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What happens when you put a science fiction writer, a venture capitalist, and a game journalist together? That was the premise behind our latest conversation on Oculus Venues and Zoom in a session dubbed “Science Fiction, tech, and games.”
I moderated the hour-long session with computer scientist and accomplished science fiction writer Ramez Naam and Tim Chang, partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Mayfield Fund. Chang first told me a few years ago about a virtuous cycle between the fields, where science fiction can inspire technology. Lots of firms, for instance, are trying to create Tricorder medical devices from Star Trek, and Chang himself has told entrepreneurs that if they can make the voice-driven operating system from the film Her that he would fund it.
I got the idea for the session because so much science fiction is becoming science fact. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has often said that “we’re living in science fiction.” Our events have harped on this theme for a few years, as things that we once thought were science fiction, like AI, have become so real in the past few years. (We’ll have another event, GamesBeat Summit 2021 on April 28 and April 29, to hold some similar sessions).
Before Naam started writing his Nexus trilogy (2012 to 2015) of novels, he spent 13 years at Microsoft, leading teams working on machine learning, neural networks, information retrieval, and internet-scale systems. That unique background positions him as a bridge between science fiction and technology, helping him create visions of the future tied to what is technologically possible now.
And his ideas are more relevant than ever, given the advances in AI and other digital technologies that have the potential to push us closer to a post-human future. Naam can speak to that future, as well as the possible risks that companies driving toward it may not see.
The Nexus trilogy, set in 2040, is also striking in how it foresees the political ramifications of technology. In the series, a mind-altering drug called Nexus immerses users in an augmented version of reality. The creator of Nexus is a brain-hacking civil libertarian who believes that it will free humanity and allow people to move on to a post-human future, where their minds can live on independently of their bodies.
But the U.S. government sees Nexus as an illegal drug, something that can drive a wedge between humans and enhanced humans. It wants to stamp it out and crush terrorists who plan to use it to disrupt society. Chinese researchers conduct frightening experiments that use Nexus to blend humanity and AI. Freedom-minded hackers are caught in the middle.
In addition to the Nexus series, he’s written two non-fiction books: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, and More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. Naam’s books have earned the Prometheus, the Endeavour, the Philip K. Dick awards, been listed as an NPR Best Book of the Year, and have been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke prize.
Chang heard about Naam and welcomed him on a visit to Silicon Valley in a dinner with his tech and sci-fi friends. Chang, who has twice named to the Forbes Midas List of Top Tech Investors, wanted to find startups that fit into a vision that could create a brighter outlook for humanity.
GamesBeat: How did you two meet?
Ramez Naam: Tim reached out to me on Facebook one day and said, “I like your books, do you want to have dinner sometime here in the bay area?” I said yes, and he set up an awesome dinner with a number of very cool people. I brought a couple of other friends as guests, some other great science fiction authors, and we hit it off immediately. We’ve stayed in touch ever since.
Tim Chang: I had a hidden agenda. I was testing out this idea. I wanted to bring scientists and founders and some of my favorite science fiction authors together to see what kind of brainstorming and magic would ensue. It was fantastic. It ended up being three or four different science fiction authors, some pretty interesting folks in the science community. It was pretty inspiring to me.
Naam: People who worked in games, in neuroscience, and meditation. It was pretty good.
GamesBeat: Where did that instinct come from, Tim? Ramez’s works are near-future science fiction. In that sense it seems like it makes a lot of sense that you could tap someone like that for ideas about what to fund. But what else drove that instinct?
Chang: I grew up influenced by science fiction. It’s what got me into engineering, programming, and even VC. But there’s a tight link between inspiration we get from science fiction–there’s classic tales of many entrepreneurs who walked into VC offices back in the day with Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, slapping the book down and saying, “I want to build this. Fund me.” There are many of those inspirations.
A lot of our investment thesis ideas are fueled by near term speculative fiction, whether it’s Black Mirror, or my favorite, the movie Her. I’ve been looking for someone to build adaptive, personalized, linear, hearable OS for years. There’s a tight virtuous cycle between science fiction, how it influences founders, scientists, the research they do, and how technology innovations and research influence authors and what they write.
And when I read Nexus, I had a suspicion this guy knows business. He knows Burning Man. He knows spirituality. He knows technology and social sciences. I was spot on. We’ve been great friends ever since.
