Volume 6, Issue 1 
June 2011

Temporal Compression and Virtualities

Keevy McAlavy

This article was submitted for publication to the Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness by Keevy McAlavy, a software developer and entrepreneur from Saint Petersburg, Florida.

Through a passion in philosophy of technology and artificial general intelligence, Keevy McAlavy posits why humans should embrace future technologies, such as virtuality infrastructures, and make it their own.

Minds in the future, whether they are AGI (artificial general intelligence), augmented humans or uploaded humans, will rely on or have access to computing hardware that is as fast as the fastest supercomputers of 2011 - or even faster. Assuming that these minds will have more thoughts per unit time than a typical human mind of today, they will be input / output (I/O) bound. They will suffer from a bottleneck in their basic abilities to receive information from the real world and affect changes in their physical environment. This bottleneck is a consequence of limit of the speed of light rather than a limit of technology. These minds will stall out waiting for information to arrive from sensors on scales that we consider everyday reality.

In computer science there are currently two solutions to the I/O problem; either limit the processing speeds to match that of I/O or increase the I/O. Limiting the processing speed (thoughts per unit time) is a poor option for minds in the future as will be detailed later. Increasing basic I/O is already a major issue in contemporary computer science and increasing I/O for minds operating at higher speeds than typical human minds will be even more difficult.

A viable third option for future minds will be embedding in a virtuality, a virtual reality-like environment. Virtualities (similar to but distinct from virtual reality) will become the preferred environment of future minds for economic, philosophic and moral reasons.

The Merriam-Webster definition of virtual reality [1] is an "artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment." This modern definition is biased with a negative, implied connotation of deception. The words 'artificial' and 'stimuli' evoke the image of a facade meant to trick the viewer into seeing something different from the way it really is. Etymologist Douglas Harper [2] has traced this connotation back to 1959 in the sense of "not physically existing but made to appear by software". Before that however, virtual and virtuality meant "influencing by physical virtues or capabilities," and "being something in essence or fact, though not in name". The Latin root ‘virtus', from which the word virtue also comes, means "excellence, potency, efficacy."

In this paper a virtuality is distinguished from the term virtual reality. Virtual reality carries the negative connotation of being unreal and inherently meaningless. The philosopher Philip Zhai, [3] in his book 'Get Real', does an excellent job of describing why these two ideas don't apply to virtual reality in principle. Nevertheless, I reserve the term ‘virtual reality' for environments or situations that do exhibit these negative qualities if only to contrast the term with a virtuality which, by definition, I am considering real, meaningful and eventually necessary for minds in general.

So calling a virtuality a virtual reality is like calling a car a horseless carriage; descriptively it is correct but the connotations are wrong.

"...calling a virtuality a virtual reality is like calling a car a horseless carriage."

From a philosophical point of view, a virtuality will denote a hierarchical system of layers or platforms, each layer being supported by, but distinct from, the layer beneath it. This term does not imply that the bottom layer, or base reality, is more privileged or morally superior as virtual reality perhaps does. This paper attempts to show, quite the opposite, that a virtuality, properly conceived and constructed, can be more privileged, preferred and perhaps morally superior than environments in the base reality. In addition, the term virtuality does not need to be limited to computer specific topics but should also be applicable to discussions of ontological philosophy in general.

One more important, if obvious, point to note about the distinction between the two terms is that there is only one 'reality' but there can be an unlimited number of virtualities. This means that the possible actualizations of a virtuality will not be limited to one set of rules (i.e. physics) of the environment. Furthermore, virtualities can be platforms for innovation in, and the further development of, minds themselves.

The concept of a platform is most often used in regard to technology. Steven Johnson, in his book on innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From, [4] devotes a chapter to how platforms enable interconnected communities to flourish even in otherwise hostile environments. He tries to cover the widest range of possible uses for the term and describes it in terms of coral reefs, cities, the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the Internet.

In terms of human technology, the best-known example of a stacked set of platforms is the Internet. The basic electronic communication network serves as the bottom level on which things such as websites and applications are built. Websites can then become in themselves a platform for further development. Facebook.com is a perfect example of a website that has a platform on which new applications are specifically built. In general, a platform provides resources and capabilities that each new technology built upon it share in. This prevents creators of new technologies from 'reinventing the wheel', or in this example, basic electronic communications.

