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A “Turing Test” for Virtual Worlds

Anthony Butler
2 min read

I recently read Reality+:Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy by New York University's Professor David Chalmers.  It's one of the more interesting and intellectually challenging books written on what is today being characterised broadly as the "metaverse": with Chalmers using the emergence of virtual worlds as a mechanism for discussing various long-standing philosophical debates such as that of dualism (as articulated by Descarte) or referencing 4th century BC Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi's butterfly dream.  

Chalmer's central thesis is that virtual reality can be a genuine reality: that the virtual objects, interactions, and avatars we interact with within a virtual world will be as real as those in the physical world; and, in the distant future, he imagines a time where the virtual world might offer us a more richer experience than the physical.

In the long term, virtual worlds may have most of what is good about the nonvirtual world. Given all the ways in which virtual worlds may surpass the nonvirtual world, life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose.  

As an engineer, the key takeaway from his book was a useful five point checklist – derived, in some cases, from a broad set of philosophical and psychological concepts discussed in his book – that will neet to be met before we can truly say that the virtual world is experientially equivalent to the nonvirtual.

These five questions are, in some sense, anagoues to a metaverse Turing Test and are a useful starting point for thinking about this domain and what needs to be achieved:

  1. Does it really exist?  In other words, are these real digital objects inside a virtual world.
  2. Does it have causal powers?  Can the virtual object interact with other objects?  For example, can the virtual tree grow virtual branches on which virtual birds may sit?  Do objects obey some sort of law of physics inside the virtual world?
  3. Are these virtual objectives independent of our minds?  If we step outside of the virtual world will the object(s) continue to persist independently of us returning to the physical world?  If we take off our headset, will they persist in the virtual world such that others and other objects could continue to interact with them?
  4. Is it as it seems?  Are they illusions?  In other words, is the virtual tree as we would expect a tree to be across multiple characterstics and dimensions.
  5. It is a genuine or real thing?  Do we consider a virtual pet the same way as we consider a real pet?  

Are we there yet?  No.  Today, we can build virtual realities that address some of these, partially address others, and cannot address others.  Some will require major technical leaps and others will require a cultural and social shift.  

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Anthony Butler is based in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where he currently Chief Technology Officer for IBM Middle East and Africa. He is focused on emerging technologies and applications.