GamesBeat: It was clear he knew programming as well, right? Ramez, can you talk more about your background?
Naam: My first love was philosophy, but I realized there was no career to be had there. I liked physics, but I didn’t want to have to be in a white lab coat my entire life. But somebody had given the school I was at, my elementary school, a Commodore VIC-20. I fell in love with programming. It’s an infinite canvas. You can do whatever the heck you want.
I went to school and got a CS degree. Out of school I was lucky enough to get hired at Microsoft. I spent 13 seminal years there. I got to see and do some amazing stuff. Also, I became a burner early on. I was fascinated by what happens inside my mind. I started reading up on neuroscience. I had some friends that were neuroscientists. I would ask them, “Why does this happen?” And at first they’d answer questions, but after a while they’d get tired of it. “Read this paper. Read this textbook.”
And so to me, the whole universe–there’s a book called The Three Pound Universe. Everything we experience, everything we desire, all of human ingenuity, is in this little mass here. My first book, a non-fiction book, was about human augmentation, which I was massively into. Science and Nature, those journals, were my bathroom reading. I was fascinated by the things I saw going on, like rats that had electrodes that could use those in their motor cortex to control a robot arm and feed themselves. I wrote about that.
But honestly, nobody bought that book. It was well-reviewed, but it was a non-fiction pop science book. For quite a while I thought about fiction. When I finally did it, it’s a whole different way to reach people. You reach them on an emotional level, and you can get so much more traction to get stuff across into their minds. That’s what got me there.
GamesBeat: Tim, this whole thing he mentioned turned into the nootropic, brain enhancement or body enhancement movement. I think you’ve seen some of that in the VC world.
Chang: Oh yeah, yeah. It interweaves quite a bit with wearable technologies. First we had things tracking basic heart rate signals. Then it advanced to reading EEG. The first generation was reading things. We’re now well into the writing aspect. You have neurostim and other things that don’t just read signals, but augment them and send signals back into the body, biofeedback.
GamesBeat: Let’s talk more about the Nexus trilogy. Can you summarize it quickly for us? I know that might be hard to do, but what are some of the issues that come?
Naam: It’s the near future, set in 2040. The technology that people are most fixated on–there’s a lot of biotech and AI and so on. But it’s this thing called Nexus, which is solely marketed as a party drug. Burners and ravers and whatever do it. But really it’s nanobots that go into your brain and attach to your neurons and broadcast and receive what they’re doing. If two of us take it and we’re in close proximity, our brains can start to sync up. We become telepathic.
The protagonists are San Francisco bay area grad students that are working on making it permanent, building an app layer and APIs on top of, proxying it across cell phones and the internet. You can telepathically communicate from anywhere. The real moral issue in the book is who gets control of this technology. It’s all in the form of a thriller. It’s a thriller with a cold war between the U.S. and China and so on. A friend of mine called it Tom Clancy meets Burning Man. I think there’s more to it than that, but if you want some shorthand that’s not a bad place to go.
GamesBeat: Tim, what occurred to you when you read this?
Chang: It struck me as a spiritual successor to the Matrix trilogy. I thought someone needed to pick it up and make a long form TV series out of it. I’ve been bugging Ramez about this for years. He’s explained the red tape and the bureaucracy in getting fiction optioned for TV.
Naam: I explained it to Tim in venture terms. The option is the seed round. The TV show is the IPO, the big exit. Of course, to use another analogy, Netflix and Amazon and Apple TV are now adding the stack layer, easier ways to get out there. Maybe it’ll happen. There are people working on it right now, shopping it around in Hollywood, so someday, perhaps.
GamesBeat: I liked how the books spelled out the consequences of this magical invention, this brain-enhancing drug, and the relationship to AI. The politics of how different people or different countries react to the creation of this–the U.S. has this faction that views it as an illegal drug, that the creators are terrorists who have to be stamped out, while the Chinese think it’s a great way to extend a single point of view or single consciousness across of the country in order to control everyone. Yet they also fear the possibility of a posthuman AI. And in the middle of all this are these hacktivists who are being hunted down and have to move underground. The politics are an interesting, more realistic part of this science fiction.
