Thoughts on Virtual Embodiment

hammer-tusk-SSFCaOyI1X4-unsplashI pop on my Oculus Go headset and venture into a different world. I’m surrounded by generally friendly, if odd-looking companions. Most of the robots or aliens or anime people just float by and ignore me. Others are bold to strike up a “conversation” by voice or a text message. It’s really awkward for newbies, and it has always remained a kind of odd novelty to me. Full-disclosure, I’m old, enough. But each adventure in worlds like AltspaceVR leaves me both intrigued and thinking deeply.

How should we think about different ways of relating and communing with each other, especially when using technology? What are some implications and questions that we should be asking in relation to innovations like virtual reality, online communities, etc.?

I’ll use an academic-sounding term for this: technologically mediated communion. We all know what this is like as we do it every day. It’s when we talk on the phone, message each other, make video calls, play online games in real-time using different communication tools, etc.

I think we can all agree that technologically mediated communion/relationships have practical value to provide a level of connection and experience that is preferable to no connection at all. I spend many hours a week in such mediated communication with team members, family members, etc. If we live across the ocean from each other, I value the chance to make the connection.

However, we must acknowledge that a technologically mediated relationship is missing important elements of true human connection. We are not present, together, in physical space. It is always “virtual” in some way.

Here’s a trick though, as technological tools increase in complexity and sophistication, it can feel to us as though our communion is becoming more real. This is where I want to begin a real conversation; the point where we begin to consider these mediated relationships and communities to be “just as good as” or “good enough” or even “the bright future” for us, especially if we’re talking about communities of faith and expressions of Church.

sky wires

How might we describe phases of experiencing “reality” apart from reality?

Let’s look at some steps of technological progress in our communication methods (with gaps, to be sure):

  • For millennia, we have depended on written communication. This gives us a very low sense of real presence of the person with whom we are communicating, but we communicate.
  • The inventions of auditory communication (radio, telephone, etc.) gave us an increased sense of presence–we can recognize the voice–but only a single channel of real communication.
  • Audio/Visual communication (video calls, Facetime, Skype, etc.) increase the sense of presence even more. More channels give us things like: 2D visuals, auditory signals, and some limited perception of body language.
  • Simple VR – through avatars in virtual worlds (AltSpaceVR, games, VR meeting technology) provides a crude simulation of reality, but even less sense of real human presence. We intuitively feel the disconnect (unreality) when we interact so our minds must decide to play along when we’re talking with our friend who is represented by a CGI human, an alien, animal, etc. In actuality, we’re back to more auditory cues to give us a sense of the real person we know. We get very little else.

As VR technology progresses, we will certainly see things become more “real” in appearance. We can expect more and more lifelike avatars and worlds; the gaming world proves this. It should give more of a sense of personal communion, but our brains always know it’s not real life. Our brains are hard to fool. We perceive the artificial space, motion, physics, environment, etc.

  • What about the addition of other sensory technologies, which will certainly come?  We’ll have tactile feedback through simple things like gloves, or even whole-body suits that attempt to mimic physical touch, though solving problems like mass of objects and normal physical motion through spaces will likely remain issues. Again, we’ll likely experience some increase in “believability” but likely never approaching the level to really “fool” our brains. Will it feel the same as really being with a person? Not really, but it may be a fun and practical substitute in some circumstances.
  • The next, and ultimate logical step is direct influence of our brain’s receptors through technology. We can imagine nanotechnology implants that are essentially imperceptible to us in a physical sense – no goggles, suits, etc. These may be able to stimulate so many micro facets of our brains that we would be unable to tell the difference between a real experience and something virtual. It’s extremely difficult to fool our brains and bodies, but it seems plausible to create a really realistic “dream” that might even remain clear in our minds.

Where could that take us? Is the next logical extension to be lives lived in dark spaces without any actual physical movement or interaction in the real world? We could be “living” completely in our minds and perceptions. Some may argue in favor of the ultimate extension of this – the abandonment of our physical bodies entirely – prone as they are to fatigue, disease, and limited in time and space. If our  brains are still required for consciousness (?) we could imagine truly dis-embodied tissue being sustained through some means as “all we would need” to be alive and experiencing life. Transhumanist ideas already posit this ideal. Many works of art speculate about these futures: The Matrix, Bladerunner, etc. But these tend to be dystopian visions of a future where artificial life forms, relationships, and virtual lives are not held up as ideal.

When I’m asking questions like these, I have to go back to the deepest levels of my worldview. Do we know what ours is? Can we trace an evolution, or a logical progression of a worldview that is reflected in the full embrace of virtuality?  These aren’t new ideas, for sure. Buddhism posits our world as an illusion. The early Church fought against the influence of Gnosticism which, among other things, held that the material physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good.  I’d suggest that, if our theology resembles Gnosticism, Christian Science, Buddhism, and Transhumanism, we will have few objections to raise with the direction of any technological developments, even in the evangelical Church.

However, if our theology and worldview follows the path of historic orthodox (small and big O) Christianity, then we must push back and question these developments and their proper place in our lives. Christianity has always held to the view that God created the physical world as good and that we, as created beings, are being transformed into the original image (ikon) rather than being released as pure spirits/minds in the End. Jesus rose with a body; he wasn’t a ghost. They’ll be different, for sure, but the Church has always taught that our bodies will be resurrected, not just our minds/spirits.

God created human beings to be in communion with Him, and with others, in a physical created world. A Biblical worldview affirms and assumes the goodness of the created world and the integrity of human beings. We are made in the image of God: body, soul, spirit. None of these “pieces” is optional or disposable. Each is important and has a role and healing in God’s redemptive salvation plan.

