No one disputes that the growing sophistication of computing technology has altered the human condition. With the current world population in excess of five billion and the U.S. economy in excess of six trillion dollars annually, computers are essential to the management of life. However, few people ever think about how much this has altered the perception of existence. Philosopher Michael Heim is one such person.
The imminent, but distant development of Artificial Intelligence has forced a thorough rethinking of what human intelligence really is. The Turing test, where a computer interacts with a human via teletype and passes the test if the human thinks that the object on the other end is also human, has been proven inadequate. Other abilities, such as being able to perform extensive arithmetic computations, is also not an indicator of intelligence. As amazing as it may seem to the child struggling to learn their 'rithmetic, the algorithms are just not that complicated. The only conclusive result to date is that intelligent behavior is ill-defined. The best that can be agreed upon is a statement similar to that uttered by a justice of the United State Supreme Court. When asked to define pornography, his response was, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
Robotics, computer viruses and the nebulous discipline of Artificial Life are forcing a re-examination of what life is. Capable of reproducing, but only with the assistance of other objects, computer viruses are remarkably similar to their biological counterparts. Arguing that they are fundamentally different because they are nothing more than a series of instructions misses the point. A biological virus is a set of instructions coded in either RNA or DNA, both of which allow for four options, and is surrounded by a protective protein coat. The computer virus is stored in two option binary on a protective magnetic or optical medium. Each is extremely vulnerable when the instructions are isolated. For the biological virus,
this is when it has infected a host and the instructions are free of the protective coat. In the case of the computer virus, this is when the instructions are in working memory .
Artificial life, generally cellular automata, do many of the things commonly associated with life, including the ability to evolve into other forms. Like all dynamic systems with a random component, this evolution can be in either direction, to more or less "advanced." Again, the argument that a cellular automaton is nothing more than a series of precise instructions being sequentially executed has been rendered invalid. Whatever force you assign to human and animal existence, the core of life is a series of instructions coded in genetic material and requiring outside power sources to function.
While the development of AI and AL are forcing significant alterations in human perceptions of existence, those alterations will be dwarfed by the changes wrought by the advent of Virtual Reality. For here, the foundations of perception itself will be changed. It will be possible to create an existence of ones own choosing that is indistinguishable from that of "true" reality. This will require a redefinition of what is meant by the word God. One of the items under the definition of God in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary is, "one controlling a particular aspect of part of reality ." Anyone [programmer(s) plus computer(s)] capable of creating a virtual existence will satisfy this definition. Furthermore, AI and AL can both be considered subsets of virtual reality.
Michael Heim, known as "the philosopher of cyberspace," offers a preliminary examination of the consequences of virtual reality on the human mental state. Since VR is still primitive, the explorations here are still fairly speculative. But it is necessary to examine them now, while VR is still a toddler full of potential. He does a good job in setting down the universe of discourse, explaining items in terms that even the computer illiterate can understand. Some historical background in philosophy is used, but all can be understood by those lacking such knowledge.
The successful development of AI, AL, or VR all fit the criteria of a being that satisfies the definition of God. All those interested in the future course of humanity should begin thinking about such things. And this book is a good place to start.
Published in Journal of Recreational Mathematics, reprinted with permission.