Naam: On the politics, when I started writing it, I was quite irritated about the war on drugs and the war on terror. I was writing about a technology I liked and some spiritual aspects, things like Buddhism and meditation and how technology can amplify or help us access some things in those spheres. But that political viewpoint, the question of whether government can control it or not, was on my mind as well. That led to the exercise of thinking about what will be the big geopolitical conflicts in 2040? A cold war between the U.S. and China seemed not out of the question. That became a natural tension to set up.
Hopefully things go way better in the real world compared to the politics I wrote about in the novels. The period of the last four years, the Trump presidency, was stranger and more extreme than most things I’ve written about. Truth is often stranger than fiction.
GamesBeat: The other thing that happened that nobody expected was, about eight years ago, AI started working, with deep learning neural networks. The acceleration of the AI tech that, for so long, everyone had criticized as just fantasy. That’s accelerated the pace of technological change, and now it makes some of these books seem not so silly anymore, some of this science fiction.
Chang: My favorite phrase these days is, “you can’t make this stuff up.” It’s truly challenging. Fiction is feeling almost like it can’t keep up with reality and some of the scenarios we’re running into now. I’ll give an example. Black Mirror, I think it was episode one in season three, “Downward Spiral,” where one social reputation score affects access to rights, the ability to buy tickets. I think two months after that aired, China declared its citizen score, the black box algorithm based on loyalty to the Communist Party determining access to things like loans or buying train tickets or things like that. You’re seeing reality mirror fiction in ways that are really creepy. Reality is outpacing what we’ve even thought about in these ways.
The point I want to make is that Ramez does a masterful job of weaving in things like spiritual, political, cultural considerations into science fiction, which often has been a genre that doesn’t do that. I’d argue that it’s these aspects, as well as the financial and business model aspects, that are even more pertinent and important to especially near term speculative fiction and science fiction.
Naam: Important to the actual tech we develop and fund, too.
GamesBeat: You worked in machine learning for a long time. Were you surprised to see the acceleration of AI technology?
Naam: I would not say I was surprised to see that acceleration of the effectiveness of deep learning. If you look at a variety of tasks, precision and recall on a variety of things getting better over time–I didn’t predict that deep learning in particular would take off. If you asked me at the time I left Microsoft, we were using two layer, three layer neural nets at the time. Boosted decision trees were still in the running. SVMs were still in the running.
Now deep neural nets have blown up in terms of their effectiveness, in part because of the incredible computational power we have, and elastic clouds where you have the luxury of being able to throw a thousand servers at something for a short period of time. And the explosion of data. It’s becoming a world where–there’s been a lot of sci-fi written about inequality, but one of the big inequalities between businesses now is inequality of data. Whoever has the most and best data can train the best AI. We see this data advantage, the data virtuous cycles. Nobody’s written about that, but there might be a good sci-fi concept in that.
Chang: When we were brainstorming before we were joking about, imagine the next Star Wars trilogy is about data. What would the data Death Star look like? What would data-poor rebels look like versus a data-rich empire? You could take well-known tropes from before and apply them in a new context where data, algorithms, AI, the people who understand these things are the new players in those wars.
GamesBeat: How did you feel about the fact that science fiction usually depicts AI as something that can replicate humanity, and it’s evil?
Naam: Honestly, in my daily life, I don’t worry about sentient AI. It’s a category error. The stuff we’re talking about as AI, machine learning, it’s a good categorizer. I don’t know that we’re any closer at all to Her in a real sense, or HAL from 2001 becoming real. That said, and we can get into why if you want to, I do get annoyed with the depictions of AI in media. Not always, but usually they’re more negative. Her is a great example of a counter to that. It’s also very rare for a science fiction story to be a romance. But most of the time, most depictions of AI in science fiction books, and even in movies–it’s going to get you. Here’s a thing that’s super powerful and smarter than humans and it’s going to eradicate us.
To start, why would it care enough to eradicate us? Maybe there’s a different story, which is humans being abusive to their creations that they distrust. You saw me pivot a bit in that direction in the third book, Apex, where I posited AI as a very dangerous entity, but also showed its more human side, if you will. That was intentional.
GamesBeat: I think about some of the predictions in the books. In a lot of ways it predicted difficult political discourse that we’ve seen over the last four years. You had white supremacists creating a virus that they hoped would wipe out the other peoples of the world, and a crackdown or reaction to that from governments against that, and the reaction to the Nexus drug technology that followed. I’m curious about the things that you think you got right, and some things that also surprised you.
