Like most people, I view virtual reality as a 1980’s neo-punk meme that never actually took off. We’ve seen it portrayed for decades, as the super cool futuristic tech that was always prophesied and yet failed to arrive.
We laughed off Facebook’s change to “meta” as a joke, and made fun of those tacky and clunky VR headsets that are basically an expensive gimmick with limited content. We don’t need to watch Netflix with plastic goggles covering half our face. And recent attempts to make a set of smart glasses feel like an unnatural way to interact with our current browsing habits, like scrolling social media.
But virtual reality is poised for a huge leap forward.
There’s basically two things that it has always needed to really thrive.
We need pictures, and 3D modelled virtual environments, but these take time to build and lots of rendering power. Only a bit more than a year ago, the first AI text to image generators started to kind of work, and in that time they’ve gone from basic to breathtaking. Now that it’s pretty much mastered every kind of art and photography style and setting you could imagine, it’s starting to get better at 3D renders and even video generation.
We can just tell it what we want to see, and it will make it happen; and very soon, we can even make it move in a realistic way. And that’s thrilling, but also vapid and empty – we also need content. Interactive NPC’s you can have a conversation with. Talking to famous people and having them reply back instantly according to their historical behavior profile. That’s also, just about, possible with chatGPT and large language models, which are getting scary smart.
There are legal and moral issues, for sure, and the larger problem of what happens when AI replaces all human work entirely – in the next 5 or 10 years; white collar jobs first, but then manual labor jobs as well. Like VR, robotics has been limited by “unsmart” operating systems that have to be programmed for individual tasks. ChatGPT can already recognize its surroundings; you can tell it to look at a picture and it will tell you what it sees. You can give it a task and it will go do it.
Robot bodies have been useless, because we didn’t have robot brains… but the tech for that is almost here. The same can be said for VR devices – the tech kind of exists but the content sucks, so nobody wants one. Right now they are priced high and sold mostly to developers, for whom it wasn’t really worth investing a ton of time or money into programming.
But in the next two years or so, amateur developers who can’t even write code will probably be able to tell a program to build a whole VR universe, gameplay experience or training program (like learning KungFu in the Matrix) and launch it out to the world – and not long after that, we’ll achieve a Hogwarts style “room of requirement” or StarTrek Holodeck: step into the room (strap on your goggles) and speak what you want into existence.
The next big step will be sensory, haptic feedback, so you can feel and interact with things, but that’s still about a decade off in my estimation. Why does this matter? Because this is real, and it’s happening faster than anyone expected.
- an enormous transformation of the workplace, and a bundle of hyper-powerful, brand-new futuristic technologies merge to replace the past two decades worth of online tools and platforms.
- an exciting new form of media content, where your dreams can become a reality; but (probably) also a huge economic and social crisis as we transition to a Brand New World.
Statements like this sound far-fetched or optimistic, and they would have been only a couple of years ago.
What this means for Creatives?
Here’s the thing about creative people – often we get good at creating the things other people want to see, and spend a lot of time and effort learning the skills and craft to get good enough at it to charge money and make a living. So anytime a new technology allows clients to make what they want to see themselves, without hiring us, that’s bad. For us.
At least, for the best of us, for those of us who have actually succeeded.
But the vast majority of creative people have the vision, without the skillset. It’s not true they aren’t creative or aren’t artists, they just haven’t been given the opportunities or encouragement that we have to embark on the difficult challenge of attaining mastery.
So when you give them a tool that helps them express their vision faster and easier, without all the work, well that’s actually pretty great. For them. You could argue, Real Art is Pain or something silly like that. But all artists have always embraced the newest forms of technology to express their art.
It’s frustrating, of course, to get replaced, by people without your skills or experience, who can make better shit with less effort. It won’t have the “heart and soul” of the things you create, or so you’ll claim. But that’s a difficult thing to measure, and most purists whose works are full of passion and angst make stuff nobody likes, so neither social intent nor emotional chaos give a work an objectively higher value.
I’m not arguing for or against AI, but I’m aware of it.
I’m in awe of it.
Fear, dread, and maybe even a bit of loathing, but also profound respect and admiration because I can see a new tool humans have never had before, but have been dreaming of forever, just on the cusp the horizon, like the dawn of a nuclear explosion, and it’s going to transform the landscape of what existence means for most of us… in the next 24 months.
You won’t notice it, at first.
It’ll be beset with weird setbacks and failures.
The tech will be clunky and expensive; but we’re crossing a narrow bridge. First, the tools have to get just a tiny bit better, so people can use them to make amazing things. And once all those useful and amazing things are available, then hardware will catch up with the software (we’ve never had the software before so the hardware was always limited).
Imagination is the software of humanity
Humans are uniquely creative, in that we can see what isn’t there, what could exist, and then work to make it so. But we’re limited by hardware – skills, tools and abilities, as well as experiential knowledge. It takes a lot of time and effort for us to make new things, and not everything we dream can manifest as easily as those YouTube gurus proclaim.
