Chapter 11: A Ghost on the Web
Consider the new breed of virtual reality Web sites. Already some fifteen million people participate in Second Life, a site where they submerge themselves into cyberspace and become persons they are not in real life. And Second Life is only one of about a dozen popular virtual reality worlds.
Will virtual reality, then, be the intelligence behind the Internet? Rather than an extension of human thought, will it come in the form of some kind of ingestion of human intelligence within the framework of an artificial world? This would not be the first time that science fiction cut the path that reality was destined to follow.
What if the lines become blurred? Will we be unaware of the intersection between minds and machines? Consider the story of a robbery that happened in 2007. Days after the robbery, police in Amsterdam were told the story of a woman who had started a furniture store on Humbolt Street three years earlier and had a thriving business until someone broke in and stole $4,000 worth of furniture. The police were given an unusual amount of detail, so they were confident that justice would be served.
The police began their investigation and quickly learned a few odd facts. First, Humbolt Street isn’t in Amsterdam or even in the Netherlands. What’s more, the thieves couldn’t be found anywhere. The reason, as it turned out, is that the crime didn’t happen in Amsterdam or even in “this world.” It happened in Habbo Hotel, a virtual world that exists only on the Internet. But the crime was real, and the furniture, while virtual, cost real Euros. And here is where things get strange: the Dutch police agreed. They ended up pursuing the case, finding the virtual thieves (in the real world), and arresting them. The thieves have been banned from the virtual world and will likely serve time in a real jail.
What is happening in virtual life is merely an extension of real life—or in some cases a replacement. Hundreds of thousands of people now gladly give up their Saturday evenings to go on dates in a virtual world, such as Habbo Hotel or Second Life. Habbo now claims to have more than eighty million people in thirty-one countries; it is a busy hotel, to say the least.21 And that is dwarfed by Second Life’s vibrant marketplace, which transacts as much as 100 million real U.S. dollars per year and is minting real millionaires. The people in these virtual worlds are having real interactions, exchanging real money, and living real lives, albeit in a virtual world.
It makes one wonder whether the body (sitting in front of a keyboard for hours) is nothing more than a brain on life support—Descartes’ ghost. Earlier in my career, I had just that experience: I would spend hours in a cubicle on the phone with various people, some of whom I got to know quite well. But at one point, I had an eerie feeling that I was nothing more than a brain, floating in space, communicating with other brains. (Not to worry—my wife cured me with a few beers.)
Many people end up with this feeling, and often they experience a backlash against technology. With radio, there were the dangerous frequency waves. Television introduced many evils: ADD, brain cancer, desensitization, cultural vacuums. Do cell phones cause cancer, or only make us less personable? For every paperless office and electronic book, there are people touting the value of the printed word. What will become of the Internet when the pundits declare it too dangerous, too malicious, or even too smart?
That is a question we will soon face, because an intelligent Internet is imminent. It will not resemble a brain, I’m certain, any more than the first airplane flapped its wings like a bird. But like an airplane, the intelligence behind the Internet will go faster and farther than what has preceded it on Earth. If we consider that only sixty-six years after the first flight of the Wright brothers, astronauts set foot on the moon, what does that say for the future of the Internet? The Internet has already given us opportunities that far exceed the impact of flight, but that is nothing compared with what is coming. It’s a bit scary, I admit. And if you think that the idea of an intelligent Internet is unsettling, what about one that is self-aware?