The Matrix is the film that introduced the idea of virtual worlds and simulations to our generation. It's inspiration is often cited back to Neuromancer, a 1984 cyberpunk novel written by William Gibson, which even coined the term "matrix."
In my quest to dive into the simulation fictions classics, I started with Simulacron-3, a book about simulations from 1964. I thought it might be dated, but I was shocked. Fifty years ago, it covered big ethical questions that we're just starting to face today, as corporations begin to build VR-hardware and proto-metaverses.
What really surprised me was to find out there was a movie, called "The Thirteenth Floor," based on Simulacron-3. It was released in 1999... the same year as the Matrix! The Thirteenth floor had a budget of $16m, and netted $18m in global box office sales. The Matrix had four times the budget ($64 million), and brought in $463m (25x exposure). Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and Agent Smith have become embedded in popular culture, while no one knows about Doug Hall, Horace Siskin, or Jinx Fuller. The bummer is that the lesser known story is way more relevant to our current predicament.
While the Matrix takes place 200 years in the future, Simulacron-3 takes place in 2032, just a decade from now. The whole premise of the Matrix is a fantasy. Robots harvesting humans for batteries isn't on the radar of Congress. Simulacron-3 on the other hand is frighteningly relevant. Their photo-realistic simulation isn't controlled by evil octopus-robots, but by humans running a business.
It shows the danger of pairing computer scientists with an advertising company looking to use virtual worlds to extract data from humans to sell to politicians and brands. It's the exact dilemma we're starting to face as Facebook builds a Metaverse of their own - and there's a story about it from the 1960s!
Aside from the "mass harvesting of data from virtual worlds" angle, Simulacron-3 also covers big ideas around ethics. It shows a timeline where technology accelerates and converges to a point where we have to question what "humanity" and "reality" is. Many of these questions aren't new. But it's fascinating that Daniel F. Galouye was wrapping his head around them in the 1960's, when the fields of computing and AI were just getting started.
In 2021, we are currently amid a surge in real-time graphics, processing power, and realism. Just check out Unreal Engine's MetaHumans. Human computer interaction & AI are relatively behind, but Simulacron-3 shows a future where all three converge. In the story, engineers can use a brain-computer interface to project their consciousness into a simulation that mirrors their own society. The simulation is filled with "analog humans," who were spawned with false memories, and have no idea their reality is fabricated. The plot line covers a range of ethical issues.
- Do synthetic beings with consciousness have souls and free-will, or are they slaves?
- What kind of control should a creator exert on a simulated society?
- How should a creator deal with people who discover the truth behind their reality?
- Is it unethical to shut down a simulation in progress?
To expand on later
Data harvesting from virtual worlds
thought we would need a photo-real simulator & AI humans, in reality, phones & apps, real opinion