If this is true, it leaves us with some questions:

Are technologically mediated relationships and communities an end goal for which we should be pushing?

Is a virtual experience of worship, community, and relationships, as good, good enough, or the fullness of what God desires for us?

Or is there another place for the wise use of these kinds of technologies, one that helps to overcome some practical limitations, but one that doesn’t become an idealized end for which we strive?


Top Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash

Second photo by me.

Do You Take This Machine?

Zoltan Istvan is wrestling with the question:

“Should I Have Let My Daughter Marry Our Robot?”

marry a robotIn a fascinating article in Metro.co.uk, Mr. Istvan asks some really important questions about the nature of relationships and being. He’s a transhumanist advocate, and that comes with some strong beliefs and presuppositions about human existence and our future. Will we evolve, or engineer ourselves into a leap beyond what we now understand ourselves to be, with our fragile bodies and limited minds? Perhaps; and the transhumanist movement is asking those questions and testing those boundaries.

What I find most interesting is the intuitive questions that come to a loving father who is trying to live in this worldview. At least two questions stand out to me: first, the future of his family line, and second, the nature of interpersonal connection, emotions, and intelligence.

He considers the implications for his daughter (she’s only five yrs/old in the core story, so it’s kind of a fun thought-experiment) if she someday marries a robot. Assuming advances in AI, mechanics, etc. we can imagine an artificial companion being smart, maybe even more intelligent (by many measures at least) than a human. But even engineers don’t seem hopeful about little things like reproduction. Can his daughter have children with a robot? Through some complex and expensive slight-of-hand, perhaps, but not real human reproduction. Is this a bad thing?

I wonder what social scientists gauge to be the point-of- no-return in terms of population if we eventually see many, many marriages that are not biologically capable of producing children? Leaving population aside, what about other unintended consequences of marriages that cannot produce children in the way biology says is natural? Will test tubes solve the problem? Images of science fiction dystopias come to mind. We might also note that this scenario applies to many more kinds of unions that are increasingly in vogue.

Istvan confronts his own preconceived notions about human emotion, personality, human-ness as well.

…perhaps it’s just my fears that are getting in the way of thinking of robots as living entities capable of all the traits humans are.

After all, our brains are three-pound pieces of meat firing billions of neurons to think thoughts and feel the way we do.

Because his worldview seems completely mechanistic and excludes the possibility of anything like a soul or spirit, could an artificial, engineered mind and consciousness become so much like a real personality that it would be impossible to distinguish the difference? Is this just fine? Would his daughter be just as happy, or happier, married to a more perfect partner?

My worldview tells me that there is something  much deeper that makes us human. We are created in the image and likeness of a Creator, and are composed of more than our meat sacks. We are more than our bodies and electrochemical reactions. We are spirit and soul as well. This is impossible to measure, and impossible to replicate. There is something special about human beings, something that gives every person infinite worth, and also infinite variety that can only be imitated, not truly possessed.

I really appreciate the questions Mr. Istvan is asking. He obviously loves his family very much and wants the best for his daughter. It’s important for us to wrestle with the implications of our worldviews and to do these thought-experiments to the logical ends of our beliefs. We can sometimes look to our culture’s stories for provocation, i.e. The Matrix, the Bladerunner films, Ex Machina, and many, many others. But when science fiction becomes real life, we really need to ask ourselves the big questions;

What makes us who we are?

Are we more than just our electrochemical/biological/physical selves?

Could we, and should we, strive to be disembodied minds, free from this physicality?

Or is our physical reality and our biology–even with its limitations–something unique and special and something to be embraced and honored?

 

VfR – Vision for Reality

I’m beginning what will grow into a series of posts and other content around a new theme I’ve been thinking about for a long while. I call it:

VfR – Vision for Reality  

Peony collage
A single Peony bloom – reconstructed in a digital montage.

I’m a media person – both a content creator and a strategist. I’m asking myself how to think best about social media and other new media technologies. A term to encompass these is “New Media.” The discussion of new media commonly includes things like: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, social media, big data aggregation, internet-of-things, questions of privacy, tech mediated relationships, (can you add to this list?)

The core idea, or theme of these posts will be to encourage and equip the Church to embrace its prophetic role in culture related to technologies that are radically reshaping our cultures and us as individuals.

Being prophetic is not about telling the future. Being prophetic is telling it like it is, revealing the truth, and exposing lies. The Church is always meant to be a community that calls out and invites in. But it is always, to some degree or another, outside of all other things, whether it be culture, politics, movements, and other worldviews.

For instance, we can read a lot about research that implicates our addiction to smartphones and social media in various crises. Youth depression and suicide seem to be negatively affected by these innovations. If social media is proving to be a negative force in our societies then how should the Church respond? What answers and alternatives can we and should we provide?

But you might argue, we always run into this with something new. We can’t be Luddites or we’ll be irrelevant. And, where should we have stopped our development? Horse and buggy, steam engine? Or before that?

My feeling is that this tech and innovation is different from what we’ve encountered before. It’s a new level that impacts everything from automobiles and washing machines. You might be able to posit both negative and positive fallout from even those long-ago developments.

I want to think about what may be significantly different about the developments that are presented to us now: artificial intelligence, virtual relationships, virtual worlds, internet of things, pervasive data collection and tracking?

It’s not all insidious on the surface, but if we consider it all together, I think it should raise some questions in our minds.

What part do we play?

What part can we play?

What part should we play?

Is this all bad? Is this all good? Is this a mix?

How do we feel about that?

If we (followers of Jesus, in His Church) fully embrace these technologies,

  • What do we gain?
  • What do we lose?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What can we, or should we, do?

Does anyone want to have this conversation? Let’s do it!