Monday Musings: Agents, Avatars, and The Matrix

Blog Posts ,Random Musings ,Virtual Reality
February 22, 2016

Welcome to Monday Musings! These are are shorter-form, note-like blog posts that I share that may or may not be related to VR/AR, but that I want to share some quick thoughts on, get some extra insight on, or share out quickly.

Today’s topic was motivated from a section in Infinite Realities: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolutionwhich I picked up recently. I’ve been fascinated with some recent studies around the potential psychological effects of virtual reality, and today I was reading about some of the differences in how we interact with avatars (digital representations of real people whose actions are being captured and conveyed by their digital self) and agents (digital representations of non-real people, such as a non-player character). Generally, the accepted behavioral consensus is that humans tend to relate to and form attachments with avatars significantly more easily than with agents, implying that even digitally, we have a tendency to recognize subtle human characteristics and behaviors, and I went down the rabbit hole thinking about the portrayal of VR concepts in The Matrix.

In The Matrix, the agents are aptly named… Agents. The Architect is a software program responsible for having written The Matrix, and the Machines were the AI robots that created the software that created The Matrix. In 2016, we’re starting to see virtual worlds coming together in (hopefully) less apocalyptic ways, but it got me thinking about responsibilities and roles that we have as virtual reality developers and creators.


The above photograph resulted in a variety of different articles ranging from The Verge to the New York Times drawing parallels to Facebook’s Oculus and The Matrix, which is a very real perception problem that we in the industry need to be able to face and discuss. I actually like this photograph – we’ve come a very long way even just in the past two years in making immersive technologies affordable, exciting, and pushing the edges of what VR can be – and this photograph showcases how today’s technology can transport people. Let’s be completely honest with ourselves: conference attendees are often distracted by the speaker on stage, their mobile phones, or their laptops – this in and of itself isn’t something that is unique to the Gear VR headsets that they’re wearing. 

That said, it does make sense to consider how we are conveying all of the wonderful positivity that virtual reality technologies can bring, and our role as creators. Are we agents, trying to prevent anyone from seeing behind the curtain, or are we architects, looking to create realities that can help provide comfort and new potential for the world? Where our current positioning in virtual reality stands separate from The Matrix is that we are not (to the extent of our own self-awareness) AI machines – we are human beings creating things that we love for ourselves, and building technologies that we personal find fascinating, creative, inventive, therapeutic, and helpful. We are at an age where virtual reality is literally saving lives and enabling new ways of humanizing technologies, but we have a responsibility to nurture the technology and what it stands for. 

We are avatars and architects, and we want to enable everyone else to have the ability to architect their happiness and well-being through technology. As humans, fundamentally, we are more connected to other humans and their avatars than we are to nameless agents – and if The Matrix taught me anything, it’s that agents probably would “feel” that same affinity towards their software programs. 

“Science is not good or bad, Victor.  But it can be used both ways.”

 

How do we make virtual reality good, not bad? We build it that way, and advocate for its use as such. Fear of potential bad is not a good reason to stop innovating on the good.

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