Friday, April 20, 2007

4 - Living with Illusions

What do you mean about living with illusions ?

We must learn to understand and appreciate that all that we see – and touch and feel and taste etc – with our sensory organs may not be what they seem to be … but a representation of something else.

You are challenging the basic theory of perception … and you seem to have no qualms about it.

I have no qualms at all and there are three distinct approaches of addressing this issue if you consider
* Quantum Mechanics and the associated concepts that encompass the Uncertainty Principle and the Many Worlds Interpretation
* The emerging technology of nerve implants coupled with vivid 3D computer displays which are helping us realize the ideas put forth by science fiction novels and movies like the Matrix
* Virtual worlds inhabited by Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Games of which Second Life is the perhaps the most advanced.

Can you please explain each of these in greater detail ?

Let us begin with Quantum Mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle which says that irrespective of the precision of your instrument, you cannot measure the position and momentum ( that is the combination of mass and velocity ) of a particle with absolute precision. The mere act of measurement will alter the values that are being measured and the failure of the measurement process is not a matter of the accuracy of the instrument ( which can always improve with time ) but a fundamental theoretical barrier. What this means is that you would never know the exact position of a piece of matter.

But that is true for sub-microscopic fundamental particles .. Not at all true for big things like cars and dogs.

That is not quite correct. It is true as well for all large particles but, and you are right here, the degree of error is far less in the case of large objects and so it has no practical implications, but the philosophy that underlies this theory is very important.

Why ?

Because it undermines our belief, shakes our confidence, in the inevitability of the physical observation process. This is like a crack in the wall of invincibility .. and a crack that can be exploited further as we move along.

How ?

All large objects are a conglomeration of smaller objects and by the laws of Chaos Theory, a small change in the position and velocity of one of the components can lead to a large variation in the nature and disposition of the larger conglomerate.

I have heard this before .. a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a thunderstorm in Canada.

True and if we explore and expand this idea a little more, we can hypothesize that SINCE the nature and behavior of a large object does depend on the position and velocity of each of the millions of its components AND there a definite uncertainty about the these variables as per Uncertainty Principle AND this uncertainty can cascade through – as per the laws of Chaos Theory, HENCE we are left with the strange feeling that things may not be quite what they seem to be.

I have a counterpoint to this in the statistical approach adopted in the Theory of Brownian Motion. The macro properties of large body may not depend on the exact ( or inexact ) values of the micro particles …. a statistical approach and the Law of Large numbers can get us to a fairly satisfying understanding of the world.

I do not disagree with you – I am only asking you to keep an open mind and not slam the door shut. Just as you quote the Theory of Brownian Motion so do I quote Chaos Theory and the answer could be a combination of both. For example, the Many Worlds Interpretation[1] (MWI) in quantum mechanics assumes that many alternate realities exist .. and we are aware of only one. In fact the existence of other worlds may be the only way to eliminate randomness and action at a distance from quantum theory and hence from physics itself.

But is it true ? Can it be proved as rigorously as any other theory of physics like Relativity ?

The concept of Proof is another intriguing aspect of this analysis that I will come to later. For the moment let me state, in brief, that as per Gödel’s Theorem of Incompleteness, provability is a weaker notion than truth and there can exist statements that are true but not provable. So instead of Proofs let me talk of opinions.

So what is the opinion of the scientific community in this regard.

In 1995, David Raub conducted an opinion poll among 72 leading physicists and the results were reported in the French periodical Sciences et Avenir in January 1998 and in this poll 58% believed that MWI is true, another 13% said that it was possible but not confirmed, 18% believed that MWI is wrong and the rest did not have an opinion.[2]

But that is still an opinion .. or perhaps should I say a belief.

Agreed but it is a belief held by some very learned people who were, unlike Galileo or Copernicus, under NO compulsion to subscribe to this belief. So there could be more than an iota of truth lying out there … just outside the pale of plausibility !

So all that you are saying is that there is possibility, but no proof as such of the existence of other alternate realities. How does that fit in with your second idea of 3D computer displays and nerve implants ?

To understand that let us think about The Matrix. Have you heard about it ?

Of course I have. It is a science fiction movie featuring Keanu Reeves ("Neo"), Carrie-Anne Moss ("Trinity") and Laurence Fishburne ("Morpheus") released by Warner Brothers in 1999. It explores the complex relationship between physical human beings and their perception of reality as controlled by a gigantic computer programme - "The Matrix". The movie has most of the Hollywood elements of high drama, action, violence and a cameo love affair. But what is most intriguing -- and most probably overlooked -- is its striking similarity with the philosophy of Vedanta. There is an uncanny echo of Sankara's treatment of the Atman, the Self, and Maya -- the veil that shields the Atman.

