Young Economics.

The next phase of the human experience is at hand!

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Okay, not quite yet.

The New Scientist reports on some British scientists’ attempts to build virtual reality technology that can create realistic experiences by stimulating all of our senses.  What they show in the video isn’t that impressive, but one can imagine these things getting much more impressive in a few decades.

Of course it raises a long-standing problem that is fun to think about: the problem of reality and value.  Consider Nozick’s famous experience machine thought experiment.  If you were offered a chance to plug yourself into a machine that would create the illusion of a wonderful and pleasurable life, would you do it?

Most people say that they would reject the offer and remain in the real world.  This comports with Nozick’s intuition, which he takes as evidence for the proposition that there is something – some quality possessed by real experiences but not by otherwise identical simulated experiences – that people value more than pleasure or ‘utility.’

Recent work suggests that Nozick’s intuition was wrong for reasons that will be familiar to economists.  De Brigard proposes a modified experience machine though experiment: Suppose you are going about your business one day, and someone shows up at your home and informs you that you have, for some time, been plugged into an experience machine.  Your life as you know it is not real, and you are given a choice between returning to reality and remaining in the machine.  Under this scenario, most people say that they would choose to remain in the machine.*  This suggests that people’s choices in these thought experiments are driven not by an attachment to authenticity but rather by a status quo bias.

This new result helps explain some tricky problems that have plagued thinkers for years.  For instance, why is it that Captain Picard was able to leave the temporal nexus and return to Veridian III to fight Malcolm McDowell, while Buffy opted to remain in the coma-induced dream world in which she lived a hard, vampire-slaying life?  Answer: the status quo bias.

More seriously, I suspect that over time, an increasing amount of our lives will be spent undergoing simulated experiences.  Perhaps one day, we will live entirely within simulated worlds.  Today we intuitively react negatively to things like this CBC documentary on people who spend a lot of time playing SecondLife, but once we had made the leap, we would quickly come to view it as the status quo.  This could dramatically increase human welfare.

But then, even if this sci-fi stuff never actually comes to pass, these ideas can challenge our moral intuitions in ways that may be applicable to analogous real-world situations.

Suppose that we could go to Africa and forcibly plug all the impoverished Africans into the experience machine, much as slavers used to pack them into slave ships.  Thereafter, they have no memory of their previous lives.  Within the machine, they would be able to live simulated lives far better (in a utilitarian sense) than the lives of abject poverty they currently lead.  Suppose further that this were cost effective in the sense that it produces (for the Africans) a large utility increase per dollar spent, relative to other anti-poverty strategies available to us.  Would this be a good way to fight poverty?  Intuitively I say no.  Am I wrong?  If I’m not, then where can we draw a dividing line between utility-increasing policies that are good and utility-increasing policies that are bad?

* More precisely, people’s responses can be manipulated by feeding them positive or negative information about the quality of their real lives outside of the machine.  In any case, the point is that respondents don’t appear to be committed to authenticity per se.

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Written by Alex

March 18, 2009 at 9:48 pm

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