The notion that virtualities will be platforms of innovation follows naturally from the computer technology that will create them. Having a shared environment for many minds to interact, at a faster pace than possible in the 'real' world will itself be a driving force in their creation and dominance as the preferred environment.

It is tempting to extrapolate the concept of platforms and apply it to the ontological reality of the universe. Such a theory would go as follows: subatomic particles interact according to quantum mechanics giving rise to atoms and molecules, which interact within the laws of classical chemistry, which give way to the laws of statistics and thermodynamics that explain the bulk properties that human senses can perceive, and then on larger scales, to gravity and general relativity to explain the universe on a larger scale. Applying the platform concept to reality in general and physics specifically is an analogy at best. To say that this universe is a stacked set of virtualities as described above would imply sharp divisions between the layers whereas physics is a continuum. It is our limitation in understanding physics that gives rise to the layering that is an artifact of our limited knowledge of the system and is not an inherent property of the system as a whole. Nevertheless, this view applied to the universe can serve as a useful analogy to explore the possibilities and benefits of a virtuality framework.

Quantum mechanics, digital metaphysics and superstring theories all posit that this 'reality' as we understand it is based on a lower system of rules that don't follow 'common sense'. Alternatively, works of fiction and games of all types exist on top of our universe of atoms, but have their own rules unconnected to the laws of physics. It is a stretch to say the difference between fictional universes and the 'real' universe is the same as the difference between classical physics and quantum physics. This analogy only holds so far, but is useful in explaining the concepts. It is very easy and useful to say that a virtuality platform is one layer higher than the base 'reality' of atoms. This is very different than the type of layering we experience in the scaling of physical laws.

The popular notion of virtual reality is that of a game, a fun place to go to cause mayhem. Virtual realities don't have to make sense, be useful or help us solve important problems; they just have to be fun. Virtualities on the other hand, are rich environments that are as logically self -consistent as possible while acknowledging the limitations of Godel's incompleteness theorems. [5] (It is important to note that Godel was describing provable statements not meaningful ones.) The relationships of the various aspects and elements of a virtuality denote a shared reality distinct from the platform layer upon which it is built. Objects, events, personalities etc. in the virtuality are as real or unreal to each other as anything in the layer below, or in the universe of atoms and galaxies for that matter. It is the many and varied interconnections and relationships between these different elements that imparts meaning and hence reality.

A mind existing in a virtuality can enjoy many benefits over base 'reality'. In addition to the benefits from having a shared platform of innovation described earlier, economic benefits include increased effective matter / energy resources (of the current base reality) due to scaled efficiencies. Other economic benefits include increased spatial, and especially, temporal resources due to their informational nature. Philosophical benefits include greater infrastructure control and richer, more meaningful existences for minds resulting from the previously described economic benefits, especially the increased temporal benefits.

Economic benefits can be broken down into two groups: matter / energy resources and spatial / temporal resources. Moving to a virtuality will allow minds to operate on an electronic substrate or other nanoscale hardware which greatly reduces their physical size in base reality. It's difficult to compare the energy requirements of a brain-based mind vs. an electronic-based mind since there is no metric for energy per thought. (There is no metric for thought per unit time either). Comparing an adult human body with a typical personal computer of circa 2011 gives a slight advantage to the human in terms of energy usage. However, humans are prone to traveling in cars and air conditioning their homes, which use far more energy than a computer does and neither of those activities contributes directly to information processing (i.e. thinking). The savings incurred when moving from a biological substrate to an electronic one has the added benefit of appealing to a mind's moral obligation to other entities that share the same resources. Simply uploading a mind would not necessarily mean lowering energy usage per mind if those minds choose to engage in recreational activities that waste a lot of energy in the base reality (think monster truck rallies).

Uploading and mind augmentation both promise to increase the level of intelligence through better and faster thinking. Better thinking lies in the realm of complexity and there are currently no quantitative metrics to evaluate differences between various mind augmentation hardware. Faster thinking, however, is based on faster information processing speeds. It is safe to assume that increases in the underlying computing hardware due to Moore's Law [6] will translate into roughly proportional increases in thinking speeds. The exact rate of increase is not considered here but rather the amount of and the eventual consequence of this increase.