How is that ?

Let me explain a little about …

The Movie

The year is 2199 and computers with artificial intelligence have taken over the world. Human beings are born (or "cultivated") in captivity and at birth are connected to a life support system that feeds then intravenously till death. The bio-chemical activity in their bodies is used as a source of electric power to support the computers -- but that is not relevant in this case. What is important is that each person's brain is connected to the central computer. Complex programs -- the Matrix -- running on this computer feed a continuous stream of stimuli to the brain and this causes the individual to perceive a full range emotions associated with growing up, moving around --including flying through space, working, growing old and finally dying. The Matrix programme is smart enough to simulate a whole range of physical locations like parks, gardens, restaurants, train stations that people can visit -- or perceive to visit -- and interact with just as if they were physically there. They also perceive images of other individuals -- some rooted in other physical captive bodies, while others could be pure creations of the computer simulation process. Interactions between two individuals are also simulated.

There is a small group "independent" humans who live outside the Matrix in place called Zion. They have their own computers through which they are able to "hack into" the Matrix programme. This allows them to "enter" and "exit" the Matrix through telephone lines. When the enter the Matrix, their physical bodies remain at Zion, connected to the Zion computers, just as the bodies of the captive humans remain in their incubators. The crucial difference between the independents and the captives is that the former can actually "exit" from the Matrix and detach themselves from the Zion computers. Then they can live and perceive Reality.

Within this complex environment, the movie weaves a fantasy of heroism and love. Morpheus is the leader of the independent people and he has located and identified Neo -- currently a captive -- as the one who will destroy the Matrix and free mankind from this slavery to computers. Neo's arrival has been foretold by the Oracle. Morpheus and his band of independent humans, enter the Matrix, contact Neo and convince him of his importance. Then they detach his body from the Matrix computer, remove his body from the incubators and take it to Zion. Here they rejuvenate and repair his degenerated body. Now Neo, like the other independent humans can connect to the Zion computers and enter and exit from the Matrix at will. Would he succeed in his mission ? Since the actual outcome of the adventure is not relevant to this analysis, I will not reveal the ending for those who wish to see the film.

But if you compare with Vedanta, then what are …

The Similarities

The philosophy of Vedanta has already been discussed and there is no reason to repeat it here. The movie obviously does not have a one to one correspondence with Vedanta. Nevertheless there are certain similarities. Consider the following passage[3] where Morpheus introduces Neo to the Matrix :

Morpheus : I know..._exactly_ what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You've felt it your entire life. That there's something _wrong_ with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's a splinter in you're mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you _know_ what I'm talking about?

Neo : The Matrix

Morpheus : Do you want to know...._what_ _it_ is....?

Neo nods

Morpheus : The Matrix is everywhere. It's all around us, even in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to work, when you pay your taxes. The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth.

Neo : What truth?

Morpheus : That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison...for your mind....Unfortunately, no one can be..._told_ what the Matrix have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix computer programme is analogous to the Maya of Vedanta, the illusion that is perceived by the senses as the physical world. Morpheus "detaches" Neo's body from the Matrix computer (and the associated computer programme) and brings him to actual physical "reality" and this is what Neo looks and feels :

The metal harness opens and drops the half-conscious Neo onto the floor. Human hands and arms help him up as he finds himself looking straight at Morpheus, Trinity and Apoc, along with others he doesn't recognize. Morpheus smiles, and speaks quietly to Neo.

Morpheus : Welcome to the real world....

Neo passes out. As he is unconscious, Morpheus and Trinity talk in hushed voices

Morpheus : ...We've done it, Trinity...we've found him.
Trinity : I hope you're right...
Morpheus : I don't _have_ to hope. I know it.

Neo wakes up later on, and looks at Trinity and Morpheus, who are standing watching him.

Neo : ....Am I dead?
Morpheus : Far from it...

Neo passes out again. Later on, he wakes up. He sees his body pierced with dozens of acupuncture-like needles wired to a strange device.

Dozer: He still needs a lot of work.
Neo : What are you doing?
Morpheus : Your muscles have atrophied, we're rebuilding them.
Neo : Why do my eyes hurt?

Neo blinks

Morpheus : You've never used them before.

