Yuval Noah Harari asks tough ethical questions

Screenshot of the Time Well Spent site

Screenshot of the Time Well Spent site


I’m reading the book Homo Deus these days, written by Yuval Noah Harari, the author of another bestselling book,Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Homo Deus is about “a brief history of tomorrow”, it goes back to the hunter-gatherers and leaps into a largely unknown future of a possible successor of the homo sapiens.I won’t try to review the book here, as others did so very well.

The book made a big impression on me, so I was delighted to discover a long article by Harari in The Financial Times, in which he challenges the “the future according to Facebook” – reacting on Mark Zuckerberg’s Manifesto about the Global Community Facebook wants to build.

I think this discussion is very crucial for those of us who are interested in VR, AR and MR, because Facebook is a big player in these fledgling industries and Zuckerberg has a very articulated vision on the importance of all these realities. In “Building Global Community” Mark Zuckerberg explains how much value the users of his network get from participating in specific groups/communities (parenting, patients… ) and how important this can be also for their offline lives. Harari is critical:

(…) he never acknowledges that in some cases online comes at the expense of offline, and that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot hope to match, at least not in the near future. If I lay sick at my home in Israel, my online friends from California can talk to me, but they cannot bring me soup or a nice cup of tea.

People have bodies, so Harari reminds us, and we don’t have (yet?) the means to virtually recreate the depth of physical presence. The problem with Facebook and its business model is that it needs its users to use its services as much, as long and as intensely as possible – even when that’s not in the best interest of the users.

He refers to the designer/philosopher Tristan Harris, an ex-Google person who nowadays promotes the Time Well Spent movement. He wants to make people aware of the design of tools such as smartphones (or headsets I guess) and he asks designers some inconvenient questions: in whose interest do they work? Will they stimulate people to connect to the physical world around them, or will they serve the interests of the shareholders of Facebook, Netflix and other similar companies who have a vested interest in being as sticky as possible?

I think this should not be read as a damning condemnation of all things virtual or augmented. One can imagine virtual experiences which open our eyes to the realities around us, and even more so augmented and mixed reality inciting us to explore the physical world (remember Pokemon Go?). What I like about Harari and Harris is that they confront us with ethical choices in our exploration of VR and AR.

HTC brings physical objects into a virtual world

Physical reality, virtual reality and mixed reality: it’s a matter of gradations, not of hard oppositions. The Wall Street Journal shows this from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – a tracking system by HTC Vive allowing to incorporate physical objects into a virtual environment:

Then again, I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t make distinctions and end up in a “night in which all cows are black”, as the philosopher Hegel would say. Augmented Reality is different from Virtual Reality, as Niantic’s John Hanke explains on the BBC:

Philip Rosedale wants to improve upon the real world

The Financial Times runs an intriguing portrait of Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life and these days building a VR-compatible virtual world called High Fidelity.

The article not only focuses on the virtual world ambitions of Rosedale but also on his renovation and building projects in the real world of San Francisco, where he lives in the very exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood.

One of the remarkable quotes of the article (written by Hugo Cox) is this:

If you could work, play, meet, go to school, if you could do all these things in a virtual world then why would you not think that these spaces could become more important than this [real] one?

The idea seems simple enough but many interesting questions arise:

  • What are the reasons people would prefer a virtual world above this one? Is it because a virtual world is more convenient – for instance, one can teleport around rather than commute endlessly, one can ignore the laws of physics in colorful creative surroundings.
  • Or is it (also) because the “real life” cities and living conditions are disappointing for the majority of people who cannot afford to live in such an expensive place? Is there an implicit rejection of the injustices of the “real world” by an exodus to the virtual world? (read also the works of synthetic worlds economist Edward Castronova).
  • How “real” is real and how “unreal” is “virtual”? In the above mentioned quoted “real” is added between square brackets – I guess by the interviewer. But if one routinely works, studies and lives in a virtual world, would it not become as real to me as the current real world? Especially when augmented reality (adding digital layers to the physical surroundings) and mixed reality (adding digital 3D-objects seamlessly to the physical world) go mainstream, blurring the distinction even more?
  • Is life in a virtual environment the way out for many in a possibly jobless society, where work will be done by robots and AI agents, except for either low skilled labor which remains somehow out of reach for robots or for very skilled labor (developing the AI agents and coordinating humans, cyborgs and AI-agents)? [I have my doubts about this vision of disappearing jobs, at least for the coming ten to twenty years]
  • One should contrast a purely “virtual” vision with an “augmented” one – rather than retreating into a synthetic environment in order to get an education or go to work, one could imagine people staying in a mixed reality world, being in the physical world yet also at the same time using the affordances of virtual reality.

Even though I’m an avid reader of the Financial Times, I read first about this article on the New World Notes.

Virtual Reality Games as a Metaphor

“Virtual” is often used as a metaphor for “almost nothing” – like in “it’s only virtual, it’s not real”. I encountered an interesting example of that language usage by a well-known historian – actually what he referred to was more “mixed reality” than “virtual reality”, but his logic was the same: to express the idea that something, in this case religion, is not real, just an illusion.

Derek Thompson  of The Atlantic interviewed the historian Yuval Harari who just published his new book Homo Deus. In the interview, The Post-Human World, Harari describes a scene in which kids almost get into a fight when opposing groups try to catch the same Pokemon Go creatures. The fact that these creatures are “just virtual” does not matter to them. That reminded Harari of Jerusalem: where competing monotheist religions see a holy city, he just sees old stones. In his view those religions live in a virtual (I would say “mixed”) reality – members get good points when performing or not performing certain actions and bad points/punishments when doing or not doing other things. Harari:

There is nothing in reality that corresponds to these rules. But you have millions of people playing these virtual reality games. So what is the difference between a religion and a virtual reality game?

I think he stretches the notion of “virtual” here while at the same time interpreting it too much in the negative sense of “unreal”. Used in this way we could use “virtual” for many if not all other cultural phenomena: we humans constantly give meaning to our physical environment since what we experience is tied up with our emotions and ideas. These ideas and convictions are not tangible but they are part of our social reality. It is also not clear what he means by “religion” as even the big monotheist religions come in many flavors.

In the book Thank You for Being Late Thomas Friedman devotes a chapter to the question “Is God in Cyberspace?”. He mentions Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a Talmudic scholar, who explains that there is a Jewish post biblical view of God. In that view God is present by our own choices and our own decisions. You have to bring in God (or not) “by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.” I would hesitate calling this “virtual reality” in the sense of “just a game”.

Or do I misinterpret Harari here?

 

The disappearing headset

Google makes headsets “disappear” or at least show the face of the VR-user. The Google Research Blog had all the details about “headset removal for virtual and mixed reality“. their definition of Mixed Reality is a bit limited I think:

a related medium that shares the virtual context of a VR user in a two-dimensional video format allowing other viewers to get a feel for the user’s virtual experience.

Compare with Wikipedia:

Mixed reality (MR), sometimes referred to as hybrid reality,[1] is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real-time.

Anyway, as Google explains, this is more than a gimmick:

Headset removal is poised to enhance communication and social interaction in VR itself with diverse applications like VR video conference meetings, multiplayer VR gaming, and exploration with friends and family.