I spend a lot of my time envisioning the future. I’ve been literally invested in it for a long time.
Almost exactly twenty years ago, I started an ebook company, a project based more on speculation than on hard evidence. I thought that by 2010, ebooks would be at least 10% of the publishing market and a normal part of everyone’s reading life. With the help of Lucius Shepard, I contacted and published several of my favorite authors. I learned a lot. I became a computer programmer, for one thing, and I elicited surprise from my father that I could put together and execute a business plan. I put up with ridicule and then I put up with people telling me that they knew ebooks were coming all along.
I learned how true it is that five-year predictions are generally too liberal and ten-year predictions too conservative.
I was half right about ebooks; my timelines and focus were a bit off. I thought that the advent of digital paper would be the catalyst for widespread adoption of ebooks, but it turned out to be a minor factor: wifi, high-speed Internet, and Amazon’s self-publishing infrastructure were all more important.
What I envision is typically more than half creativity/insanity and confirmation bias. But I get a few things right.
Two months ago, the idea we’d be migrating into virtual space was more fantastic than it probably seems to you now, sitting there at your keyboards, many of you wondering when you’ll work again. Just as I was broadly right about ebooks but skewed in my view of the specific drivers of the technology, I think I’m broadly correct that we will be inverting our relationship between the physical world and virtual worlds, to the point that in the next few decades we inhabit virtual countries and in the next few hundred years we even speciate in our virtual worlds.
I will write a long paper for a publisher on this soon, but here are a few short observations and ideas:
1. The limits on visually immersive social-networking will be lifted within the next decade. Visually, though not physically, you will have the complete illusion of being in a virtual space with other people. We already have commercial technology to do the necessary laser eye-tracking and retina painting, and to time visual presentation to brain-processing lag. Watch this HoloLens 2 engineering presentation on YouTube if you doubt me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0fEh4UdtT8).
2. Thanks to computers and automation, generation of wealth is driven toward knowledge industries and can be conducted in virtual space. Virtual gold is competing with real gold, literally (check out virtual-world currency exchanges). The whole West Coast tech scene testifies to that. It’s not that physical industry isn’t vitally important. It would be crazy to think so. But even physical work will be overwhelmingly performed through automation and telepresence (see below).
3. Sourcing income for tax revenue is going to be increasingly hard for physical countries, empowering virtual countries that implement various economic strategies. It is not multinational corporations that will have hegemonic control over nations as in the typical cyberpunk scenario so much as ideological virtual countries. The physical world will be a neutral zone with strong Interpol and infrastructure owned by virtual-world corporations. It is likely to be simultaneously far more libertarian and far more socialist than anything we have seen yet. (I’ve had this idea for a while, and thought it improbable, but in a world where the Republicans champion guaranteed income during a pandemic ahead of Democrats, I’m coming around.)
4. Pandemics, terrorism, and ideological, religious, and romantic relationships will drive people into a nested array of arbitrary virtual worlds and AR telepresence vacations.
5. We have met the alien and the alien is us. Interactive entertainment will be bigger and bigger business. Those of us who have read science fiction our whole lives have had our minds blown through a one-dimensional language stream, but it’s going to take immersive three-dimensional experiences for most people to connect with these visions, to bridge the gap between their experience and the experience of minds that do not think like theirs at all. I was watching The Expanse last month, and for a few seconds my suspension of disbelief was so total that I actually felt like I was about to get a glimpse into the culture of an alien intelligence. Then I suddenly said to myself, “Wait, I met the dude who wrote this. He graduated the same workshop I did, a year later.” You can spend your whole life barely scratching the surface of the technologies and human dramas that unfolded during WWII. The impact of the virtual worlds that you will have access to, exploiting the genius and accumulated knowledge of humanity since then, will be overwhelming.
6. Telepresence robots will enable you to inhabit avatar bodies across the globe, for quasi-physical work and play. I was telling the guy who cuts my hair that he will eventually cut hair using a telepresence robot. (He’s already got a sideline business in renting time on robot massage chairs, so maybe he didn’t think I was completely nuts.) Though robots may eventually become lifelike human androids, they will certainly become lifelike to each other’s pilots in computer-mediated space, even if obvious machines to those walking by on the real-world street. Expert systems will merge AR and VR in such a way that you can timeshare on a robot in another country to spend the day with a friend, see that person as they want to be seen, and edit out or focus on any aspect of your environment. You want to meet in a crowded Times Square and then dismiss all the other people? Telepresence, AR, VR, force-feedback, and AI technologies like those in self-driving cars will bring this to pass.
Is this a Utopian future? No. I was just discussing issues with my daughter about the arms-race against hacking telepresence drones, about the problem with programming human compliance into Asimov’s Three Laws. Maybe AI learning can keep you from being stabbed by a robot, but can it prevent a clever operator from figuring out more subtle ways to harm you?
And we already have a big problem with Facebook and other social media driving people into ideological bubbles that are popped only by disaster. (Facebook, by the way, is launching a VR platform this year, called Horizon.)
I call this migration the VR Diaspora, but it isn’t just starting. It’s been going on since at least the seventies. I just hadn’t appreciated how to frame it before.
One big objection to ebooks I encountered circa 2000 was summed up by the statement “I don’t like reading on a computer.” I tried to explain that what constitutes a computer was rapidly changing. This was far before smart phones. Your grandkids will take this stuff for granted, and will probably have to be educated out of the naive idea that the virtual multiverse they inhabit is real.