Friday, January 08, 2016

Virtual reality going mainstream will enhance our understanding of consciousness.

These clips from Thomas Metzinger are fascinating:
2016 will be the year in which VR finally breaks through at the mass consumer level. What is more, users will soon be enabled to toggle between virtual, augmented, and substitutional reality, experiencing virtual elements intermixed with their “actual” physical environment or an omnidirectional video feed giving them the illusion of being in a different location in space and/or time, while insight may not always be preserved. Oculus Rift, Zeiss VR One, Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear VR or Microsoft’s HoloLens are just the very beginning...
The real news, however, may be that the general public will gradually acquire a new and intuitive understanding of what their very own conscious experience really is and what it always has been. VR is the representation of possible worlds and possible selves, with the aim of making them appear as real as possible—ideally, by creating a subjective sense of “presence” in the user. Interestingly, some of our best theories of the human mind and conscious experience describe it in a very similar way: Leading theoretical neurobiologists like Karl Friston and eminent philosophers like Jakob Hohwy and Andy Clark describe it as the constant creation of internal models of the world, virtual neural representations of reality which express probability density functions and work by continuously generating hypotheses about the hidden causes of sensory input, minimizing their prediction error. In 1995, Finnish philosopher Antti Revonsuo already pointed out how conscious experience exactly is a virtual model of the world, a dynamic internal simulation, which in standard situations cannot be experienced as a virtual model because it is phenomenally transparent—we “look through it” as if we were in direct and immediate contact with reality. What is historically new, and what creates not only novel psychological risks but also entirely new ethical and legal dimensions, is that one virtual reality gets ever more deeply embedded into another virtual reality: The conscious mind of human beings, which has evolved under very specific conditions and over millions of years, now gets causally coupled and informationally woven into technical systems for representing possible realities. Increasingly, consciousness is not only culturally and socially embedded, but also shaped by a specific technological niche that, over time, quickly acquires rapid, autonomous dynamics and ever new properties. This creates a complex convolution, a nested form of information flow in which the biological mind and its technological niche influence each other in ways we are just beginning to understand.

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