Mar 26 2024

The Experience Machine Thought Experiment

In 1974 Robert Nozick published the book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in which he posed the following thought experiment: If you could be plugged into an “experience machine” (what we would likely call today a virtual reality or “Matrix”) that could perfectly replicate real-life experiences, but was 100% fake, would you do it? The question was whether you would do this irreversibly for the rest of your life. What if, in this virtual reality, you could live an amazing life – perfect health and fitness, wealth and resources, and unlimited opportunity for adventure and fun?

Nozick hypothesized that people generally would not elect to do this (as summarized in a recent BBC article). He gave three reasons – we want to actual do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them, we want to be a certain kind of person and that can only happen in reality, and we want meaning and purpose in our lives, which is only possible in reality.

A lot has happened in the last 50 years and it is interesting to revisit Nozick’s thought experiment. I would say I basically disagree with Nozick, but there is a lot of nuance that needs to be explored. For me there are two critical variables, only one of which I believe was explicitly addressed by Nozick. In his thought experience once you go into the experience machine you have no memory of doing so, therefore you would believe the virtual reality to be real. I would not want to do this. So in that sense I agree with him – but he did not give this as a major reason people would reject the choice. I would be much more likely to go into a virtual reality if I retained knowledge of the real world and that I was in a virtual world.

Second – are there other people in this virtual reality with me, or is every other entity an AI? To me the worst case scenario is that I know I am in a virtual reality and that I am alone with nothing but AIs. That is truly a lonely and pointless existence, and no matter how fun and compelling it would be, I think I would find that realization hard to live with indefinitely. But, If I didn’t know that I was living in a virtual reality, than it wouldn’t matter that I was alone, at least not to the self in the virtual reality. But would I condemn myself to such an existence, even knowing I would be blissfully unaware? Then there is what I would consider to be the best case scenario – I know I am living in a virtual reality and there are other actual people in here with me.┬áThere is actually another variable – does anything that happens in the virtual reality have the potential to affect the real world? If I write a book, could that book be published in the real world?

Nozick’s thought experiment, I think, was pure in that you would not know you are in a virtual reality, there is no one else in there with you, and you are forever cut off from the real world. In that case I think the ultimate pointlessness of such an existence would be too much. I would likely only consider opting for this at the end of my life, especially if I were ill or disabled to a significant degree. This would be a great option in many cases. But let’s consider other permutations, with 50 years of additional experience.

I also think that at the other end of the spectrum, with people knowing they are in virtual reality, there are real people together in this virtual world, and it is connected to the real world, than most people would find living large parts of their life in virtual reality acceptable and enjoyable. This is the “Ready Player One” scenario. We know from experience that people already do some version of this, spending lots of time playing immersive video games or engaging in virtual communities on social media. People find meaning in their virtual lives.

What about the AI variable? I think we have to distinguish general AI from narrow AI. Are the AI sentient? If so, then I think it doesn’t matter that they are AI. If they are just narrow AI algorithms, the knowledge of that would be bothersome. But could people be fooled by narrow AI? I think the answer there is unequivocally yes. People have a tendency to anthropomorphize, and we generally accept and respond to the illusion of human interaction. People are already falling in love with narrow AIs and virtual characters that don’t actually exist.

What about the “Matrix” scenario? This is something else to consider – is all of humanity in the virtual reality? In Nozick’s thought experience the Matrix was run by benign and well-meaning overlords that just want us to have an enjoyable existence, without malevolent intent. I do think it would matter whether or not a subset of humanity were in the Matrix, with other people still advancing technology, art, science, and philosophy and running civilization. It is quite another thing for humanity in its entirety to check out of reality and just exist in a Matrix. Civilization would essentially be over. Some futurists speculate that this may be the ultimate fate of many civilizations, turning inward and creating a virtual civilization. The advantages may just be too massive to ignore, and some civilizations may decide that they have achieved the ultimate end already and go down the path of becoming a virtual civilization.

In the end I think Nozick’s solution to his own thought experiment was too simplistic and one sided. I do agree with him that people need a sense of purpose and meaning. But on the other hand, I think we know a lot more now about how compelling and appealing virtual reality can be, that people will respond emotionally to a sufficiently compelling illusion, and people will find fulfillment even in a virtual reality.

What I think this means for the future of humanity, at least in the short run, is something close to the Ready Player One scenario. We will build increasingly sophisticated and compelling virtual realities, and as a result people will spend more and more time there. But this virtual reality will be seamlessly integrated into physical reality. Yes, some people will use it as an escape, but it will also be just another aspect of actual reality.

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