ARTICLE: The Ontological Leakage (WAS: Matrix Schmatrix)

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Tue, 13 Apr 1999 13:53:48 -0500

This is an article I tried writing in 1997, then shelved. But it's relevant to the issue of whether VR's going to "take over", so I took it out, trimmed all the loose ends, and removed all the parts I no longer agreed with. Here you go.


      "The Ontological Leakage"
1999 by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky v.1997

Some time ago, I happened to be reading a printed newspaper when I came
across a Web address, http://'d and underlined.  "That looks
interesting," I thought, and tapped on it with my finger.  It was then
that I realized that I could not visit the page that way.
	It was a reflex action, but "click with mouse" was instantaneously and
unconsciously translated into "tap with finger".  The same thing
happened when I was reading a book and came across a really great quote;
I decided to copy the text and paste it into my quotes file.  So I
dragged my finger across the paragraph, and only when the text failed to
hilite did I realize that perhaps this would not work.
	Printed text just lies there, lifeless.  Printed text isn't really
information, just a picture of it.  You can't copy it, you can't paste
it, and you can't follow the links.  Printed text doesn't obey the rules
we've learned for dealing with text.  Text hilites when you drag the
pointer over it, be that pointer the cursor or your index finger. 
Underlined text, particularly blue-underlined text or text that starts
with http, is supposed to take you to a destination when you tap it. 
That's how *real* text works.
	There are now two competing realities loose in the world.  One is the
reality that used to be the only one.  Let's call that one "Real Life",
after the MUD tradition.  People used to say:  "Back in a second,
someone in RL wants to talk to me."  The second reality is usually
called "Virtual Reality", although as a purist I prefer "Other Reality"
- the term originally used by Vernor Vinge in _True Names_, the first
story of cyberspace.  But it's more than that.  Virtual means
evanescent, and evanescence is determined by lack of depth.  Which
reality is the "Virtual" one is no longer something to be taken for
granted.  True, printed text is embodied in a piece of paper that goes
down to the molecular and the subatomic level.  But none of that
complexity is visible.  More importantly, it can't be manipulated by the
user.  So printed text is the virtual text; only in the Other Reality is
text real information that can be cut, pasted, dereferenced and spell-checked.
	What defines a Reality is not a set of rules, but a set of reflexes. 
That's why Physical Reality isn't a third contender, except for a few
lucky owners of STM probes that can manipulate individual atoms.  What
defines a Reality is the rules we learn, the reflexes we internalize.  A
Reality is an ontological state of mind.  Real Life:  Objects have mass
and momentum; friction eventually slows moving objects down; gravity
pulls on everything.  Other Reality:  Objects can be selected, copied,
and pasted; if you don't save a change it didn't happen; menu commands
operate on the selected item.  Physical Reality:  The chance of
something happening is a complex number; time is curved; distance and
duration are arbitrary and only time minus space is constant.  *Nobody*
lives in Physical Reality.
	But I - I live in Other Reality.  I'm typing this in Other Reality.  I
spend most of my day in Other Reality, and my Real Life avatar is
starting to get rusty.  And I grew up in both realities; my family had a
Mac Plus before I hit 13.  I can't quite say that I'm equally good in
both realities, because some of Real Life is hardwired into our DNA.  If
you give an infant a motorized car, the car will be treated as if it
were alive.  It moves, so it's alive.  That's built-in.  But I feel

