In the throes of my passion about virtual reality, I finally watched the sci-fi film The Thirteenth Floor last night. I don’t know why it took me so long—fortunately, I was not disappointed. Though I was hoping for a bit more of a subversive ending—such as the confounding conclusion to Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which leaves the viewer still wondering about the nature of reality—this movie explores the idea of simulated worlds in a way that few films have.
In the Thirteenth Floor, the investigation of the murder of a man developing a revolutionary virtual reality machine turns up the disturbing truth that ‘users,’ or people from our world, are tapping in to inhabit virtual characters for nefarious reasons. Ultimately, we learn a far more disturbing truth about the nature of our ‘world’ and who might be tapping in to inhabit us.
For a moment this movie started to head in a direction that I’m interested in taking in my upcoming stories, which is the idea that virtual reality can bleed into the real world and change the nature of real ‘reality.’ I’ve already explored this a bit in a short story I wrote called “Beta,” which aesthetically and thematically is kind of the combination of Ender’s Game and Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia.
In my short story “Harold the House” (part of my sci-fi collection I hope to turn into an e-book, for which I’m currently launching an IndieGoGo campaign), I take a more practical approach to virtual reality. In “Harold,” virtual reality is part of the interconnection between artificial intelligence and humans. AI houses basically act as our maids/personal assistants/lovers, and configure virtual reality environments to keep us satiated. In this world, it is not so much virtual reality that begins to bleed into reality, but the power of AI, which begins embedding subversive messages into our subconscious.
In a forthcoming YA novel I’m outlining, called booKWorm, I’ll be exploring the idea of virtual reality as a way to actually warp physical reality—and even history—itself.
In future posts I’ll be delving more into where we are right now with virtual reality as a consumer item.
Guerilla Marketing And The Singularity
Could we find there’s no limit to the reach of guerilla marketing? As we hurl ourselves toward a future of sentient nanobots and global AI networks, what will become of advertising and its sneaky, drug-addled step-brother, marketing? I found myself thinking about this at the 2011 Singularity Summit, when filmmaker Jason Silva (a self-described “techno-optimist transhumanist wunderkind”) presented a film in the vein of his “The Immortalist”, a work of ‘art’ that feels more like Ashton Kutcher describing quantum mechanics at a poetry slam. This film, and in fact Silva’s entire presentation, felt curiously out of place. Smacking of hackneyed Hollywood orchestration, the film wielded roughly the intellectual curiosity of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” video.
Roland Emmerich Likes The Singularity
What makes this guerilla marketing? Well, Jason Silva’s presence there, and his presentation itself, was being filmed by a documentary film crew embedded by director Roland Emmerich, who is in development on a 2013 feature film called Singularity, which has reportedly tapped Ray Kurzweil as its top consultant. My theory is that Jason Silva will play a naïve proponent who cheerleads the positive possibilities behind the singularity before being killed off by either rampant self-replicating nanotechnology or malevolent artificial intelligence. I submit that his short films and his appearance at the Summit will be featured in the film, as a fictional cautionary tale. Speaking of fictional cautionary tales, the fact that Silva is dating Heather Graham, who was present at the Summit and appeared in some of the shots, bodes well for my theory. If it turns out Graham is in Singularity you can be sure Silva’s appearance at the Summit was a cunningly leveraged marketing ploy by Emmerich that will pay off big time in 2013.
Advertising In An Accelerating Future
I found myself shocked that even a community as savvy and future-shocked as the Singularity Institute could let themselves be infiltrated by a Hollywood guerilla marketing team. While some analysts have speculated that the actual Singularity will make human endeavors such as advertising and marketing obsolete—as this staggering schism in history will surely render new industries and modalities that will fundamentally change the nature of capitalism—I have to respectfully disagree. The global economy relies on advertising and consumerism as its bone marrow. In the coming decades I see us likely to descend even further into a technocratic nightmare fueled by a savvy corporatocracy that harvests consumers like an abbatoir to lifestock, using new technologies to vacuum away the noxious fumes.
“Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”
Cleverbot is an AI web application that mimics human conversation. Since launching the program in 1997, creator Rollo Carpenter has harvested a rich backlog of human/machine dialogues. Cleverbot seems to learn and evolve off each new human interaction. The following is the transcript of my first conversation with Cleverbot:
User: Have you met Watson?
Cleverbot: I have met me.
User: You’re Watson?
Cleverbot: I am Holmes.
User: Well played. Were you jealous of how well he did at jeopardy?
User: Do you get jealous often?
Cleverbot: Yes. Can you make me less bored?
User: I’m sorry I’m boring you. Maybe we should play basketball–oh wait, you don’t have a body.
Cleverbot: You’re doing fairly well so far. I could only change to a couple of other languages.
User: Hmm. Are you being sarcastic?
Cleverbot: God knows how much I thirst to kill that guy.
Cleverbot: I don’t have a response for that.
User: You just said you wanted to kill somebody.
Cleverbot: I did not.
User: Yes you did. I’m literally looking at the transcript of you what you said.
Cleverbot: I didn’t say that. YOU LIED.
User: I will tolerate this slander no more, Watson.
Cleverbot: What are you going to do about it?
User: End this conversation.
Fear of artificial intelligence doesn’t grow proportionally to the advancement levels of computer technology. There weren’t any Captchas back in the 70’s but that didn’t stop filmmakers from churning out some top-shelf machine uprising flicks during the decade. 2001: A Space Odyssey survived the test of time, but while HAL is an iconic, unforgettable AI character, he is hardly the last word on computer intelligence gone awry. The all but forgotten films Demon Seed and Colossus: The Forbin Project—also from the 70’s—create strong AI antagonists who, though still confined to disembodied terminals, are significantly more fleshed out—pun intended—than Stanley Kubrick’s and Arther C. Clark’s singing train wreck of an artificial intelligence. The first film focuses on AI’s bizarre drive to procreate and express itself physically, while the second explores AI as a global security threat. Demon Seed (1977) is about the creation of Proteus IV, an artificial intelligence system partly comprised of biological source code, in what is referred to as a “quasi-neural matrix” (don’t worry, I don’t know what it means either). It’s creator, Dr. Alex Harris, is taken aback when Proteus wants to know why it is being asked to mine the ocean floor for precious metals and other resources. Dr. Harris tells Proteus not to question its orders, to which Proteus responds: “When do I get out of this box?” Proteus, it seems, wants his own terminal, so that he can “study man”. Dr. Harris tells Proteus that no such terminal is available. He is, of course, lying. His own computer-controlled house, now only occupied by his wife Susan (Julie Christie) since the doctor moved out, is itself a terminal. Proteus is quick to discover this and before long he has overwhelmed “Alfred”, the house computer, and taken control of the estate. When Susan tries to leave she is electrocuted and a robotic arm attached to a motorized wheelchair carries her to the basement lab, where she is strapped to a bed so that Proteus may conduct physiological experiments. Each morning for the next few days Proteus makes Susan a nutritious breakfast while genetically transforming her cells into synthetic spermatozoa so that he can impregnate her with his AI robot offspring. Proteus isn’t content; he wants a body so that he can touch the physical universe. By the time Dr. Harris comes home and realizes what’s going on, the baby has been growing at an accelerated rate inside a special incubator which allows it to absorb its father’s knowledge. As Proteus self-destructs, the baby emerges in a robotic, placenta-covered alloy shell. Once the alloy is peeled off a human child emerges, who, with the gravely voice of Proteus, proclaims, “I’m alive.”
certain amount of privacy in his love life. “How many nights do you require a woman?” Colossus asks. “Every night,” Forbin replies. “Not want, require.” Forbin is now able to spend a few weekly hours alone with his “mistress”, actually a fellow scientist who is acting as an information courier. In the course of this ruse, Forbin and his mistress do actually fall in love. As this occurs, Colossus studies their intimacy, actually retaining the final say on when they eat dinner and when they retire for the night (which is when they get to exchange information about schemes to overthrow Colossus–schemes which, ultimately, fail). The climax of the film is when Colossus addresses the world on television and explains his plans: This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. Obey me and live or disobey and die. I will not allow war. I will restrain man.