The holodeck: downsides and upsides

Copyright South Park Digital Studios L..L.C.

Copyright South Park Digital Studios L..L.C.

Today the last story in a series about the holodeck and technologies promising us a realistic virtual reality. With the invention of more realistic virtual reality interfaces we will also find that new problems will arise.

When the virtual world cannot be discriminated from the real one addiction will become a big problem. In Star Trek holodeck addiction was indeed a mental illness. They did however underestimated the problem it will become. In Star Trek they argued that because¬† holodeck isn’t real, people wouldn’t want to spend all their time on it. The problem when a virtual reality system becomes as real as a holodeck is that we cannot distinguish any more between real and fantasy. Though we will know on a cognitive level that it isn’t real all of our senses will tell us otherwise. And to make a long story short, we don’t care about our cognitive objections when it feels so real. Gaming addiction is already a problem with a small percentage of gamers and we don’t even have that realistic virtual reality environments, best you can do now is wear 3D goggles.

You need to remember that a holodeck provides everything you cannot do in the real world and provides the perfect escape. Get bullied at school? Be a super hero! Can’t get a girl? Have twenty! Don’t have an interesting job? How about captain of a star ship? Who wants to come out unless they have to? Would you?

Another potential problem is PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a mental illness caused by a traumatic event. Many soldiers suffer from PTSD when they come back from a war zone. Seen as shooters are one of the most popular games we might see an increase in people who suffer from PTSD. It might be that shooters become less popular or get more cartoony to offset the realism so people can’t suffer from PTSD. Some protection might lie in the fact that we know it is entertainment but if it becomes to real that won’t help any more.

A realistic virtual reality will mean that people will form relationships with virtual characters. While I will explored the implications of this in this post I do want to talk about sex addiction here. When people start to neglect other parts of their life so that they can have sex or masturbate not even for pleasure any more they can be a sex addict. Though different from a drug addiction the effects can still be devastating with the loss of job, partner, family and friends. A holodeck could be a risk for people who are already at risk for a (sex)addiction since it can supply an endless amount of virtual partners in any number of sexual fantasies.

The addictiveness of the holodeck will have undoubtedly an effect on productiveness of employees who are yearning to get back to their fantasy lives. Other forms of entertainment will suffer as well although these might be incorporated in their fantasy worlds.

There is an upside as well though. We will see less loneliness. A virtual partner and friend is just as good as a real one. We just want other people to notice us, that they are virtual is a distinction our mind does not make. this will also lead to less depression and anxiety. We are invincible in our own fantasies and can take on the world. Our virtual training will help us prepare for the real world outside.

And; even if all else fails there is always a virtual psychologist at hand to help you with your problems.

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The holodeck: Neural interface

In the last few weeks I have examined a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the potential of the neural interface a hypothetical matrix-style technology.

A neural interface is a device that links directly to and interacts with your brain. Werther via a direct connection like in The Matrix or via a non-invasive method, the neural interface promises to be the ultimate holodeck experience even if it seems a little scary as well.

for a realistic holodeck experience you’d need three things. The first is that the computer understands what the hell you are trying to do. That your brains signal for turning left is actually translated into a left turning movement. with a tried and tested method like EEG this can be done today even if it is a little rudimentary and not quite exact. Luckily the brain can adapt and learn and increase efficiency of EEG based controllers (the brain waves the machine reads become more distinct when using it regularly.

Though EEG has been able to give us basic control of computers they are limited. The EEG only reads general brainwaves but does not have the resolution required for the fine motor control you’d need to play a first person shooter for instance. A better bet might be a fMRI. The fMRI measures the blood flow to the brain. The more blood flows to a certain part the more active it is. The fMRI has the advantage that it can measure the entire brain not just the outer layer. The fMRI also has the potential of being way more accurate then an EEG. Downsides to the fMRI are that it works with magnets and thus needs to be shielded from the rest of the world (unless you want to pry the cutlery from the wall each day.) Also the fMRI is the size of a small room and gets bigger if higher resolutions are required though advances in nanotechnology might decrease the size eventually.

A third method would be by inserting a network of small sensors into the brain capable of reading brain activity on a smaller scale then EEG. Downside to this obviously is that you’d need brain surgery with all the risks of complications. We’d even be able to let brain cells directly interact with the chips if we want to.Don’t worry about needing to plug cables into your spine though. These chips would probably be accessed via a wireless technology.

Second thing you’d need is that the computer output is translated into sensory input again. The easiest way to do this is just using current technology. TV’s, headphones, speakers, vibration in game controllers are all designed to translate computer output into sensory input. Trouble is that even the best of these are not realistic. Even advanced simulators are clearly not real.

Luckily we don’t need our senses to create sensory input because all sensory input is processed in the brain. And in the brain alone can we make sense of what our senses detect. By directly stimulating the brain you can create false sensory input. In effect you create the holodeck within your head. experiences gained this way would be indistinguishable from real experiences (except maybe for the fact you are able to fly of course.) Again there are basically two ways of doing this. Invasive or non-invasive.

The non-invasive methods work by stimulating your brain either via electricity tDCS or magnetism TMS. They work by activating your neurons so that they start firing signals to other neurons. In this way you can trick the senses into seeing, hearing and feeling things that are not actually happening. One thing to worry about though is whether this would create a double image so that you’d not only see the ‘holodeck’ image but also what your eyes actually see. (I imagine that you could get quite sick from a double input quite quickly not unlike seasickness.) The viability of either system as a sensory input device is quite questionable as well. Can we actually fire individual neurons in the right pattern? Can we penetrate the brain deeply enough to create realistic input? Because they are non invasive you need to penetrate the brain from the outside which is quite tricky as you can imagine and currently TMS and tDCS can only stimulate large parts of the brain (in terms of brain tissue even a cubic millimetre is a large part).

The invasive method is quite easy (in theory at least): you just hook a chip to the sensory nerves leading to the brain. When you activate your holodeck you just shut off the real input and replace it with the computer images. In practice it is a little trickier of course. It would require cutting the nerve and attaching the chip to each individual cell. Something which is impossible with current technology.

The third thing you’d need is temporary paralysis. Though this may sound scary it is actually already build into our brains. It’s function is to prevent us from acting out our dreams and thus putting ourselves into dangerous situations. Cases are known in which people attack or have sex with their spouses in their sleep because of a lack of sleep paralysis. The sleep paralysis could easily be activated be tDCS, TMS or by implanting a chip and may even be the easiest to accomplish in our neural interface holodeck.

In conclusion I can say that if a holodeck based on the neural interface will become a reality it is still a long way off. Even if the technology was invented tomorrow to do it practically we’d still lack the knowledge of how the brain actually works to manipulate it so precisely. It sounds scary but would basically be an on demand dream machine. In the case of implants based on wireless technology hacking would be a real concern however.