David Chalmers: ‘We are the gods of the virtual worlds we create’

Arranging Lunch with the FT in the metaverse is a tricky business. But it seems the appropriate place to meet David Chalmers. One of the world’s best-known philosophers and cognitive scientists, he has stirred up something of a cyber-squall recently by arguing that “virtual reality is genuine reality”. So it is that, with an Oculus Quest 2 headset clamped firmly to my face, I find myself seated at a desk in central London staring across a virtual table at a lifelike avatar of Chalmers, physically located some 3,500 miles away in New York.

The metaverse’s critics have panned it as an escapist fantasy. But the 55-year-old co-director of New York University’s Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness is one of those urging us to take it very seriously — even if he does not always take himself quite so seriously. As the lead singer of the Zombie Blues band, Chalmers has been known to bash out the immortal lyrics: “I act like you act, I do what you do/But I don’t know, what it’s like to be you/What consciousness is, I ain’t got a clue.”

His avatar suddenly materialises, with long silver hair and stylish stubble, declaring that our restaurant has a “nice diner quality” to it, even though it seems eerily quiet. The VR researchers at Barcelona University’s EventLab have not only designed the avatars of Chalmers and me but also teleported us into a 3D restaurant complete with plates of vivid salmon sushi. As I swivel my head left and right, I can see a spotlessly clean restaurant boasting white brick walls and wooden floors; through the plate-glass windows I see a deserted parking lot outside. We appear to have the joint entirely to ourselves.

Through my earphones, I can hear Chalmers’ resonant Australian voice as clearly as if he were sitting opposite me, although his lip movements do not quite synchronise with his speech. It takes him a little while to fix his seating arrangements to stop his virtual hands disappearing through the table. During that time, his avatar, dressed in black T-shirt and leather jacket, contorts itself around the table like Neo evading Agent Smith’s bullets in The Matrix.

Once settled, I ask Chalmers whether he feels “present” in this artificial world. He says it takes time for one’s body and brain to adjust to virtual reality but he feels there is something quite powerful about the experience, even when his avatar floats six feet into the air. “When I was up in the air, I still felt like, oh my gosh, here I am up here in the air.” I also experience an uncanny sense of bodily presence and quickly forget about the unwieldy lump of plastic attached to my head.

Chalmers’ interests in technology and philosophy have run through most of his life and have now fused into “techno-philosophy”, the subject of his current research and latest book. Age-old philosophical thinking can help us explore some of the challenges thrown up by new technology, while new technology can help us reframe some of those age-old philosophical debates. He claims to have been inspired by the example of the Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland, who in the 1980s talked about the interaction of philosophy and neuroscience in creating “neurophilosophy”.

Growing up in Adelaide in the 1970s, Chalmers was something of a maths and computer geek, who started writing computer code at the age of 10. During his adolescence, he also experienced what he later understood to be synaesthesia: his brain would mash up music and colours. So, for example, he “saw” the Beatles track “Here, There and Everywhere” as a deep shade of red. But it was his reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach soon after this “amazing book” was published in 1979, that introduced him to the concepts of mind, consciousness and artificial intelligence. “I guess that planted the seed for me,” he says.

After graduating in mathematics at the University of Adelaide, he then hitchhiked around Europe for six months devouring philosophy books, before going on to continue his studies at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He quickly realised that his “obsession” with consciousness had taken hold. It would have been fascinating, he says, to have studied maths and physics when Isaac Newton was still trying to figure out the basic principles. But by our own times, a lot of the field seemed to have turned into a “clean-up job”.

So he decided to focus instead on the biggest remaining scientific mystery and wrote to his intellectual hero Hofstadter, who accepted him as a doctoral student at Indiana university to study consciousness. “This was the most important thing in the world that was the least understood,” Chalmers says.

As an academic philosopher, he is perhaps best known for his writings on the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, a subject subsequently explored in Tom Stoppard’s play of the same name. “I’ve somehow ended up getting a lot of credit for this, whereas all I really came up with was a catchy phrase,” he says.

As he explains it, the hard problem, which has exercised philosophers for centuries if not millennia, concerns how physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective experiences in the mind. “By the mid-19th century, you have [Thomas Henry] Huxley saying how consciousness emerges as a result of brain processes is as mysterious as how the djinn appeared when Aladdin first rubbed his lamp. And that’s a wonderful statement of the hard problem right there,” he says.

In spite of the best efforts of philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists, we remain a long way from satisfactorily resolving how the mind generates subjective experiences, such as a sense of a deep shade of red or a feeling of anger. But at the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness, Chalmers is helping lead one of the most intensive interdisciplinary efforts to advance our understanding. Backed by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, which is investing $20mn in research into consciousness, the centre sponsors a number of “adversarial collaborations” to test the most promising theories. “I think in principle the hard problem ought to be soluble by somebody. And I’m not territorial about who does it,” he says.

Chalmers has also written extensively about “extended minds”, as we outsource an expanding share of our cognition to computers. This can be useful: a smartphone can help us remember telephone numbers or reach a destination. A brain-computer interface can help us hear better or counter Parkinson’s disease. But with our growing reliance on ubiquitous technology, he suggests we are in effect now developing an “exo-cortex”, an external device-driven brain that is increasingly controlled by the giant tech companies. “These corporations are basically now becoming part of my extended mind. I mean, Apple maybe is 20 per cent of it, and Google 20 per cent and Facebook 10 per cent. Who’s to say?” His hope is that we will find alternative ways of augmenting our intelligence that are not so heavily intermediated by such companies.