This brings us back to the issue of the basic I/O problem. There will come a time when AGIs and minds will be able to think and process information faster than they are able to interact with the 'real' world. Current AGI researchers already use virtual environments to test their designs, more for hardware cost issues than I/O issues, and this will increasingly become the norm as speeds continue to increase.

Attempting to increasing I/O faces diminishing returns due to the fact that nothing, including information, can travel faster than the speed of light. Unless minds willingly slow themselves down, they will have little choice but embed themselves into a virtuality where thoughts will be unhindered by the speed of light over the distance of several meters. This is the same reason semiconductor circuits keep getting smaller. In order to increase communication between components the distance between those components needs to shrink.

An accelerated mind is defined as an AGI, augmented human mind or upload that has the capability to think at a speed where the I/O bounding becomes a serious issue. The accelerated mind will experience temporal compression when compared to unaccelerated minds. Temporal compression means a mind's relative experience of time is compressed into a smaller amount of time as measured by an outside observer. Note that this is different than time dilation and has nothing to do with special relativity.

Take the example of an accelerated mind operating at one hundred times the rate of an otherwise identical mind referred to as the baseline mind. In Figure 1 each black arrow represents 100 hours of subjective time. The top line represents the amount of subjective time of an accelerated mind in a virtuality to the subjective time of an unaccelerated mind in base reality. Conversely, 100 hours in base reality will be experienced as 1.14 years or 10000 hours in the virtuality.

Temporal Compression

If the accelerated mind requires sleep, as a human mind does, of approximately one-third of its experienced day, to a baseline mind it would appear to be awake for 9.6 minutes and then sleep for 4.8 minutes. These two minds attempting to carry on a conversation in this situation, would each find it very difficult, for separate reasons. The accelerated mind would need to buffer any sentences the baseline mind would be saying, as it would take several minutes for all the sound waves to arrive at the auditory pickup of device. It would then reply and have to wait several more minutes before the baseline mind would begin another sentence. This is due not only to the accelerated mind being more I/O bound than it's slower counterpart but because of the different way each mind experiences time. The unaccelerated mind would become frustrated when the other mind would quit conversing for minutes on end when it was sleeping.

An interesting side effect of temporal compression is the perception that space has increased in size. For example, the travel time from one location to another would be increased inversely proportional to that of the compression. If it takes three days to travel to the moon for a baseline mind then it would seem like three hundred days for a mind operating one hundred times faster. This is different than the environment space inside a virtuality that would be limited by data storage and algorithmic efficiencies. This has the unfortunate side effect of increasing times for space travel to other planets and stars and possible communication with extra terrestrials (if they exist). The limitations imposed by this perceived spatial expansion would be offset by vastly increased lifetimes of the accelerated minds if they were uploads or AGIs.

Temporal Dimensions

As shown in Figure 2, temporal compression occurs in what might be called entropic time, or time that is defined by increasing entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Virtualities will probably use this concept or a similar theory of time to organize activities. However, there is a second dimension of time that becomes available in a virtuality. Since all events occurring in a virtuality can be stored as data, the possibility of altering past events becomes possible. Instead of deleting past events and starting over from the point of deletion, inhabitants of virtualities might choose to create alternative timelines. These alternate realities / virtualties would define a second dimension of time in which interesting possibilities could be explored.

There are many objections to the idea of minds inhabiting virtual realities as their primary environment; even from those who believe that uploaded human minds are real and not merely simulations. The main objection seems to be that a virtual environment is unreal and therefore has no meaning. Another objection is that inhabitants of virtual worlds should not 'abandon' reality in favor of virtuality for safety reasons. This paper will show those objections to be without merit.

There are perceived negative consequences to embedding minds in virtualities. Many people might feel that this would marginalize the world of atoms or be an attempt at escaping from reality. Part of the problem with these arguments is the assumption that the world of atoms is privileged or somehow morally superior to a virtuality. There is nothing inherent in the world of atoms that implies moral superior to a virtuality.

