I am currently reading Ready Player Two, the sequel to the New York Times bestselling sci-fi novel Ready Player One. You might have seen the film of it which was released in 2019, back in the good old days when we used to be able to go to cinemas.
If you are not familiar with the books or the film, it’s set about 20 years from now when most people spend most of their time in a virtual reality simulation called the Oasis. The real world is falling apart with environmental and economic disasters, so people prefer the virtual world.
In the Oasis, people can control an avatar using special gloves and a visor which let them move their virtual arms and hands and let them feel and see what the avatar feels. They can even walk around on a treadmill so that it seems like you are running around in the virtual world, whereas in reality, you are still in the same place. This would present a problem for disabled people if they can’t use their arms and hands or walk. How would they be able to use virtual reality technology like the Oasis?
Well in the book the company behind the Oasis created a neural interface device (NID) to allow disabled people to enjoy the virtual world using only their mind. An NID is a device that connects your mind to the computer. The device sits on top of a person’s head and scans the brain so that their consciousness can be simulated in the virtual world. The result is that a person feels like they are really in the virtual world. They can feel, hear, see, and taste everything precisely the same as they would in the real world. It’s complete immersion in virtual reality. Even if someone was completely paralysed in real life they would not be disabled in the virtual world because they only need to use their minds. They would be able to do literally anything they can imagine, and it would seem as real as the words you are reading right now.
To me, this sounds fantastic as it would be a great form of escapism. In the real world, disabled people are limited to what we can do (depending on your level of disability), but in virtual reality, the limits would literally be our imagination.
In the novel, the Oasis Neural Interface device also lets you record your conscious experiences and replay them later, just like recording a TV programme. So you could playback memories and experience them just as vividly as in the original moment. You can also experience OTHER PEOPLE’S memories. So you could literally experience being somebody else and seeing and feeling what they are feeling while surfing or skydiving, or whatever. How incredible would that be!
Talk about walking in another person’s shoes.
Now, all this sounds like science fiction, and it literally is, for now. But, the path towards something like the Oasis Neural Interface device may have already begun. Last year Elon musk gave a demonstration of a neural interface device developed by his company Neuralink. They put a small device in a pig’s brain, which showed its brainwaves firing whenever something touched its snout. You can watch the highlights of the presentation in the video below.
This was just a proof of concept demonstration. But the potential applications of Neuralink’s device could be profound.
They think it could have wide-ranging applications such as helping spinally injured people control computers, recording memories, or treating neurological conditions, for example.
Personally, I find the potential of Neuralink exciting, and I can’t wait to see where it leads. It will probably be a long time until we get to point where we can fully insert ourselves into virtual reality worlds like in Ready Player Two. However, before that, it could be useful in lots of ways.
It would be handy to operate a computer using just your mind and without having to mess about with any software or hardware. Imagine being able to control a computer game character only by thinking about it. I think it would be a lot easier for me.
I am excited by the potential of brain-computer interface devices; however, I need to consider their potential problems. We need to ask questions like are they safe? Are they secure? How expensive will they be?
Neuralink hasn’t done any clinical trials yet, so they don’t have any safety data at the moment. But hopefully, they will have done extensive testing before they implant one of their devices into humans. We need to make sure that it’s not harmful.
They also need to make sure that it can’t be hacked. Imagine someone hacking into your brain and being able to cause you harm.
Or imagine if they get a virus which can disrupt your brain signals. That doesn’t sound pleasant. I suspect that the devices will have a lot of security built into them to combat this, but I guess there will always be some risk.
Another potential problem is that if virtual reality gets as good as the Oasis, people might get addicted. They might spend far too much time in the virtual world and neglect the real world. If the virtual world is better than the real world, then people might not want to leave. We could start seeing virtual reality junkies rather than just drug addicts.
In the novel, some of the characters are concerned that people might be too preoccupied with the virtual world to ignore the problems that need fixing in the real world. And there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed in reality.
Or maybe there won’t be any problems, and everybody will be happier. Time will tell.
I’m looking forward to the days when virtual reality gets so good that you actually feel like you are in another world. It would be unrivalled as a form of escapism, and for me at least it would be brilliant. I don’t know whether virtual reality and NIDs will end up causing the problems that I have talked about, but I’m optimistic. I think that the benefits will outweigh the negatives, at least for some people who can use it as a tool to get a bit of respite from the struggles of reality.