Neo looks confused

Confronted with this reality, Neo feels helpless, and wants to go back to the illusory comfort of the Maya / Matrix. Morpheus allows him to do so

Morpheus : You wanted to know...what the Matrix is, Neo?

Neo nods unsteadily Morpheus nods to Trinity

Morpheus : Trinity...

Trinity approaches Neo, and helps him into an armchair, strapping in his feet, and leaning his head back against the head rest. Morpheus looks at Neo

Morpheus : Try to relax...this will feel....a little _weird_.

As Morpheus guides a coaxial line into the jack at the back of his neck, Neo screams and makes a few other disturbing noises. When he opens his eyes, he is standing in a totally white place. His hair is back, and he is wearing different clothes. As Neo spins around a bit, trying to see what's going on, Morpheus appears in front of him.

Morpheus : This is the construct. It is our loading program. We can load anything from clothing, to equipment, weapons, training simulations, anything we need.

Neo is having a hard time getting a grasp of this.

Neo : Right now....we're inside a computer program?
Morpheus : Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair has changed.

Neo puts a hand to his head and touches his hair

Morpheus : Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection...of your digital self.

Two chairs appear in front of them, and Neo reaches out to touch one. He runs his hand along it's back.

Neo : This....this isn't real?

Morpheus looks at him

Morpheus : What _is_ real? How do you _define_ real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

A television appears in front of the two chairs, as Neo sits down in the chair beside Morpheus. Morpheus picks up the television control and turns it on.

Morpheus : _This_ is the world that you know. The world as it was at the end of the twentieth century. It exists now only as part of a neural-interactive simulation, that _we_ call the Matrix.

There are some other interesting similarities between Maya and the Matrix programme. In explaining Maya, Sankara very often refers to the example of the rope and the snake. As long as one mistakes a rope for a snake, he is frightened and reacts to the rope as if it were a real snake. When he realizes that what he sees is only a rope he laughs. Similarly, as long as one is engrossed in the ignorance of relative consciousness, the world is indeed quite "real". But when true knowledge dawns, one becomes aware that the world was a fake.

Perceiving the "real" world as a "fake" needs deep insight and skeptics have often wondered that if the snake was a fake rope, how is it possible for it to actually kill someone. Sankara argues that the vivid imagination creates the presence of the snake in a rope and this imagination is so strong that a person can die from an imaginary snakebite. Thus, wrongly perceived situations may result in physical or psychological reactions.

There is a very similar situation that happens in the movie. Neo has entered the Maya / Matrix and makes his first attempt to fly through the air.

Summoning every ounce of strength in his legs, Neo launches himself into the air in a single maniacal shriek - But comes up drastically short. His eyes widen as he plummets. Stories fly by, the ground rushing up at him, but as he hits - The ground gives way, stretching like a trapeze net. He bounces and flips, slowly coming to a rest, flat on his back. He laughs, a bit unsure, wiping the wind-blown tears from his face. Morpheus exits the building and helps him to his feet. Inside the Nebuchadnezzar, the crew are feeling kind of let down by Neo.

Mouse : What...what does this mean?
Switch : It doesn't _mean_ anything...
Cypher : Everybody falls the first time. Right, Trin?

But Trinity has left. Neo's eyes open as Tank eases the plug out. He tries to move and groans, cradling his ribs. While Tank helps Morpheus, Neo spits blood into his hand.

Neo : I thought it wasn't real.
Morpheus : Your mind makes it real...
Neo : If you're killed in the die here?
Morpheus : The body cannot live without the mind.

Thus we see that Maya equates approximately to the Matrix computer programme. With a little more imagination, it may be possible to map the Atman and the Brahman as well. However since the movie was perhaps never made with vedanta in mind, such equations may seem to be a bit far fetched at the moment.

So it is possible to conceive of a scenario – however improbable that may be at the moment – in which a human brain is fed with stimuli that makes it believe that it inhabits a world that is different from where it really exists.

But that was a piece of science fiction.

No doubt it was a piece of science fiction and I am not claiming that the Maya of Vedanta is piece of software. All that I am trying to establish is that it technically possible to have something like this … I am trying to establish a rough model or analogy from the world of cyborgs and neural implants.

What are neural implants ?

That is a long story[4] that begins with Professor Warwick, but to cut a long story short, implants are devices that are implanted in a human body and serve as a gateway for electrical signals to be transmitted directly to the human nervous system without the normal intermediation of the sensory organs.

Can you explain that in greater detail ?