Naam: I don’t think reality is going to go the way of the Nexus novels necessarily. A lot of new technology that augments people, that makes us smarter, longer-lived, healthier in old age will be accepted. But the plot structure I used to motivate the world I wanted, where there was a hidden conflict, was one where this technology is heavily misused, and that causes fear. While I think–we don’t have this tech, so it’s not really an issue, but I do see a huge role played by fear in politics today.
The election of Donald Trump, what’s happened politically since he’s been out of office, the filter bubbles are self-sorting into, fear of the other is a massively negative force in American society, and globally as well. I’m curious if Tim has thoughts on that. I know you’re a spiritual guy, that you care about this stuff, about creating a better world. What do we do to build different business models and different technologies that reduce fear of the other and get people to empathize and come together in some way?
Chang: Sometimes I’d like to see science fiction explore more is the unintended consequences of business models and powerful technologies. I’d argue we’ve built the real life Matrix now in our social media platforms. Not from some evil AI overlord that wants to enslave us, but because we happened to pick a business model of free ad-based revenues. Often in those cases, when it’s algorithmically driven and feed-based, the only conclusion is that you have to engineer a product that addicts its users. There’s no way around it.
And so even for me, as a venture capitalist, when I realized that–I told my partners, “I’m not going to look at business plans for social, digital media products that have free ad-based revenue models. I don’t think it’s an ethical model. Not with the way we have to scale and grow these things.” I’d love to see more science fiction that explores the unintended consequences of these business models mixed with exponential technologies. It’s a great way to map out what can go wrong with it.
GamesBeat: Sadly, it seems like you’re going against the grain there in terms of what is popular to fund, and what turns out to be successful.
Chang: Capital seeks superior returns. That’s not always what’s best aligned for the planet or for people. News, as a matter of fact–if it bleeds, it leads. We have to explore business models and how they form the way we wield technologies. I’ve always said that tech isn’t good or bad. It’s a tool. What is your intention? What is the model? What is the business you wield it with?
GamesBeat: In your role at Singularity University you’re focusing more on climate change and issues related to that. Is that a pivot for you as far as your interests, or did that come out of your interest in science fiction?
Naam: Within the last 10 years–actually, the second time I quit Microsoft, my goal was to write a book about saving the world, innovating around climate and energy and so on. My agent just didn’t love the book. I got stalled and didn’t know what to do. I decided to write the science fiction novel. But for the last decade, parallel to the Nexus books, I’ve been a forecaster, a public speaker, and sometimes an investor in clean tech, in companies trying to address climate change and other global challenges, mostly in bioenergy.
There are some similarities. There’s a science fiction aspect to looking into the future and understanding where technology can go. But mostly it’s just that I see it as an enormously important problem. I’m not a proper VC the way Tim is, but I get people pitching me on deals all the time where I think, “This could make a lot of money, but I don’t see how the world would be any better.” For me, it has to be addressing a real, pressing problem for humanity, aside from having the potential to be a good investment.
Climate is a hard thing. It’s a very big challenge. It’s a challenge that is here. It’s a present danger, and it gets worse over generations. It’s hard to frame it even in science fiction. A lot of science fiction talks about climate change, but you don’t have a silver bullet. You can’t end the story with the good guys beating the bad guys or making a discovery. Whatever it is we do, it’s going to be a wide portfolio or panoply of different approaches we take to de-carbonize cars, buildings, ships, planes, whatever. It’ll take decades to deploy.
When I think about climate change, I think about it as a personal thing that I work on, trying to educate people and motivate people, motivate business people about where to put their money and why. But from a fiction perspective, I see it more as a backdrop to science fiction stories, rather than the core conflict or Macguffin if you will.
GamesBeat: When I think of what science fiction has become really popular in tech circles, it’s almost unavoidable to talk about the metaverse. Neal Stephenson coined that term way back in 1992 or so with Snow Crash. Nexus has a lot of roots in that. I wonder what you think about whether we’ll create something like a metaverse.
Chang: Already happening. I’ve seen dozens of pitches. We have successors to Second Life, which was in some ways a successor to the Well. We’ve had virtual worlds for decades now. But now the headsets, the browsers, the devices are catching up to it such that we can have some pretty compelling experiences. These will continue to take off.
