What would society have been like before humanity plugged itself into the Matrix, giving complete control over to machines? The upcoming film “Surrogates” might offer a plausible explanation. People have not exactly plugged into the Matrix, but they are using machines to interact with each other and reality. From the safety of your own home you can explore the world and do things you wouldn’t dream of doing with your real body.
Of course, things begin to go wrong and a (hopefully) exciting investigation ensues. Bruce Willis offers the viewing audience insight into the world of surrogate life that is better than the Second Life online video game.
I’ve been watching this trailer in the theaters. What makes this YouTube video special is the fact that it appears to be an official upload, connected to this promotional site where you can “Choose Your Surrogate”.
We do actually use surrogate technology now, so the movie’s premise is not so far-fetched as it might seem. For example, marine scientists often rely upon remote-controlled robots to explore the ocean depths. There are industrial processes where other remote-controlled machines perform dangerous tasks for us. Some surgeries are now also performed using robot mechanisms that ensure delicate incision work is managed quickly and responsibly.
Kids have been using surrogate technology for decades with remote-controlled airplanes, boats, and helicopters. But what does it take to launch ourselves into surrogates that look and feel like us? Virtual Reality technology is still mostly focused on making fake experiences seem real. We have training simulators that project us in our real bodies into simulated conflicts, situations, and experiences.
There is still a threshold between the experiences we pass through in our bodies and the experiences we pass through via surrogates. No matter how small the camera, no matter how realistic the sound system, we cannot yet live vicariously through other bodies. Once we make that theoretical possibility a reality, we open the door upon a whole new world of challenges, ethical questions, and self-endangering propositions.
A few years ago Stargate SG-1 produced an episode where the team found a world whose inhabitants had embedded themselves in virtual reality machines. Those people experienced a very limited life by reliving their memories and computer-invented scenarios which, after a thousand years, failed to stimulate their minds sufficiently. Their caretaker trapped the SG-1 team and mined their own memories to provide new experiences and stimulations for his people — but they could not enter into those memories, they could only watch.
In essence, the story proposes that if we stop living life we will eventually lose the ability to imagine a better life for ourselves. We cannot help but become trapped in a meaningless existence. Today there are people who struggle with Internet addictions. They become trapped in the world of online convesrations, online avatars, online activities. Do they go out and still live their lives or is “real” life an intrusion on their virtual worlds?
The communications infrastructure that would be required to provide billions of people with avatar experiences as proposed in “Surrogates” does not yet exist. Nonetheless, it’s almost certain that we’ll one day have both the bandwidth and the computing technology to transmit that much data across the airwaves simultaneously.
Through the stories that science fiction brings to us, we still have an opportunity to evaluate both the peril and the necessity of living vicariously through agents, avatars, and surrogates. Or is it too late, since we can only evaluate those concepts through the second-hand experiences of television and the movies?
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