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Jaron Lanier

hormones in prison, started to develop breasts, got depressed and committed suicide.

Shortly before he committed suicide he wrote the Turing Test paper, which is the foundation of computer science culture today. It’s a thought experiment where you have a computer in one booth and a person at another booth and they’re both typing at you. If you can’t tell the difference between them, Turing claims, don’t you just have to admit that they’re the same, at that point? Turing noticed that there might be no objective measurement of consciousness.

David: It’s not so much whether I could judge if you were the same person, I’m wondering what you think your experience would be, if your head was copied. Do you think there would be some kind of continuity of consciousness?

Jaron: I have no idea. If you actually did it, you still wouldn’t know.

David: The real intention behind the question is whether you think there’s something beyond the physical atoms that make you who you are?

Jaron: You’re still asking the question from an objective point of view – that doesn’t matter, that’s just a choice among implementations of the universe. Who cares?(laughter)

David: What do you think happens to you when you die?

Jaron: Well I don’t really know.(laughter)

David: I know you don’t know Jaron,(laughter) but you must have given it some thought. There’s no mystery greater than death.

Jaron: That’s true. It’s really impossible to know. I used to worry about it more when I was younger.(long pause) I think the only thing it’s possible to talk about is how our idea and perception of our own death effects our life now. I mean, it’s just out of the bounds of the possible for discussion and thought.

As I mentioned before, there are the two big limitations you have to live with. By a certain age, you’ve dealt with the lack of total godlike power over the universe and the limitations of the body, but your own mortality usually takes longer to come to grips with.

One way to explain mortality is to imagine a universe where we were unlimited and to see that that wouldn’t lead to any experience at all, like in the techno-creation myth I told. A person with a time-machine is essentially immortal. The people in my story overcame the two basic human limitations and the penalty they paid was to cease to have experience.

Now let’s suppose my creation myth is true. It’s just a techno version of the old “perennial philosophy”, so who knows? Then the ultimate truth of our situation would be found in the eternal cyclical story of our ancestor/descendants having their meeting without any sense of surprise or experience, which results in a perpetual grand cycle of induced amnesia which allows our lives to happen. Some sort of stillness which has to forget itself in order to give birth to experience seems like a reasonable metaphysics. What else could be going on?

Now, if this is right, we don’t know how many worlds there might be between us and that ultimate reality in which there is no experience. So, maybe there is some kind of afterlife or heaven that’s between us and that ultimate thing, but that ultimate thing must be there however many layers there might be between us and it.

And in that ultimate place there is no experience. Experience only happens within the context of ignorance of the next moment and ignorance in general. So our deaths allow us to experience.

Having said that, it would be nice if life were longer, but that’s another problem. So, death represents a necessary ignorance without which you couldn’t have experience. It’s an inevitable thing, and I think that all beings and all realities in all possible planes of existence have something analogous to it.

David: That’s a pretty good answer for someone who claims to have never taken a psychedelic.(laughter)

Jaron: I live in Marin.(laughter)

David: How realistic do you think the projections for VR were in the movie Lawnmower Man?

Jaron: Well, the script was stupid. That’s the most economical way I can express that. The graphical images were probably an accurate representation of the near-term future of Virtual Reality in terms of quality. If anything, I think they might have under-shot the mark a bit.

David: Do you think they might have done that deliberately because if it was as realistic as it could be then it wouldn’t have had that computer-graphic look?

Jaron: Yeah, that might be true. In fact, one of the things I’m predicting about Virtual Reality is that there will be this whole retro-look of making it look like very bad VR, something like what happened with Pixel-vision.

David: What limits do you see in VR?

Jaron: There are plenty. Doing really generalized force and tactile feedback might be very difficult. Taste and smell pose some problems, because you’d like to be able to have the machine invent new tastes and smells and there’s not even a theoretical foundation to do that with predictable results. Taste is hard because the texture of food is a lot of what taste is and you don’t want some hideous objects stuck in your mouth to imagine that.(laughter)

Einstein dealt us a blow with that speed of light limitation. That does create an inherent lag that would be noticeable to a sensory-motor system even in ideal networks running across the globe, unless it turns out there’s a way to get around it. I always wonder if the universe waits around for people to decide how to be. Like, Einstein is sitting there and the universe thinks, how shall we make it turn out for this guy?(laughter) Okay, we’ll move everything at the speed of light! But there are plenty of limitations that will be around at least for a very long time.

David: What are some current projects that you’re working on?

Jaron: There’s a big project to make an experiential theater and as I mentioned it uses live guides instead of a timed play, it’s very creative. From a simple near-term economic point of view, it’s something to replace theaters as home entertainment becomes good enough that theaters start to have their business threatened.

It’s also like a new sprocket standard for the movie industry to create an interactive entertainment formula which will be standardized enough for producers to not have to undergo unacceptable problems to produce materials. The materials are called Voomies, not movies – it’s a virtual movie. It’s a lot of fun. [Note: The theater project described here was disrupted by the fall of VPL. It had been a joint venture between VPL and MCA/Matsushita, but it is now dormant.]

I have two books, one’s a pop book about Virtual Reality and the other is a technical book for MIT graduates. I’m doing a lot of work with medical Virtual Reality giving the surgeon better control of endoscopes during surgery. They can simulate `x-ray vision’ through the patients bodies to be able to navigate tiny surgical instruments and use them as if they were inside, to reduce trauma to the body.

Rebecca: Why do you think humans have this incredible urge to create alternative realities?

Jaron: Because they’re frustrated as kids. You have this imagination inside and you’re stuck with this stuff to show other people, and it’s really limited, it just feels terrible.

David: We’re coming back to that paradox again – after evolving from super-divine beings that had no limitation, we’re trying to recapture the limitless feeling we had as children.

Jaron: That’s called culture. You have to have some.

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