Virtual Reality Will Always Suck

Illustration for article titled Virtual Reality Will Always Suck

Many futurists and science fiction writers are adherents of the theory that we're heading towards "Vearth," a state where the entire world is essentially replaced by a giant virtual reality made of "computronium." (Computronium is Charles Stross' jokey term for matter that's optimized for computing.) You see this fantasy cropping up in movies like The Matrix, where the world of 1999 has been completely replaced by a computer simulation; and in countless novels ranging from Greg Bear's Blood Music to Rudy Rucker's latest Postsingular. Now Rucker himself is railing against this idea of Vearth, in a terrific essay on why virtual reality will always suck compared to the real thing.

Advertisement

Rucker, a retired mathematics professor, says, "We tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality." He then goes on to scold the starry-eyed futurists who predict smashing up the real world to make way for a virtual world as varied and granular as the one we live in now:

I might ask why someone would passionately want to believe that we can be translated from flesh into bits? There's something ascetic and life-hating about the notion. It's a bit like a religious belief; one thinks of the old "work now, get rewarded in heaven" routine.

We know that our present-day videogames and digital movies don't fully match the richness of the real world. What's not so well known is that computer science provides strong evidence that no feasible VR can ever match nature.

This is because there are no shortcuts for nature's computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the "principle of natural unpredictability," fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don't allow for drastic shortcuts . . . Natural unpredictability means that if you build a computer sim world that's smaller than the physical world, the sim cuts corners and makes compromises, such as using bitmapped wood-grain and cartoon-style repeating backgrounds. Smallish sim worlds are doomed to be dippy Las Vegas/Disneyland/Second Life environments . . .

Come on, if you want to smoothly transform a blade of grass into some nanomachines simulating a blade of grass, then why bother pulverizing the blade of grass at all? After all, any object at all can be viewed as a quantum computation! The blade of grass already is an assemblage of nanomachines emulating a blade of grass. To the extent that you can realize an accurate VR world, the exercise becomes pointless.

Advertisement

He's got a lot more great stuff in the essay, too, refuting the Vearthists point by point. Frankly, I couldn't agree more. Go, Rudy, go!

Fundamental Limits to Virtual Reality [Rudy's Blog]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

I think this question really depends on whether reality is infinitely deep or not. I don't think that's been proved conclusively. All we have are some hints stemming from Godel's theorems—which I can go into if you folks are really interested.

If reality is not infinitely rich with detail, maybe it's easier to fake than we thought.

And even if it is, it might be easy enough to fake if we limit things. Fooling one person is easier than fooling 6 billion. Fooling an expert is easy if you show her something she has no training with. Fooling someone for a short time is easier than fooling someone for a long time. The Truman Show worked for several decades of Truman's life but then they were only trying to fool one guy.

Besides it doesn't really have to be believed to still be useful. If we can fake micro-gravity cheaply and convincingly, we'd save a lot of jet fuel (No need for the Vomit Comet, right?) and screen out a lot of bad astronaut candidates.