This essay was written in January of 2007 by Ryan C. Stebbins.
Virtual reality: will it ever exist? Before such a question can be answered, you must first decide what exactly the definition of virtual reality is. Is virtual reality merely a way to simulate a specific activity available in reality? If so, then virtual reality already does exist. There are simulations of various kinds, such as flying and driving simulators, which pass as this type of virtual reality. Many current video games may also be considered a type of virtual reality. With the internet, things such as massively multiplayer online video games are possible, and thus virtual reality is more a reality now than it ever has been, and it will no doubt continue to be as time progresses.
However, when I hear the term “virtual reality,” what I think of is a true simulation of reality itself, like the ones found in various works of science fiction. Such a virtual reality would be a living, breathing world full of many individual forces that are as intelligent as they are unpredictable. It could be entirely like our own world, or radically different, and yet it would still feel as real as reality. Nature itself would have to be simulated. Creatures would have to exist with varying degrees of intelligence and self-awareness. Someday, no doubt, video games will exist that offer such realistic visual imagery that it is nearly impossible, if not completely impossible to tell a visual difference between reality and a game. However, there is more to reality than sight. Audio has been incorporated into current “virtual reality,” but many of the other human senses that we experience in reality have not been. Of course, that is not to say that they will not be.
When one considers virtual reality as a virtual living world, you quickly come upon the problem of artificial intelligence, or “AI.” AI has advanced much since it was first created, just as the visuals capable by computer generated imagery have advanced. However, AI has a much longer way to go to achieve reality quality intelligence than does CGI to achieve reality quality visuals. Even the most advanced forms of current AI cannot compete with human intelligence, or even the intelligence levels of many animals. This is because artificial intelligences lack self-awareness, as well as true problem solving ability. Programmed applications cannot currently adapt to situations or solve new problems that they are not programmed to solve. They rely entirely upon programmed information. The question of whether programmed intelligence will ever reach a level of self-awareness and problem-solving ability equal to that of even a dolphin is, of course, disputable. Philosophers of artificial intelligence call this the idea of a “strong AI” – an artificial intelligence that is capable of true reasoning and problem solving, and that is sapient as well as self-aware.
In my view of a “true” virtual reality, it would have to reach such a degree as to be completely impossible for someone to see a difference between the reality that we know and the reality that is being simulated. Virtual reality would have to create a world where physics and nature existed. Physics are already being simulated by computers, and are advancing rapidly. However, I do not believe that nature can be simulated. It is impossible. Self-awareness in an artificial intelligence may or may not be possible. Most likely not, I believe, but who am I to say? The ability to use other human senses such as touch and smell in virtual reality is not too hard to imagine. However, I do not believe that any man-made creation, no matter how in-depth and complex, no matter how many terabytes, petabytes, zettabytes, or yottabytes of data it uses, and no matter how many FLOPS it it capable of, will ever be able to virtually simulate nature accurately. There are too many variables to program; too many details to take into account. Nature is chaotic and wholly unpredictable, and that is precisely the opposite of a programmed application. Therefore, although certain aspects of reality may be simulated with varying degrees of realism, reality could not be simulated without it being a reality itself. If a simulation of reality actually existed that was as realistic as reality, then it would no longer be virtual. It very nearly would be real. That is why I believe it to be impossible.