At this point, we break off the conversation to experiment with our sushi meal. Chopsticks are a little beyond us in virtual reality so we have to use our handsets to pick up the synthetic sushi and guide it towards our mouths. Released close to the throat, the sushi then magically disappears. It takes me some time to master the process and I leave one piece of sushi floating in suspended animation over my right shoulder before I can reclaim and dispatch it. We then try to eat some physical sushi that we have both separately ordered. But it is a messy process (for me at least) and we quickly abandon the attempt.

Our Lunch with the FT remains more virtual than physical. I find myself immersed in the tantalising promise of VR as a medium for conducting intense and intimate communication, as well as occasionally experiencing its absurd clunkiness. But I am also mesmerised by the dizzying sweep of Chalmers’ conversation. It must count as one of the most mind-bending experiences of my life, and no drugs were involved.

We move on to discuss his latest book Reality+, an engrossing philosophical exploration of the virtual worlds we are creating. Some commentators, such as the tech entrepreneur and investor Phil Libin, have argued that the very concept of the metaverse is something of a sick corporate joke. “I’m calling bullshit on a persistent, decentralised, skeuomorphic, interconnected 3D world, experienced primarily through VR,” Libin tweeted last month.

But Chalmers says he likes the idea of the metaverse and thinks it “can be as meaningful and important as a physical world”. He sees it as a powerful means of communication, education and entertainment and a mechanism for exploring the outer edges of identity and perception. This can especially benefit disabled, ageing, gender-fluid or oppressed peoples, giving them access to experiences and networks they would not otherwise enjoy. “I think virtual reality offers so many possibilities, new forms of embodiment, new kinds of experiences, new communities. That’s so exciting,” he says.

Some reviewers have attacked Chalmers for espousing “virtual utopianism” but he rejects the charge. He accepts that VR can be just as wonderful, or awful, as the physical world. In particular, he worries about cyberbullying in VR, threats to privacy and the domination of the giant tech companies, or what he calls the “corporatocracy”. The promise of VR is that we should be able to create a world of digital abundance for all, given the trivial costs of marginal production. But companies are already looking to impose artificial scarcity in the metaverse by creating markets for digital assets, or non-fungible tokens, as they are called. “That’s just one example of the way that markets can enter into this virtual space and sometimes turn utopia into something that might be more of a dystopia,” he says.

In his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick discussed the possibility of creating a “meta-utopia” in which people would ultimately be able to choose the societies or worlds in which they wanted to live. In theory, it might be possible to build just such a meta-utopia in VR, Chalmers says, but that remains a very optimistic vision. In practice, it seems more likely that only a relatively small number of people might ever enjoy such genuinely free choices. “The path from here to there is very, very unclear,” he says.

One subject of his book I am keen to discuss is the simulation hypothesis, which suggests that we might already be living in an artificial world, as so vividly depicted in The Matrix. For centuries, philosophers have questioned whether our world might be illusory, imagined by a butterfly or an evil demon. But the appearance of massively powerful computers and the creation of rich virtual worlds has added a new perspective to this eternal debate. In 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom advanced a “quasi-statistical” argument that so many simulated worlds will be created in the history of the universe that the chances of us living in an unsimulated one are extremely low. “So technology has made this philosophical issue come alive,” says Chalmers.

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‘Salmon Lover’ sushi $24.95
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‘Shake’ salmon sushi £10
Crispy ebi £9.20
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For what it’s worth, he believes that we may indeed be living in a simulated world. At the very least, we cannot disprove the possibility. But even if that is the case, that does not mean our lives would be meaningless, as some have argued. To Chalmers’ mind, it just implies that what we assume to be physical is in fact digital, but it will be no less real for that. Within 100 years, he predicts virtual reality will be so good as to be near indistinguishable from physical reality in any event.

If that is the case, then the human designers of virtual worlds will assume almost divine powers. “Yes, we are the gods of the virtual worlds that we create.” But what rights should our simulated avatars, or sims, enjoy? What happens if, as Chalmers believes is possible, these sims acquire consciousness? He envisages a world in which simulated AIs will freely mix with biological creatures and this could unleash “one of the great civil rights struggles in history”. “I’d like to think there could be a society in which artificial and non-artificial beings coexist, just as there are societies where people of different nationalities and races and religions coexist,” he says.

As we near the end of our undernourished and overstimulated lunch, I ask Chalmers how our VR experience matches his five-point philosophical “checklist” to assess whether or not something is real. Looking at what remains of our virtual sushi, he asks: do these physical bits of sushi exist? Yes, they are real digital objects inside a virtual world. Do they have causal powers — or, in other words, can they interact with each other? Partially, yes. Are they independent of our minds? Yes, they will still be there when he has taken off his headset. Are they illusions? Yes, they are somewhat illusory. And are they real bits of real sushi? No.

“So, 50 per cent. Not bad for a first effort,” he concludes, thanking the “god” of Barcelona’s Event Lab, Mel Slater, and his “demiurge”, Ramon Oliva, for staging this VR experience. “Of course, eating in VR is fundamentally ridiculous,” he concludes. “Eating is going to be one of the very last things that people manage to get right in VR.”

We may be on our way to an all-immersive metaverse in which virtual and physical realities blur, but we are not there yet. It is perhaps worth remembering Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor

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