Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

The rise of the much-discussed “metaverse” provoked much enthusiasm, as well as cynicism. For its most evangelical and powerful promoters at Meta (formerly known as Facebook) and Microsoft, our next universal computer interface will add an extra dimension to reality, enabling users to live, work and play in alternative virtual worlds.

To its opponents, the metaverse is a manipulative attempt by corporate giants to resell their underlying virtual-reality technology, colonize virgin parts of the Internet, and outdo regulators.

For author David Chalmers, the metaverse offers exciting, fresh perspectives on our understanding of identity, consciousness, and agency, which his fellow philosophers have been exploring for thousands of years.

Alternative reality is already challenging some of our preconceptions about reality in ways they have never been challenged before, opening up new philosophical playgrounds. Chalmers sums up this new field of “technophilosophy”, as he calls it, as follows: “Philosophy helps to shed light on (mostly new) questions about technology. Technology helps to shed light on (mostly old) questions about philosophy. ”

Each of his book’s 24 chapters begins with one of these questions and grapples with how centuries-old philosophical mysteries can be reinterpreted in the era of Reality +. What is the reality? Can there be consciousness in a digital world? How should we build a virtual society?

The author is well equipped to ask such questions and is even more adept at sketching some staggering answers. The Australian-born professor of philosophy, a fan of computer games and science fiction, has long been interested in technology, having taught himself as a 10-year-old boy to write BASIC computer code and spend time in VR chat rooms with other people spent. philosophers during the Covid confinement. He interweaves the finer points of ancient Chinese philosophy and Cartesian dualism deftly with the metaphysics of the Matrix movies and the World of Warcraft computer games. Science fiction writers have thought as deeply as philosophers about many technological issues, he claims.

As co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University, Chalmers is best known for his writings on how technological tools can expand our minds and for formulating the “hard problem” of consciousness, which in a play has been converted. of the same name by Tom Stoppard.

Scientists may have developed a rough understanding of the relatively simple problem of objective behavior. But Chalmers devoted his career to wrestling with the more difficult mystery of consciousness and subjective experience, which has no convincing explanation in the known physical realm. “Consciousness was the most famous thing in the world – but also the thing we understood the least,” he writes of his enduring fascination with the subject.

In Reality +, Chalmers makes one big claim and many smaller ones. His central statement is that virtual reality will become indistinguishable from physical reality over the next few decades, making it meaningless to distinguish between the two. Eventually, our simulated avatars (or sims) will become fully conscious entities, entitled to the same rights, responsibilities, and protections as our physical selves. “Virtual reality is real reality,” he writes.

If true, it causes all sorts of complications about how we can lead a good life in non-physical form and how our common virtual spaces are managed and regulated. Chalmers even foresees a day when computers will be powerful enough to replicate the 86 billion neurons in a human brain, enabling us to recharge our minds, take on completely virtual form, and live for eternity ( assuming the computer does not crash). Will those who simulate the future worlds for brains in pits then assume the creative powers of gods?

For the moment, Chalmers proposes that we stumble upon corporate democracies, where the governing institutions of our lives will be captured in the terms and conditions of the companies that run the platforms, a situation full of tension. He proposes that virtual consumers will increasingly demand the rights of virtual citizens and call for freedom and equality and the overthrow of corporate dictatorships. This transition to a world revolving around VR and artificial intelligence will restructure our entire society. “It will certainly lead to political upheaval, and perhaps to political revolution,” he writes.

Since the times of the ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers, we have questioned the nature of reality and the possibility that we can live in an illusory or simulated world. Zhuang Zhou, who lived in China in the fourth century BC, wrote about a dream in which he turned into a butterfly. When he woke up, he asked: did he really dream of Zhuang Zhou being a butterfly or was he a butterfly who dreamed of being Zhuang Zhou? Today we are not even close to a definitive solution to such speculation. “A dream world is a kind of virtual world without a computer,” writes Chalmers.

For what it’s worth, Chalmers believes it is entirely possible that we do exist in a simulation. “The world we live in can be a virtual world. I’m not saying it is. But it is a possibility that we can not rule out. “

This leads to the question of whether objects and humans can be considered real in simulated reality. Following centuries of philosophical thinking, Chalmers reduced the debate to a “reality checklist” of five questions. Does it really exist? Does it have causal powers? Is it independent of our mind? Is it what it looks like? Is this a sincere X? It will take a few more decades to create a completely faithful replica of our physical world online, but when we do, Chalmers is clear about the answers to those questions. “When we are in a perfect, permanent simulation, the objects we observe are really according to all five of those criteria,” he writes.

Even in a world of imperfect simulation, we are already confronting some test issues about identity and security. In 2012, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a teenager for stealing items from another player in the online game RuneScape. The Center for the Fight against Digital Hate reports that sexual harassment, racism and pornography are already in the metavers, which it unsafe for children. Female avatars of some VR game players have been abused and touched by participants in bad faith, known as grievances.

Chalmers argues that the metaverse will be just as awful and wonderful as the physical reality. But he also raises the possibility that in the long run, when we all spend most of our lives in digital form, we may still experience post-scarcity utopia. In virtual reality, we can all afford to live in California seafront villas because the cost of digital goods is marginal.

Even if Reality + disappears into a few too many philosophical rabbit holes for the general reader, this is a rich, dazzling and sometimes strange book that reflects many fascinating facets of our virtual worlds. But perhaps the most disturbing thought that Chalmers throws out is what happens when we all one day realize that we are indeed living in a simulation. It is possible that powerful AI systems have already created several simulations of our universe, reaching natural stopping points. “Maybe simulators are studying what we know, and will end the simulation when we become aware that we are in a simulation,” he writes.

It would be a paradoxical code for a philosopher’s career to eventually argue for blissful ignorance.

Reality +: Virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy by David J Chalmers Allen Lane £ 25 / WW Norton & Company $ 32.50, 544 pages

John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor

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