*comfortable* in both realities.
My generation treats the idea of Artificial Intelligence with a great deal less "future shock". (Not that the previous generation reacts more
*negatively*, but they react more *strongly*.) And the funny thing is,
I don't think it has anything to do with rational thought, or cultural differences. Remember the infant who thinks cars are alive? On some reflex level, I think computers are alive. The idea of computers as people doesn't bother me, because at the tender age of seven, I sat down with a computer and spoke to it - in text, and in BASIC, but it was speech nonetheless. I never explicitly thought of the computer as a person. I didn't have to. I negotiated with it, and my social reflexes took over and reprogrammed me. So the idea of computers being people fails to excite me. I don't feel it as revolutionary, although rationally I know it will be. (What still strikes a chord is the idea of beings *smarter* than I am...) Consider the rate of change in Real Life. That's sped up a bit, hasn't it? I'm not even going to bother with the catalog. You've heard it. _Future Shock_ was written in 1970 and proposed that the rate of change had exceeded the human ability to deal with it. *1970!* *Ha!* Since then, of course, things have gotten so bad that we could speak of "inflation-adjusted 1970 years" when making futurological predictions. A 1970 year now buys only three months. Fifty years from now, adjusted for inflation, is about 2010. If we try to account for future inflation, at around 5% inflation per 1997 year, we find that eternity is only 2017 or so. Where is all that change coming from? I think the answer is this: We are dealing with an ontological leakage. The Laws that govern Other Reality are starting to leak into Real Life. My tapping a printed Web address was only the harbinger of something far more cool ("ominous"): The Virtual Takeover. Most things in Other Reality don't stick around long enough to affect Real Life. The only real constant in Other Reality is change. The "deeper rules, governing the clash of realities" have yet to be written, but it seems that realities take time to affect each other, where that time is inversely proportional to the speed of change within that reality. Other Reality is easily altered, with major changes taking around three months; it has a low ontological inertia. Real Life has an ontological inertia of five years. The Internet and the Web, which have been around for five years, are starting to exert major influence on Real Life. Before that, it was the personal computer and the Windows interface. Some apparently brilliant ideas didn't persist long enough to leak into Real Life; MOOs and MUDs were replaced by the Web, VRML, and Doom just as they started to leak into reality. Oddly enough, therefore, a technology has to remain unimproved, or at least unreplaced, for five years, before it can affect Real Life. After that, the channel is established, and further improvements - as long as they're not entirely new features - can affect Real Life directly. Thus, when considering how long it will take for all transactions to take place online, the answer is five years from whenever the technology stops changing. The conservatism of banks may be hell on innovation, but it actually increases the chance of all commerce going online by holding things still for a while. After that, all improvements in 'Net commerce will be reflected immediately in Real Life, from cyclic debt cancellation to complex barter futures. Sobering thought, isn't it? But there's one feature of Other Reality that has already leaked into this one - the continuous change. Computer users have acclimated to the idea that everything becomes better, faster, and less expensive. They've gotten used to learning new tricks. In fact, this process has been going on since long before Future Shock was written or Netscape IPO'd. In the ancestral environment of the hunter-gatherer, nothing ever changed. Every now and then people changed places, but the rules stayed the same. Then came the printing press, and science, and the Industrial Revolution, and the telephone, and the computer... Every generation bemoaned the loss of valued morals, but a new generation always grew up with a new rate of change. So change sped up to match. Each individual produces change proportional to that they've acclimated to, but the *total* amount of change is the sum of all those individual efforts. So it never stopped. The great foot of communication still floored the great gas pedal of change. And then, then came the computer... and Other Reality. The computer was the mirror of our minds, not an equal, not an opposite, but a reflection, an image. The program became whatever we could tell it to be. Someone recently asked me: "Does being a programmer use your talents? Or is it just easy?" (Not, needless to say, another computer programmer.) And as I replied, "There is *no limit* to the amount of talent you can use in computer programming." There are *no* other professions of which this can be said. Science comes close, but one is always limited by one's instruments. Only computer programming offers complete control and complete knowledge of the laws of physics. Omnipotence isn't a power trip - it's a creativity trip. And thus was created Other Reality - the reality we had all secretly wanted to inhabit, where *we* made the rules. That's the fundamental reason for the high rate of change in the computer industry. Everything is malleable there, from program architectures to user interfaces. And an ever-increasing number of programmers are pouring *all* their talent into rebuilding it. Other Reality is the human mind unleashed at long, long last. And in this generation, we should marvel not at the tremendous power of computers but at our own immense potential, revealed now in all its glory. This at long last is the validation of humanity - that not a few geniuses, but *any* programmer, can do this thing. Other Reality is built on human minds, in much the same way that Real Life is built on the laws of physics. Human minds change one heck of a lot faster than the laws of physics. So change in Other Reality is lightning-fast. What else would you expect? -- Eliezer S. Yudkowsky Disclaimer: Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you everything I think I know.