Again, though, you have the question. What’s your business model? Let’s say your business model maximizes or incentivizes session lengths. It’ll be in your interest to build a more appealing world in VR or the metaverse than the real world. Next thing you know, we’ll have VR addiction clinics. A lot of people recently got turned on to this by Ready Player One, but that wasn’t actually, to me, very future-looking. That was a love song ode to retro ‘80s geeks like us who grew up with those things. It was like a mixtape of past-looking greatest hits as opposed to something truly future-looking.
Naam: There’s interesting stuff in both AR and VR. As the hardware gets smaller, lighter, cheaper, longer battery life, we’re going to be able to do all kinds of incredible stuff. I do wonder–today it’s VR that’s taken off more than AR. But I wonder if, as these worlds get more robust, are they going to face the same challenges that social media has? When I pull out my Oculus and put it on, a lot of what’s being pitched at me is social experiences. Online, you can find a group where they’re going to amplify your opinions, whatever they are. People self-select for that, for things that amplify their existing political beliefs especially.
VR and AR have the power to be a much more emotionally impactful medium than the ones we have today. Am I going to have the Benghazi experience? An experience where I’m inside the Capitol being stormed? Are those pushed to different audiences? Is that going to tear us apart even more? How do we avoid that problem? I may be overthinking it. Maybe it’s all going to be about exploring under the sea or going to Mars and whatnot. But I do have to wonder, given the experience of the last few years, how VR will get used and whether it will bring us together and pull us apart.
GamesBeat: I just watched a film that debuted at Sundance, A Glitch in the Matrix, from the line in the movie about how that’s the only way you can tell that we’re living inside a computer simulation. It goes back to a 1977 speech by Philip K. Dick, another science fiction writer, about how you would be able to tell whether or not we’re in a simulation. The film is interesting because they found people who believe this, and they’re living their lives as if, when they walk out of a room, the simulation goes off in order to save energy. The people who were in the room talking to them, they just disappear. It feels like the logical extension of the technologies everyone is trying to create to make a believable universe. I didn’t think we’d see the consequences, people really believing this is true.
Naam: I don’t know if it’s a major consequence, that people believe this is true. I think about more prosaic things, though. One of the first VR experiences I had was something called the Nantucket Project. They had VR headsets built around a stack of iPhones, and something like Google Cardboard. It wasn’t the highest-end system. But it was an experience of being in a Syrian refugee camp. All you could do is turn. You were on a mostly guided tour. You couldn’t walk around on your own. But you had a kid as your guide walking you through and explaining how things were, using real footage taken from this camp. It was hugely emotionally impactful. It was probably still the most emotionally impactful thing I’ve done in VR.
Maybe there is room for empathy. I think it has the chance to help people see other people as real human beings. Will it get used in other ways, though? Will it get used to create hatred or sow dissent? Hopefully empathy and love will–I do believe, despite the experience of the last four years, that overall more communication and higher bandwidth communication does create more connection and understanding. But that’s on net. There are subsets of that communication that go the other way. We’re still trying to figure out how to maximize the good.
Chang: Personally, the Planck constant is an interesting one to noodle on when it comes to the processing power of the computer simulation behind all this. But the framework I wanted to share–we tend to, whenever there’s a new platform, port things. We adapt things we knew from before to the newer platforms. What’s typically a hit, though, are things that are native to the new platform.
When the iPhone came out we ported platform games and shooters to it, but it was Angry Birds that was the first bonafide hit. It used the unique aspects of the touch interface. In VR, the first collection of content was first-person shooters and other things we’d seen before. There’s a couple funny phrases I’ve heard in tech. New forms of content on platforms are always the three Gs. It appeals to the most basic instincts: gambling, girls, and guns. Business models are similar. They appeal to base instincts. We say that something goes widely viral if it helps users get paid, made, or laid.
To Ramez’s point, could you have other models? That’s why I led an investment in a company called Tripp. I wrote a few years ago that the most obvious thing is to go launch shooter games and Netflix 360 VR. But I wanted to see not Netflix, but “net trips.” Could you induce more self-discovery, more connection and empathy with others, with the self, with nature? Arguably Tripp is building one of the first digital psychedelics, a “technodelic” if you will, designed to shift and expand consciousness. That’s a totally different use case than what a typical game you’d port to VR would focus on.
