Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Surrogates, Stereotyping and VR

I had seen a trailer for the film Surrogates, and was intrigued by the idea that one day in the not too distant future we could live our lives virtually--through robotic surrogates that interact in the "real" world. Here's the trailer.

I haven't yet seen the film (the DVD Surrogates comes out in January), but to find out more about it, I recently read The Surrogates by Robert Venditti--the graphic novel on which the film is based. First, though, here's the premise of the book: People can purchase a surrogate robot of any race, sex, age and appearance that the buyer wants. Another option is to purchase a model that looks as you did when you were younger. In the comfort of your home, connected to your surrogate via a headset, you experience the actions of your surrogate, sense what your surrogate senses, and your thoughts animate the surrogate. The words you speak into the headset get spoken by your surrogate. It's virtual reality taken to an extreme. Police officers all use surrogates, and they can't get killed or injured in the line of duty; if a surrogate gets shot, it's simply out of commission until repairs are complete. The officer is safe at home.

Here are three (of the many) psychological nuggets that came to mind while reading the novel.

Nugget #1: Stereotyping and Prejudice

Here's a quote from the graphic novel, in an "article" about surrogates in the "Journal of Applied Cybernetics."

"The use of surrogates across demographic groups has opened a new approach to confronting inequality. Offering operators a certain measure of anonymity, surrogates render actual race and gender irrelevant and instead shift all demographic classifications to the implied race and gender of the surrogate unit being operated. The result is a cross-cultural condition of ambiguity, through which operators can remove race and gender considerations from their social interactions. When taking into account this function of ambiguity, it is logical to conclude that the proliferation of the surrogate in contemporary American culture would abolish…prejudice and stereotyping."

Would our stereotypes and prejudices evolve when everyone knows that the surrogate you see and interact may not have the same demographic characteristics as the surrogate's operator?

To some extent, this situation already occurs via the internet: If you "meet" someone through the internet, there's no way to be sure that who the person says he or she is corresponds to who he or she actually is. Would people's stereotyping shift with the use of surrogates? How much could it shift? Humans seem to be wired to sort people into social categories ("us" versus "them") so how much could this tendency be minimized if we knew that what we see isn't what is "real"?

Nugget #2: Reality Versus Virtual Reality

What is reality anyway? As I've noted in previous posts here and here, whether you experience something in virtual reality or regular reality, you've still had that experience. You could live almost your entire waking life virtually, and not necessarily feel the poorer for it. Could such a virtual reality ultimately be destructive? The quick answer is absolutely.

In the novel, the protagonist's wife almost never interacts with the protagonist in the real world; she prefers to do it through her surrogate, who looks younger and more attractive than her real self. In some sense, she seems addicted to living through this youthful version of herself. Is this drive fundamentally any different than people having cosmetic surgery to give themselves a more attractive or youthful appearance?

Nugget #3: Freed of Physical Limitations

In the novel, the inventor of the early surrogate prototype developed a motor neuron disease and became "all but paralyzed." His assistant explains:

"He created the surrogate so that he, and others like him, might have a better life."

Surrogates allow people with physical limitations to live virtually without those limitations. It would be a matter of time, I think, before surrogates came with enhanced physical abilities—stronger, faster, enhanced senses, more endurance than surrogates who were crafted to be like humans. Once surrogates were better than humans, what a downer it might be to "disconnect" from the surrogate at the end of the day. The analogy seems to be that of a superhero (or supervillain) having his or her superpowers taken away. Or taking off your prescription glasses or hearing aid, Going off steroids.

Good science fiction stories bring to the fore issues with which humans struggle. Surrogates is one of those stories, and may forecast real issues with which we'll have to grapple.