VR goggles may signal the apocalypse … or maybe not

Don’t let your brain fool you into fears of a tech future

The festive season, now synonymous with the family trying out the new hot tech craze under the tree: after drones in 2014, and hover boards in 2015, this year’s Facebook feed will no doubt see pictures of Grandma wearing little Johnny’s VR goggles. And we will surely laugh — just watch this video, popularised by George Takai and TNW, shows a man falling over after falling off a cliff in VR. That man would probably say that, for a split second, he thought he would die from the fall.

As well as providing some entertainment, this video shows an interesting phenomenon that will change our world significantly: when immersed in VR, our fairly primitive brains cannot distinguish VR from reality when planning our reactions.

When immersed in a VR experience, we know that we’re standing in a room with others, we know we have a large contraption on our head, we know we have gloves on, we know where to find up, down, left and right. Yet when we see a stimulus that challenges all this knowledge, we respond to the stimulus and not the knowledge.

We could interpret this cognitive dissonance as a danger — as the linked TNW article does; or we can see an opportunity — like most entrepreneurs and enterprises do. Many innovative companies and universities explore how to use VR to solve problems. The Virtual Reality Medical Centre in SanDiego has started to treat fear and anxiety disorders. The US military has developed training for their soldiers to avoid death in harsh environments. And startups have begun to extend experiential learning to many more communities than have access to the real experience.

Like the man’s reaction to his VR cliff, our reaction to new technology often seems to come from our primitive brain as well. Any unknown, any slight disruption from our current norm and we immediately start to use words like “danger”, “dial-back” and “we’re all gonna die!” – our psychological cliff. In history the people who moved humanity significantly forward – pioneers, renaissance men and women, geniuses – all had the opposite reaction to the unknown. They used words like “opportunity”, “challenge” and “innovation”.

In the end we all have benefitted from the activities of these people yet we still fight them and their ideas. Look at stem cell research. We have now found that stem cells can revive and repair stroke victims, eliminate scarring from third degree burns, and help rejuvenate us – and we’ve only scratched the surface. Yet we’ve spend the best part of the last 30 years finding ways to impede the progress of its study. We want the benefits and yet every step of the way, we hamper progress with politics, with religion, with violence. Why?

We can explain this reaction in a number of ways. I posit two principal reasons: fear of the unknown, and the conservatism bias.

I often argue that every non-pathological fear comes down to fear of the unknown. Fear of death = we’re afraid of what happens (whatever our beliefs). Fear of change = not knowing what that change may bring. Fear of insects = uncertainty as to their intent and how they may feel against our skin. It always seems to come down to a lack of knowledge. Interestingly this means that to conquer fear we need learning. Fear of learning = uncertainty about the disruption the new knowledge may bring to our seemingly comfortable status quo — as demonstrated by the rise of a regressive political movement that’s elected an anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-learning Trump government.

Conservatism bias also leads us to resist ideas that benefit us. We believe that because something has become tradition, it brings an inherently greater benefit than anything new — the traditional mindset. Take monarchy, for example. For thousands of years all societies had a belief in the superiority of the ruling class. Even the most down-trodden peasant would rather die than question that authority. Except for the few that did. It took revolution after revolution to break that tradition and bring about modern democracy. Hopefully it will not take as long or as much death to discover what will replace democracy. Most people will find that last sentence sacrilegious or impossible or ridiculous or anti-patriotic – if so, you just experienced the problem of conservatism bias. Our habits and norms seem the best to us (“better the devil you know…”) — we have difficulty imagining what comes next, and the idea that we might find it better, if different.

So the current trend away from facts, our anti-science stances, our clinging to what we know comes from fear and habit. The counters to these: learning and revolution.

Revolution does not have to involve violence but rather can come from technology. These litter our history: agriculture, the wheel, running water, blacksmithing, gun powder, computers, internet – and will pepper our future: stem cells, solar power, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, genetic manipulation, in-brain chips, space exploration, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and so many more that we do not know about yet.

We can fight this future or we can embrace it. We can use learning to fight our fear, and use lessons from history to quiet our conservatism bias. We can enjoy the coming life of unlimited energy, abundant food, endless knowledge, and eternal life. We laugh at the guy who fell of the VR cliff because he could not see beyond the immediate bubble of his senses — but does our resistance to the coming changes seem any different? Will future humans laugh at us?

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