In this regard there are two salient features that distinguish base reality to virtualities. The base existed prior to the virtuality and the virtuality would not exist without the underlying platform of the base. Based upon this precedence and dependence in terms of platforms it could be argued that base reality is more important or superior. There are examples of this kind of thinking in the computer industry. Assembly programmers sometimes feel morally superior to C programmers, who feel morally superior to C++ programmers, who feel morally superior to script programmers, etc. [7] A rational outside viewer would conclude that the feelings of moral superiority by previous programmers would greatly be attributed to feelings of insecurity stemming from fears of becoming obsolete as technology progresses.

The objection that existing in a virtuality is equivalent to abandoning reality is unfounded. The worst that can be said about it is that an accelerated mind experiencing base reality directly is a very boring endeavor and generally a waste of time. Important events in base reality that need to be witnessed and understood will need to be recorded and temporally compressed to be efficiently experienced by accelerated minds. The amount of time it will take to record, compress and review an event in base reality will most likely be less than an unaccelerated mind experiencing the event directly.

The benefits of existing in a virtuality are dependent upon the rules' infrastructure and the ability of the minds residing within them to the degree in which they have meaningful control. It can be argued that minds should continue to exist in the current base reality due to a perceived, increased control over matter or as Philip Zhai argues, as a safety net in case something goes wrong. It is precisely this control that will allow the creation of virtualities and the further improvement and control of the virtuality infrastructure.

Furthermore it is impossible to abandon reality in a very basic sense. Literally that would imply ceasing to exist. Virtualties are not separate from or opposed to reality. They extend our reality through powerful technology based on the laws of physics. In fact, a virtuality will be a far safer place to exist than base reality. Minds perish from transportation accidents all too often in the 'real' world. These types of accidents would not happen in a virtuality. It can be argued, however, that minds can still perish in a virtuality due to their data being accidentally deleted. Minds, like other complex data structures existing today, will have backup copies to ensure that accidents like these will have minimal negative consequences. Currently there are no back-up copies of a physical mind-body in the 'real' world.

Some arguments against existence in a virtuality seem to be of the same nature as arguments against life extension, or any other potentially beneficial technology not ruled out by the laws of physics. These arguments posit that since humans have never surpassed ‘reality' in the past it will never be surpassed in the future and therefore, we need to embrace the downsides of reality, label them meaningful, and reject attempts to the contrary. It is foolish to reject future technologies because they don't exist yet. Instead we need to embrace the changes to come and make them our own. In the words of computer pioneer Alan Kay [8] 'The best way to predict the future is to invent it.'

<Back to Issue Contents

Endnotes & Citations

[1] Virtual reality - Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, Incorporated, 2005: 1397.

[2] Douglas Harper's definition of ‘virtual' – Computer sense of "not physically existing but made to appear by software" is attested from 1959.
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=virtual+reality&searchmode=none April 6, 2011 11:50AM EST

[3] Zhai, Philip. Get Real. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

[4] Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation - "...a book that tries to grapple with the question of why certain environments seem to be disproportionately skilled at generating and sharing good ideas."
Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2010/06/where-good-ideas-come-from.html April 13, 2011 1:55PM EST

[5] Godel's Incompleteness Theoremshttp://www.math.hawaii.edu/~dale/godel/godel.html April 13, 2011 2:40PM EST

[6] Moore's Law – [Gorton E. Moore b. 1929 AM. Computer industry executive] (1980) : an axiom of microprocessor development usu. holding that processing power doubles about every 18 months esp. relative to cost or size.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, Incorporated, 2005: 806.

[7] Programmer Hierarchy Diagram, author unknown.
http://lukewelling.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/08/programmer%20hierarchy.pdf April 13, 2011 2:15PM EST

[8] Kay, Alan. "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Quote from a speech given at Palo Alto Research Center Inc. (PARC), 1971
http://www.smalltalk.org/alankay.html April 13, 2011 2:04PM EST


Keevy McAlavy

Keevy McAlavy is a software developer and entrepreneur living in Saint Petersburg Florida. He received a Bachelor of Independent Studies from The University of South Florida. His research interests include the philosophy of technology and artificial general intelligence, and his hobbies include amateur astronomy and building telescopes.

<Back to Issue Contents