HBO’s sci-fi thriller series Westworld premieres on October 2, and it offers us a glimpse into the future of immersive virtual experiences. The show’s website invites us to experience Westworld’s super secret, invitation-only playground.
“Experience the first vacation destination where you can live without limits. Westworld is a meticulously crafted and artfully designed park offering an unparalleled, immersive world where you have the freedom to become who you’ve always wanted to be—or who you never knew you were. Exist free of rules, laws or judgment. No impulse is taboo. Our hosts are here to fulfill your every desire. They look forward to serving you.”
Michael Crichton penned and directed the original Westworld movie in 1973, back when the idea of robots and virtual reality was no more outlandish than a fully operational Death Star. But with VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR dropping in 2016, virtual worlds seem more like an eventuality than science fiction.
As we get closer to experiencing a virtual world with all of our senses, there are some questions that such an experience raises. Namely, we have to figure out how to handle such a deep level of anonymity.
How Does Morality Work In A Virtual World?
Right now, virtual reality has a lot in common with video games. You’re able to do a lot of crazy shit, but all of that crazy shit is governed by the creator. Without some system of checks and balances, morality and ethics quickly go downhill.
Back in the early 2000s, one of the first “virtual” worlds was a game called Second Life. People bought clothes, built homes, and interacted with other players while living out whatever fantasy life they wanted. However, unlike The Sims, you could make it X-rated.
As free will is wont to do, it didn’t take long for things to get gross.
Second Life is banned on platforms like Twitch TV due to its reputation as a virtual sex cave for the depraved. In 2007, a UK news outlet discovered a “playground for pedophiles” where users could make their avatars appear as young children, and perform sexual acts. At the time, the creators of Second Life defended the platform, stating that everyone involved was over the legal age — despite 3D appearances. An international uproar ensued, and eventually, Second Life changed their terms of service to forbid such actions.
But what happens if we enter an age in which, like Westworld, “no impulse is taboo?” Our moral code as a society would need to be redrawn to accommodate the uncharted world of VR. Should we allow serial killers and pedophiles to act out their fantasies in a virtual world? Would that diminish real life risks, or increase them?
Is Siri Going To Become Sentient?
The main premise of Westworld is wrapped up in robots with artificial consciousness. We’ve seen this jig before: man creates robot. Robot has feelings. Man kicks robot. Robot takes over the world.
When The Terminator came out, we didn’t have the internet. Now, I can have a half-decent conversation with Siri, which sometimes can feel a bit eerie — especially if I ask her about the three laws of robotics and whether or not she likes me (she’s ambivalent).
We know practically nothing about consciousness. Who’s to say that we might not accidentally create it — and what if I told you that we’re almost there? This is a robot that already exists:
Yes, some dude has already built a Scar-Jo robot from scratch, which is terrifying. As far as robotics goes, the Scar-Jo-bot is fairly amateur. This robot can have an autonomous discussion with you, and it has realistic facial responses to stimuli.
As Dr. David Hanson says, prior to his robot revealing slightly homicidal tendencies, it may only be a few years before humanoid robots are everywhere. If you scream at Siri as frequently as I do on the freeway, it probably wouldn’t take long for a sentient Siri to get pretty peeved off. With the Internet of Things is quickly swooping into our houses, appliances, and cars — but if robots automate everything, at what point do they control us?
How Far Away Is A Westworld VR Experience?
It already exists — and you can visit a virtual reality theme park now. At TechCrunch’s Disrupt convention, journalists had an opportunity to visit Westworld via an HTC Vive.
One journalist describes his journey, from choosing a gun and a cowboy hat to getting shot in the face by a malfunctioning sheriff bot.
“The world goes white and I next find myself in a dark room with nothing but a chair to break up the blackness. I am invited by a calm voice to sit down and, to my surprise, the chair in the digital world corresponds to an actual place to sit in the real world. I do so and then reality shifts yet again.”
The first time I put on a VR headset, I was blown away — although perhaps not as literally as the reporter from Upload VR. While widespread sociopathy and killer robots are no worse than Trump, I want to know how long we have to wait before shows like Westworld bring their interactive worlds to a mainstream audience on VR headsets. It’s fun to watch. But it’s far more fun to participate for real.
We’re currently in the first big retail year for VR headsets. In cell phone terms, we’re firmly in the “big brick” phase. Once VR becomes adopted by the masses, we can expect to see a rush of new games, movies, television series, and even social networks migrating onto VR platforms.
If VR is this good now, imagine what it’s going to look like in 20 years. Stay tuned. The future is exciting, if not a little bit scary.