These are new categories. They’re still in the works. But for me, there has to be a way of making ourselves better through these things.
Naam: I think it’s a great effort, a great thing to fund, to try to use this technology to help people modulate their emotional state, find more peace, find more tranquility, find more access to spirituality. What better use for technology is there?
GamesBeat: We have some audience questions. One of them is, how do you pop these bubbles, where people are deluding themselves? But also, how do you pop these business models that encourage them?
Naam: The question of how you pop the bubble is easier than how you pop the business model. If you look at Facebook, the feed optimizes for engagement. It optimizes for how many likes and responses a post gets. It brings you back to people who you engage with. That ends up reinforcing either positive engagements, people you mostly agree with, or sometimes it reinforces negative engagements. If I wanted to pop those filter bubbles in Facebook, I’d start finding a way for the feed to surface some of the content that is not quite on your side. Maybe it’s not all the way on the other side. But it’s the best written, most reasonable, most accessible, most from people you trust, to try to spread some of that sharing of ideas.
There’s good data that social networks, whether it’s our personal friendships or others–the weak connections are some of the most important ones. They’re the ones that link one clustered network with another clustered network and bridge them together. I worry that people are just entrenching inside those clustered networks. Now, would that make Facebook more money? Maybe not in the first quarter it’s out there. But if I were Facebook or Twitter, I’d be worried. They’re doing well, but the platforms have become toxic enough that people are fleeing from them. Doing something to create more constructive and positive engagement below the surface, across divides, might be something that turns that around.
Chang: I totally agree with Ramez on that. A couple of vectors I’ve been considering–one, back to business model. What if it’s not just free and ad-based? What if it’s tiered subscription? What if it isn’t free to make a comment? What if it cost you a penny? Would it get rid of trolls immediately? This inspires the question of, do we need to redefine what free speech is in the digital era? My conclusion is there’s freedom of speech in what you say, but we’re in an era where there’s no cost or accountability to speech, especially when you can have pseudonyms or create fake accounts. That’s when you can hijack platforms and when things get dangerous. Maybe we can alleviate those with design of algorithms, feeds, feedback mechanisms, getting rid of vanity metrics like likes and retweets. But also business model choices.
The other way we could pop these bubbles, I do think the ultimate thing people want to pay for is meaning, purpose, and self-expression. If you’re helping people bet on themselves, helping them be their aspirational selves, that’s more like a self-improvement model, and I do think that has value. This is a silly example, but back in the day, MP3s were worth nothing, while ringtones were worth something, because ringtones were a self-expression, branding moment. That was the difference between content versus self-expression. Self-help has always proven that people want to bet on themselves, making themselves better, upgraded versions of themselves, versus downgraded, addicted versions of themselves. That’s what our current feeds and business models are designed for.
GamesBeat: We promised a bit of talk about games. I may be supposed to be bringing that in more than anyone here. It’s interesting to see games drive toward increasingly realistic depictions of humans. If you think about the progress we’ve made with AI as well, there seems to be a lot of similar moral implications for the designers of these things. We’ve talked about how social networks require some more responsible guidance or leadership. On the games side as well, we’re eventually going to have questions arise about whether these artificial beings we’re creating inside virtual worlds are “ours,” as property. Are they slaves? If they’re so real that they have their own consciousness, how wrong is that? I wonder what your own guidance might be in that realm as far as how designers should think about consequences.
Naam: I’m not all that worried about it. There’s a world of difference between what it takes to create something that has a great facade of intelligence than something that is sentient and aware. I go back to Eliza. That was the text-based psychotherapist made in the 1970s. All Eliza was, it was a Perl script. You’d say, “I’m worried about my mother,” and it would read those keywords and say, “Tell me more about your mother.” “My mother is sick with diabetes.” “How do you feel about your mother’s diabetes?” That’s all it took to anthropomorphize it through a keyboard.
Even an incredible simulacrum, and there’s a demand for that in games–obviously we want great NPCs to interact with and strong storylines. We’d all love to have the digital personal assistant that organizes our lives. Doing that does not require you to solve the problem of creating consciousness. It’s much easier, and it doesn’t raise any ethical issues.
Chang: I get excited a lot about this topic. I wish I could do a poll of how many in the audience ever developed genuine emotions or feelings for an NPC character. I say this because I just finished about 100 hours in Cyberpunk 2077, and I noticed genuine affection for some of the love interest characters. This made me think about, could games be a vehicle for developing communications and relationship skills with others?
