing right at this moment.  You’d be, more or less, in The Matrix.

As someone that appreciates technology and global interconnectedness, I’d be lying if I said these ideas don’t excite me.  Imagine sitting down with a friend who’s on the other side of the world for a realistic cup of digital coffee, or, better yet, a co-op zombie killing session.  But, in all seriousness, a technology like this could serve to further connect mankind in a very realistic manner, fostering an environment of understanding that closes societal and ideological gaps in ways we can’t even imagine.  However, that excitement is entangled with pretty serious ethical and philosophical dilemmas.

Right now, we are detached from our virtual interactions.  There’s a clear barrier between reality and make believe.  What happens when this is no longer the case?  What happens when violence and harassment is real enough to inflict actual trauma, at least psychologically, on another human being?  Would there be a huge spike in PTSD cases?  Would new laws need to be written to ensure virtual rights?  There would, at the very least, be a marked rise in addiction to digital environments if these technologies became widely used.  After all, we could basically abandon our real world shortcomings, insecurities and problems in favor of a nice little holodeck style reality, where all of our fantasies could be lived out with remarkable realism.

Ultimately, we just don’t know if this combination of technologies will be realized in the short term, but it’s a fact that companies like Sony, Samsung, Google and others have already purchased or patented BCI technologies and have begun developing them for entertainment purposes.

Despite the real philosophical can of worms that comes with this particular technological concoction, I don’t fear the breakthroughs, steps or growing pains associated with making this a reality.  Let’s face it, if this is a viable potential product, it will be vetted, experimented with and improved upon until it’s perfected and safe.  I am of the mindset that it’s up to us as human beings to utilize these technologies in a constructive way that pushes us forward and helps us become more self-realized as a species.  Sure, it will cause addictions, be used for mindless entertainment and escapism, just as the Internet is now.  But, the advent of a matrix-like technology that we have control over is also unbelievably empowering.  It would have the potential to unite and connect us in unprecedented ways, which makes it more than worth the risks.

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