Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Viewpoint: Exploring Virtuality

Are we dealing with an autonomous virtual realm or merely with an aspect of the mental realm?
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It is useful to perceive our interactions with the world around us as being within different realms: we physically interact with the world in the physical realm; we viscerally interact with the world in the biological realm; and we cognitively interact with the world (including with our own inner representations) in the mental realm. Each of these realms has its own character and its own laws. With the computer age two new realms have materialized: the virtual realm, in which we interact with virtual elements in artifactual worlds; and the informational realm (we are just on the threshold of it), in which information becomes decoupled from human processing.

We are currently in the midst of this transition of realms, and we are perhaps too close to it to appreciate the place of these new realms in the scheme of things. We continue to associate the virtual realm rather narrowly with entertainment and edutainment possibilities, despite the great influence of a much broader vein that fiction continues to announce (Stephenson’s novel Snowcrash remains the best exemplar of the genre).

As we enter into this transition of realms, we need to ask some deep questions regarding its nature and how our interaction with the world is changing. We need not address the normative issues regarding whether this transition is a good thing or how our human place under the sun should evolve. But it would be scientifically appealing to describe and model this new transitional realm and the human interactions it makes possible. The French have a good start in this analysis (consider Pierre Levy’s Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, Plenum, 1998). But this is merely a start, with much ahead to explore.

In order to get at the nature of virtuality, we might begin to contrast it with the mental realm. Indeed, the virtual realm could be thought of as simply a sophisticated and high-impact cultural change within the mental realm, rather than a new realm in itself. Virtuality rests on its bringing about a new potential for two domains of interaction involving digital reconstructions of our natural and imaginary worlds. Both deal in representations, that is, in digital artifacts that we are invited to interact with.

As humans, we have always traveled imaginary worlds in our imaginations. Given the proper stimulus, such as, say, reading a novel, off we go. At times, we can get deeply involved, in the same way that virtual reality builds on the presential feeling of participation and involvement in a virtual world. The blurring of realms is the new phenomenon that adolescent psychology is exploring as society is influenced by its effects, such as violent outbursts in public places. Computer games are a new form of the age-old imaginative participation in the reading of books.

So too is the virtual realm, through human imagination. But the super- charging of the traditional mental realm? Virtuality offers more than mere mental promenading. It involves a level of participation that is physical; it involves participant actions based on elements in the virtual world, with effects of some kind (as determined by the particular laws built into that world).

We need to remind ourselves that even though the virtual world is populated by digital representational artifacts (overlooking for now multi-participant worlds involving avatars), the supposed ephemerality of it is misleading. The ever- present Reset button only slightly reduces our belief that we are acting in a realistic context with power over the virtual elements presented to us.

We accomplish this in a seemingly physical way (through high sensory experiences, even though they are at base artifactual) and in an active way (through decisive manipulation of elements within the virtual world), like we do in our everyday world. This feeling of physical presence and active involvement brings about a whole new dimension of interaction that mingles real and virtual elements and lets loose a highly charged imagination. We have gone far beyond the mental realm.

A virtual world places before us a situation calling for action and which is reactive in making real changes to the state of the situation. Sounds similar to life, right? Now, it is all virtual in its ephemerality (remember the Reset button). And indeed, like a novel, one can delve in and pop out when dinner is ready. In our current state of the art, yes. In what we can expect, we must not be so sure.

There are already a number of ways in which virtuality impacts reality well beyond its entertainment value. Skill is one: the pilot trainee who flies the simulators builds skills that carry over to flying real planes in real contexts, that being the whole point of the exercise. Personality impact is similar to skill, although more contentious and in need of much study. How much do the attitudes encouraged in virtual world interactions carry over to real social interactions?

The impact of virtuality will truly explode on the scene of computing and its social context through the mingling of both worlds. And I mean beyond the virtual pet craze, itself a timid precursor of what is to come. For one, add other people to the mix. Hiding behind an avatar is another real person with real emotions and his or her own plan of action. The social dimensions of virtuality, while they will develop their own laws to an extent, are not unlike those of the world outside one’s own home.

Add business and other transactional processes to the mix. Virtual gambling may be truly digital, but hardly ephemeral—there is real money at stake. As we continue to digitize our world, including the processes it involves, and as we begin to transact in all facets of that digital world, we in effect totally mingle the virtual realm with the other realms. We thus become more versatile, more powerful, and at the same time more open to surprises. There’s no gain without risk.

To conclude, it seems evident that the virtual realm is indeed far different from the mental realm, from which it initially grew. The virtual realm—and we are really just getting started—offers much in possibilities and in risks. The learning curve will most likely be steep and there will be casualties along the way. Virtuality is a truly exciting realm.

And yet it pales in comparison to the informational realm that will follow. Such is the potential of computing.

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