I’m always amused when people claim that something is “not real”. As in: “online relations between people are not real” or “artificial intelligence is not real”. But the truth is that we humans have a very ambiguous relationship with reality. We cling to it like scared spider monkeys but, at the same time, happily live in an artificially constructed online information bubble and gobble up fake news on social media without looking back twice.
Reality is not what you think it is
Most of us don’t quite grasp the true nature of what we call reality. It’s actually a simulation of our individual brain, and a very limited one to boot. It’s a simulation because reality is so complex that our brains are designed to select and process only parts of it to survive. Detailed noise would distract us too much and stand in the way of our survival. It would also take up too much energy if our brains would need to construct reality from scratch each time we ‘see’ something. So it works with some kind of templates. The construction of our reality is quite limited because perception is restricted by our own biology. When it comes to colour, for instance, we see less than a 10 trillionth of what actually exists. We can’t see infrared (though snakes do) or ultraviolet (but honeybees can), among many others along the colour spectrum. They do exist, but we just can’t see them.
So what we perceive is definitely not what’s really out there. It’s our own narrow construction, a self-centred world that the Germans Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok called Umwelt. In fact, it has no colour, no smell, no sound. It’s just a mass of information that our brains process and interpret in its very biased way. There’s no such thing as ‘one reality’. Reality is the observer.
Umwelt is not reality
So the fact that we view some realities as ‘real’ and others as augmented or virtual is a false assumption on a philosophical level. All realities are constructed and virtual in their own way. True, we are not used to augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Yet. True, we’re still learning to understand how to use them. True, most AR and VR products are still flawed so they are not entirely convincing. But AR and VR are still in their most early stages. Like the web in the days of dial-up internet when only the happy few had access to it, which was greatly underestimated by many.
I believe that the alternative realities we will create for ourselves will become as real to us as ‘what’s out there’, whatever that is. No matter if others are not experiencing the same as us. Because we actually never did "see" alike, each of us having different eyes, minds and emotions driving us to interpret the same thing differently.
I believe that the next Big thing to be disrupted will be reality, at least “what we think of as reality”. Just like the adjective digital has become redundant, so will the adjectives augmented, virtual and mixed. There will be just one reality, not specified by any adjective. Or more correctly: there will be as many realities as there are pairs of eyes, because the only thing that’s actually augmented is the tailoring of the world to the individual. I’m not just talking here about personalised products, services and marketing, but about how our complete environment will match what we are. My reality; my umwelt was never yours but, with this evolution, the difference between the two will only grow. VR company Magic Leap perfectly describes the impact this will have, stating that it wants to create a “a new operating system for reality”.
This could be a tremendous shift. Not just because of VR and AR, though. These are just reality’s most obvious disruptors. Another driver of reality’s disruption is Artificial Intelligence. Imagine what the impact of brain-computer interfaces will have if we have arrived at general AI. Seeing that our brains are the ones shaping our world, just think of how this cognitive computing on crack will change our perception and consequently our ‘reality’. If computers themselves attain some form of cognition, possibly even consciousness (though probably not the same kind as us humans), they will see reality too in a different manner than us, and think differently than us about it. What will that do to how we perceive it? And what about robots that have gained sentience? Would they be ‘real’? (I always think about the Westworld series robot answering “If You Can't Tell, Does It Matter?”, when a human asks her if she’s a robot or not). And let’s not forget how technology is allowing us to modify our senses – which are the receptors and input-motors of the information that the outside world is: like bionic eyes or blind people that learn to ‘see’ through their tongues.
A quantum reality
But even these are just the more self-evident disruptors of reality. If we move on to the realm of physics, things get a lot weirder. When most of us think of parallel universes and multiverses, we regard this as pure science fiction. Or the rantings of that crazy uncle of yours who did too much acid in the seventies. But it’s a subject that has kept many well-respected quantum mechanics scientists busy since 1957. In short: in the well-known ‘Many-Worlds Interpretation’, each universe branches into a bunch of new universes every time a quantum measurement is made.
I’ll have to side-step into quantum theory in order to make this sound less crazy. Quantum mechanics explains the world of the very, very small: of atoms, protons and neutrons. They respond to very different laws than the rest of the universe. They even had Einstein spooked, so that’s saying a lot. Quantum mechanics are much too complex to explain in full here, but this is what you need to know to understand the above: in the world of the very small, before we see or measure something, every possibility exists at once. So, before you hear of it, you are promoted AND demoted AND fired AND remaining in the status quo at once. When you for instance hear that you’ve been promoted, all the other possibilities branch off and still occur, but in other universes, that have nothing to do with ours.
Basically, at the quantum level, reality does not exist in a certain state if you are not looking at it. So the observer – the measurement to be exact – determines the course of a particle’s action. All the other possibilities branch off into other worlds. It’s sounds insane, because it does not match with our view of the world, but it’s one of the reasons why we are pumping billions of cash and Nobel prize-winning scientists into that beast we call the large hadron collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research).
It gets even crazier: researchers are now investigating how we could reach into these parallel worlds. Some believe that quantum computing could be the answer: smart and (seemingly) sane people like Geordie Rose, the founder of D-Wave, one of the first quantum computing firms which has attracted investments from Google and Jeff Bezos (Amazon). Rose believes that quantum computing will allow us to start to exploit parallel universes by reaching into them and pulling out their computing power. Oxford University physicist David Deutsch, too, is of the opinion that “quantum computation... will be the first technology that allows useful tasks to be performed in collaboration between parallel universes.” It sounds insane, but theoretically and scientifically, it makes sense.
Not just yet. But soon.
We’re not there yet, obviously. Neither VR, nor AR nor MR nor AI are powerful enough to breach the boundaries of what we call ‘reality’ in a convincing manner. Quantum computing is still a very theoretical and hypothetical branch that has, of yet failed to deliver what it promises. And no, quantum scientists have not found conclusive evidence of other ‘worlds’ (whatever that would mean). Not yet. But things are moving fast. And some of the world’s smartest people and biggest organizations are working on it. So I’m convinced that what we see as real and not, WILL change significantly. And when it happens, its impact could be compared to a new Copernican revolution. It will no more be all of us living in one ‘reality’. It will be a (very) different reality living ‘within’ each of us.
And the reason why we I believe that we will get used to it – in spite of those fervent ‘nay’ sayers - is because there NEVER was ONE TRUE reality, even if we choose to believe so. It has as many forms as there are life forms and individual creatures.