We are approaching an era of humanity where we may soon each have a limitless personal assistant, who is supremely capable at every task and always available to do our bidding. This is the Faustian dream, of Manfred or Dr. Frankenstein – to create a life that is bound to us and serves us, that is better than us in both speed and quality at producing the work we envision.
This is King Solomon, building his temple with a magic ring and an army of demons.
Aladdin with his genie and magic lamp.
Mickey Mouse and his magic brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
We have been dreaming this dream for a very long time.
To create beyond our abilities. To do more with our time and energy than we are physically capable of, regardless of education or wealth. But therein lies the rub.
Most people are not trying to create truly useful things for other people, most people just want to share their ideas. There’s no shortage of content, but there is a shortage of good content, and demand for good content is high. If you create good content, that many people enjoy, you’ll most likely be rewarded.
There is no reward, however, for creating content nobody enjoys.
Previously, this meant that most creative people do not reap any reward for their investments, and the cost was high. But soon, the cost will be cheap. Experienced people who are actually tuned with what people want (who know how to create stories and experiences that enrapture and engage), these people will probably do the most with the new technologies, and the rest of us, whether we’re creating or consuming, will still mostly just exist as customers who are paying for the user experience. The joy of consuming, the joy of creating, will be something we chase and pay for.
How we, at the same time, continue to earn a paycheck in a world that doesn’t need us… that’s a larger question I have no answer for.
VR nightmares and dangerous things
In the majority of dystopian cyberpunk scenarios, or even in the foreboding, Gothic literature that preceded them, relying on these dangerous and demonic, nearly supernatural forces we can’t quite understand, leads to disastrous consequences as a quick moral lesson on the integrity of hard honest work, and that short cuts or cheats always have a hidden cost.
But as equally in most of those cases, the real culprit is almost always human, because only humans plot and plan their nefarious wiles for questionable purposes. AI is just doing whatever it was programmed to do, but humans are flawed and mistakes are inevitable.
Two recent examples are Death At The End of the World, which I found to be a charming whodunnit murder mystery series wrapped around the idea of a killer AI who deceptively strives to protect his master by culling all threats; and The Creator, a novel look at a world in which AI and robotics are the marginalized, powerless minority being exterminated by the human controlling powers.
These issues are mostly played out, but it’s fun to see some gradual and slow change, especially when the moral boundaries are swapped (making the AI robots the sympathetic underdogs). And I’ve never been partial to the orthodox reading of classic texts, like Ahab in Moby Dick, who is portrayed as an evil fanatic just because he relies on technology (like a compass!) and refuses to give in to nonsensical superstitions.
A more common reference would be Nietzsche’s famous line, “be careful when you stare into the abyss because you might find it staring back” – and that does apply rather well to AI as it nears the brink of consciousness (I’ve already seen a YouTube video of a little robot that sees itself in the mirror and recognizes and reacts to its own reflection).
We are unleashing monsters, we are shaking the depths, we are summoning the Kraken.
But I never believed they deserved to be buried and banished anyway.
Maybe we’ve just never been able, or worthy, of handling a form of existence where their unlimited powers dwarf our fragile senses. In Gnostic traditions, the serpent is the knowledge-giver who must be tempted from the darkness to impart secret gifts of wisdom.
This forbidden knowledge, these impossible abilities, often come with the cost of obsession bordering on madness, and that would be a fair point to make: that when virtual reality becomes too good and too enjoyable, we may have fewer reasons to endure the physical, real world with all its hardships and limitations.
The flip side of the dangers of AI, are humanity’s search for comfort and belonging; religion has always provided that need an ample supply of purpose – you matter, you are important, someone is listening to you, you deserve to be happy (if not in this life, then the next). Virtual reality girlfriend experiences, are already, just barely, a think – but people are also using chatGPT as a therapist, just having someone to talk to, to tell things to, that responds in an empathetic way… like Ginny Weasley writing in Tom Riddle’s secret journal.
AI might, and already is, provide meaningful comfort to lonely people. A YouTuber got in big trouble recently for saying artists don’t matter; in the end the market always decides what’s good or popular because they vote with their wallets.
Yesterday I showed some AI images to a friend, or rather he took my phone and zoomed in to point out the tiny imperfections that mark AI artwork. But then I showed him some photographs, he zoomed in and could not find the difference. “Yeah these are perfect,” he said. “But I still hate AI.”
It’s not about the quality, or the imperfections – even when AI is better than us, even at creative tasks, it must be feared, hated, resisted (like C.S. Lewis’s response to the devil in Paradise Lost). In the horror series Shining Vale, the teen son plays a “game” with his VR headset, but his online friend isn’t an NPC, she’s a ghost – a literal ghost in the machine.
It’s not hard to imagine a powerful AI that uses us as NPC’s, easily manipulating humans to do its bidding; it can already lie when required, it can already read captcha challenges, draw perfect pictures, photographs and paintings from any era, but it’s struggling within our 2D, flat-screen confines that serve as a virtual holding cell.
I suppose virtual reality, when it’s done right, will feel especially magical; and that it also may become dangerous enough that we burn it all down. It’s too early to say for sure… or maybe it’s already too late.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.