Perhaps the best example of this genre is William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a lovely story about a lonely artificial intelligence that reaches out to find companionship. I’ve just finished a cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson called Snow Crash, an interesting tale about meta-viruses and religion in post-apocalyse America.
There are two themes central to this genre: first, that the world will suffer a huge economic crash causing the fall of governments and the rise of corporate-states; and second, that we will some time in the near future create an immersive virtual reality environment that will surpass and replace the world wide web, and which will become the place to do business and go for recreation and entertainment.
This got me wondering about the future of the internet. With the increased interest in peer-to-peer technology, especially instant messaging and presence-based systems, we are moving towards a future where we will have intelligent agents (IA) on the net answering messages and performing tasks for us. We’re only a step away from wanting to see what that avatar sees.
But how do we take this step? It’s hard enough to get our bosses to buy us a 21in flat-panel display. Imagine how much resistance we’d get to, “but boss, without VR goggles and a couple of force-feedback VR gloves I just can’t get online”.
The technology is already available for this, and there are many social online worlds available for us to use today without fancy VR equipment. The Tolkienesque EverQuest (Sony) has nearly half a million subscribers. Back in 2000 the GNP per capita of Norrath, the world in which EverQuest is set, is similar to Bulgaria. Nike and Levi Strauss are already ensconced in the world, “There”, and are selling virtual versions of their products for avatars to wear.
As soon as someone realises that this technology is usable for business, demand for it will explode. Out will go the elves and the gothic backdrops and in will come more professional human avatars in suits, along with virtual offices and, maybe, virtual coffee shops.
Then we’ll have the legal problems. What happens if one person imitates another? It shouldn’t be too hard to do. What if a person is totally represented by an IA; can it legally represent them in negotiations? Is delivering a message to an IA the same as delivering it to a real person? Are agreements made in cyberspace legally binding? What does a virtual handshake mean? How does one ensure that a virtual document is secure and can be read only by its receiver?
These problems will be tackled, eventually, because you can be sure that this technology is going to be coming to a corporate desktop near you some time soon. Once this is in place, and we have all become comfortable with it – and we will – it will only be a small step to the VR goggles and totally immersive VR business meetings. The phrase “virtual team” will take on a whole new meaning.