Yes, the idea is very simple. Suppose you want to open a door. This means that from somewhere in your brain, there must emanate an electrochemical signal that will cause your hand to rise and move in a manner that causes the door to open. But suppose you could sense the presence of the signal in your brain – or nervous system – and cause it to be transmitted out of your body – through this implant – and use this signal as an input to a electro-mechanical device that opens the door.

This sounds like thought control, like magic … is this possible.

Theoretically it is very much possible because the process does not violate any laws of physics but practically there are hurdles in making devices that are reliable enough to pick up the faint signals and process them correctly.

What is the difficulty ?

Well the brain sends out millions of signals and the implanted electrodes will sense all of them. The trick lies in isolating the one correct signal from the ‘noise’ and the acting on it. There is a lot of pattern recognition and related software techniques involved … but all said and done it is a tractable problem, a solvable problem and it has been solved for certain restricted cases. In fact the BBC has reported[5] that this technology is already being used to help paralyzed people to control their wheelchairs.

That was a neat introduction to nerve implants but how does it link to 3D computer displays ?

Implant technology has moved significantly forward from where Kevin Warwick was and one of the most innovative use of this technology is in the area of bionic eyes.

What are bionic eyes ?

These are devices that will let the blind see

Scientists have designed a bionic eye to allow blind people to see again. It comprises a computer chip that sits in the back of the individual's eye, linked up to a mini video camera built into glasses that they wear. [6]

Images captured by the camera are beamed to the chip, which translates them into impulses that the brain can interpret.

The work was discussed at a Royal National Institute of the Blind talk and Professor Gislin Dagnelie, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, unveiled details at a recent conference in London, in early 2007 where he claimed that human trials will begin shortly.

Although the images produced by the artificial eye were far from perfect, they could be clear enough to allow someone who is otherwise blind to recognise faces and this breakthrough likely to benefit patients with the most common cause of blindness, macular degeneration, which affects 500,000 people in the UK.

This occurs when there is damage to the macula, which is in the central part of the retina where light is focused and changed into nerve signals in the middle of the brain.

The implant bypasses the diseased cells in the retina and stimulates the remaining viable cells.

Professor Dagnelie said: "The retinal implant contains tiny electrodes. If you stimulate a single electrode, the person will see a single dot of light." They have already tested implants containing a handful of electrodes, but the end device will contain 50-100 to give a better overall picture. "We are hoping this will be enough for the person to be able to make their way through a building, find a door or window and avoid obstacles for example.

"To us, the images look very basic but for someone who was previously blind they are a massive step forward."

How is that relevant to our case ?

One step at a time. Let us think of what is suggested in The Matrix … we have a series of electrical stimuli that are fed into the brain and the brain is not aware that these are NOT ‘real’ stimuli from physical objects but artificially generated electrical signals that create the same effect !

You mean the mind cannot distinguish between a sensory stimulus generated from a physical artifact from a sensory stimulus generated from a computer program.

Right, now consider the bionic eye. What does it do ? Its camera picks the sensory signal – in this case light – from the environment converts it into a electrical signal and sends it to the bionic eye and then through it to the brain. What if we replace the camera with an artificial signal generator ? The bionic eye will still pick up the signal – but would not know that it is not coming from the camera – and will send it to the brain and the brain would be let to believe that the signal came from the camera – and hence from the physical environment – but in reality that would not be the case.

So instead of ‘seeing’ or sensing what is actually in front of the eye, the brain will ‘see’ something completely different … and in fact will see just what it is shown in terms of electrical signals whose origin could be a computer program.

Correct, in effect, we have replaced the physical world with an illusory, artificial world … which is exactly what the Matrix was all about.

But what if we disengage the artificial signal generator then the person will know that we were trying to fool him or her.

Of course but if for days, a person gets to receive ONLY the stimuli from an artificial signal generator there would come a time when he would be convinced that these artificial signals are in fact the ‘real’ signals from the ‘real’ world … I know that I am stretching your imagination but theoretically and conceptually speaking you can extend this analogy.

But what about the other sensory perceptions, sounds ? touch ? taste ?

Again .. the bionic eye is just the starting point .. there is no difficulty in extending the same to the other sensory organs … you would need more research, more technology but no theoretical bar on using the same approach to sound and touch and taste.