Imagine dialogue trees mixed with relationship coaching skills and responsive dialogue. We’re going to have semantic processing that can do that. You could improve your relationship with your family or your wife someday, potentially, through these kinds of thing. It goes back to the Her analogy, from the movie, where you full-on fall in love with the operating system because it knows you better than anyone else, but it could be a possibility.
My other challenge for game designers, the ultimate opportunity is, what if you replace all the end bosses in video games with deeply spiritual reflections? The game learns you, and it turns out the big boss at the end is your own shadow side, your core wounds, your unresolved traumas. If you saw the movie Soul, from Pixar, those lost souls were just you, wrapped in the shadows of your projections and traumas and limitations. Imagine a game as a spiritual experience, or self-transformation vehicle. That’s what I’d love to see.
Naam: A friend of mine is at a startup that makes software for kids with autism. They do have gamified experiences that help them understand things like, how do you read emotions? What is this person doing? What’s the right response in this situation? It seems quite effective. But the idea of just using it for ordinary adults or teenagers or whoever, anyone who wants to learn socialization skills and so on, is a good one.
Chang: Independent game developers in the art world have been doing this for a while. You have games like Papers, Please that teach you empathy for someone like a customs agent. They’re more fringe. But you could imagine these learnings and mechanics making their way into triple-A games.
GamesBeat: I read Ready Player Two, and one of the more interesting things I thought he got right in there was that streamers will be the ones that will post their experiences of what it’s like to do something in a hyper-realistic virtual reality. They’ll publish these things on the equivalent of a YouTube channel, and you just step into these files and go live somebody else’s experience. You could completely understand what it’s like to be them, whether it’s a transgender person or somebody living in a country far away. That was a bit of a hopeful message in that these technologies can be so immersive as to communicate to you what it’s like to be someone else, and that could increase empathy in the world, because it’s so immersive.
Chang: Do you remember a 1995 movie called Strange Days? Ralph Fiennes had this SQUID device that recorded emotional experiences. It was the ultimate spectate mode, because you could feel the emotions and sensations. Even Cyberpunk 2077 had the notion of braindance, which built on that as well. It’s back to the notion of VR as an empathy engine. There will be good and there will be bad. You can imagine snuff videos and other horrifying things, but there could be beautiful things, like witnessing the birth of your baby, or falling in love. The whole range could be possible.
Naam: Maybe some of that has to do with education as well. People, when they are selecting what they’re going to go watch–of course there’s a lot of people who watch amazing documentaries and educate themselves and so on, but a lot more go to see action, adventure, comedy, romance, escapism. In schooling, maybe one of the things we need to have is, live a day in someone else’s shoes. I think that’s an amazing tool for VR or AR to help people learn. What’s it like to be of a different race, a different gender? What’s it like to live in Sri Lanka or Myanmar? To build that degree of empathy. You can combine that with things like real time speech translation and other things like that. I can imagine situations where you really increase the level of empathy.
But I’m no longer quite as sure that it will all happen by itself. We have to make the intentional choice to use technology in these ways and help drive that.
Chang: Somebody told me that TikTok is kind of doing that. I have a lot of problems with TikTok and its algorithmic content, but you get authentic slices of life, five to 30 seconds at a time, from all over the world. A kid in the streets in Myanmar, something like that. That possibly is happening in these lower-res formats, which is something I hadn’t expected.
GamesBeat: There’s a question for Ramez. What’s the distinction between psychedelics or drugs and technologies like virtual reality? Nexus is a drug, but it has the effect of something like taking AR glasses and putting them inside your head.
Naam: Tim should answer this one too. But they’re complementary technologies. Some thinking about psychedelic experience–the value of putting anything in your brain whatsoever, whether it’s the right media that you’re consuming, whether it’s a book, whether it’s Sam Delany’s book Dhalgren, who’s a master of science fiction–that was like a 1200 page psychedelic trip. It really was. Or it’s the right experience in nature or whatnot. Now, when you have AR and VR, they can do some amazing things, including psychedelic experiences. But they can probably be amplified or further amplify things that can be done with substances or meditation or other practices as well.
There’s no bright line, but there are some things that are easier to do in different ways. It’s easier to give someone a very specific visual experience than a screen than it is with any drug you’re going to put in your brain. It’s probably easier to induce other things with something, whether it’s brain stimulus or molecules that interact with your brain as well. The two together might be one plus one equals three.
Chang: You could start to play with people’s perception and feed back to different senses. You could start to mix them together, simulating things like synaesthesia in virtual domains. Could you start to simulate what death is like, as you start to lose your senses? I saw one art project in VR that was used to give people a sense of what it’s like to be paranoid schizophrenic, by playing with the senses, overlays of things, phantom voices. You can image the empathy that can create for different neural states.
GamesBeat: Tim, I noticed you’re on the board of a non-profit called Reimagine Death. The topic comes up frequently in books, the concept of digital immortality. Do you think about that and the opportunities there?
Chang: Wired magazine had an article about somebody who created a me-bot for his dying father. It was an evolution of the Eliza experiment. But you can imagine how, if semantic and natural language processing gets better and better–the corpus of data you produce in all your emails, all your text messages, is probably enough training data to create a simulacrum that actually sounds like you. It knows your favorite phrases, words, sentences to use, response patterns. You can imagine your digital tombstone someday is a me-bot of you, which could increasingly answer interactions and questions, with better fidelity, from your great-grandkids.
GamesBeat: You just described what the founder of Replika did with text messages. She had a friend who died in a car accident. She gathered every text message that he had ever written to friends and family and all that, and tried to reproduce a digital companion that’s now the friend of millions of Replika users.
Chang: It’s even a field now, called death tech. There’s going to be subscription business models based on preserving your legacy vault. As programming and machine learning gets better, I will re-create you with greater fidelity as time goes on, based on everything in your legacy vault. We’ll see some cool things. Going back to science fiction, the remake of Superman in Man of Steel had his father as this kind of bot that was coaching him when he went back to the crypt in his spaceship. There are good examples in sci-fi.
GamesBeat: Nearing the end here, is there anything you’d like to leave with our listeners here about what you think will happen in the future?
Naam: I’m super excited. I’ve sounded some notes of caution here, but I do think that in the big picture, over the long arc of human history, any time that we’ve seen new information technologies, there’s been some bad stuff that results, but overall it empowers people. We’re struggling with catching up with the consequences of filter bubbles and social media and how society deals with that. But I do think that the ability to connect is still a power for good. AR and VR are in their total infancy. They’re just baby technologies right now when it comes to adoption and wearability and fidelity. As we get there, like every technology, there will be misuses, but there are massive opportunities for good.
Game developers have the potential to use these technologies to not only entertain, but entertain and enlighten, entertain and empathize. They can help make the people who play their games more fulfilled and better people as well.
Chang: A great example, Jenova Chen, his new game Sky has a lot of this, the theme of enlightenment. What I’d leave with the audience is, just like science fiction authors have a responsibility to create not just black mirrors, but white mirrors, it’s the same with you. Creating experiences that help people become better versions of themselves. Not just killing things, but leveling up and self-transformation. That would be exciting.
Really good science fiction to turn to for these–we’re going to see a lot of cli-fi, climate fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future has been recommended to me many times. That’s a great one. I actually think back to the notion of exploring business and politics. There will be new categories like de-fi, decentralized fiction, or financial fiction, that explore the worlds of cryptocurrency and the craziness that happens there as business models get turned upside down. There will be a lot of aspects there that can make their way into game themes.
GamesBeat: I’ve had interesting experiences thinking about things from way back, like the quantified self-movement that inspired a lot of these devices for measuring things like your heart rate and all that. I had a chance last year to wear one of those Dexcom glucose monitors, to learn and feel what it’s like to be a person with diabetes that always has to pay attention to how much sugar is in their blood. It was eye-opening. Just from eating pasta, seeing how much my sugar level would spike. Or while I was jogging, how much it would dip.
It was interesting to see not only how this technology has moved into a stage where it can automate an insulin pump for you, which really helps people who have the disease. But also helping people themselves realize, okay, what kind of mood am I in when I have all this sugar in my blood, versus when I’m going toward a low point? How does this affect my brain and my actions? Technology, to me, is on the cusp of delivering some really interesting capabilities for everyone. All this obsession with measuring everything, the quantified self, is at our fingertips. It’s going to be an interesting next few years as those kinds of technologies develop.
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