OK .. but I have one more concern. When I ‘see’ the ‘real’ world it is – what should I say – very ‘realistic’ with a great deal of detail in terms of colours, resolution and 3D ‘depth’ – of the kind that we get with stereographic vision. But from what you just said, the images that you see with a bionic eye, even when they are generated by ‘real’ life objects and transformed through the camera – they are kind of crude and fuzzy. Surely the difference between the quality of the two kinds of images is too large.

I will answer your question in two parts. First the current combination of camera and image processing technology is in its infancy. With advances here, the image of a ‘real’ object as seen through the camera and bionic eye will be as good as the image seen the ‘natural’ eye – if not better if we use image enhancing techniques. But I will go a step further and introduce the concept of 3D displays.

What is that ?

Consider a normal computer screen. There is some data that is stored in digital files – and this could be MS-Word document or an EXCEL spreadsheet or it could be an image stored in a JPEG format. What happens on the screen ? The computer converts this data and represents it on the screen as points of light – or renders it in an optical format. This light moves to the ‘natural’ eye and is taken inside the brain so that we can read the document or see the picture. Now what happens if we eliminate the rendering process ?

What ?

The computer picks up the same data and instead of rendering it as points of light on the screen send the data directly to the image processing unit of the bionic eye …

Ah ha … and the brain ‘sees’ the same document or image as if it was first rendered on the screen and then processed by the ‘natural’ eye.

Exactly … we have a new User Interface for the computer that eliminates the computer screen – or console or terminal, call it whatever you will – and yet communicates with the brain.

Just like the Matrix !

And no more science fiction … we are moving into the domain of science fact.

And this could extend to movies in MGEG or WMV format .. you can see the movie in your ‘minds’ eye directly from the disk or from a streaming video server.

You are right but I am not happy with that … I would like to push further into the domain of 3D technology.

Now what is that ?

When you see movies you basically see a 2D representation of 3D object or location.

But there are ways of creating and viewing 3D movies as well – using coloured spectacles and other technology.

That is very primitive technology. Today we have the ability to create computer displays that are very realistic in their representation of three dimensions. It is as if we craft a real solid three dimensional image out of the interplay of various beams of coloured light.

Are you referring to holograms ? Laser holograms ?

In a generic sense, yes .. but as I have said, we have some very advanced technology that is available today.

I remember that in the movie Star Wars, there was an image of the Princess Leia that ‘materialised’ in front of a group of people and it was animated to the point of asking for help – help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope …

That was science fiction but today, it is really possible to do the same. A 3D display[7] is any display device capable of conveying three-dimensional images to the viewer. There are three types of 3D displays: stereoscopic 3D displays, holographic 3D displays, and multiplanar. Stereoscopic displays use various methods to convey a separate image to each eye, allowing the perception of depth. Holographic displays create a light field which is identical to that which emanated from the original scene, giving a perfect three-dimensional image, although usually only at the particular wavelengths of the lasers used to record the image. 3D displays may use voxels instead of pixels.

Can you give an example ?

OK, Look at this picture that shows a Philips' lenticular lens 3-D display[8] that requires no special glasses and can show 3-D scenes simultaneously to several viewers.

Is this the only technology available for this purpose ?

Not really, there are many companies that are in a position to offer the same technology. For example this IRIS3D display delivers a 4-MegaPixel combined image resolution image in a workstation that allows you to visualize your images and data in true 3D - all without the need for encumbering 3D glasses, HMDs or expensive immersive multi-user environments. It makes visualisation intuitive! It also allows you to work in 2D for when you've just got to write that report, or when playing Quake in 3D has left you, quite literally, quaking!

So now we can deliver 3D images directly to the brain using the nerve implants – or the bionic eyes ?

Yes these are two of the three pieces of our artificial Maya.

Two ? three ? what are we talking about.

Let me circle back to what I was trying to do. I was trying to establish that the statement which claims that “the world around us is not real .. it is only an illusion” cannot be ruled out outright. I am trying to establish that under certain situations, we can create an environment where the human mind cannot distinguish between what is real and what is illusory.

And how have you established that ?

Not yet, but I have first established that it is possible to generate electrical signals and send them into the brain in a manner that the brain may not be able to distinguish between ‘real’ optical signals generated from the environment and ‘illusory’ non-optical, electrical signals generated through a computer.

That was part one, what next ?

Second, I have established that it is possible to generate electrical signals that simulate 3D images very realistically and so we remove one more barrier between the real and the illusory.

You had said that there was a third piece of the puzzle ?

Yes that comes from the world of Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) in general and the widely popular game or rather platform called Second Life in particular.

What is an MMORPG and why do we need it ?

We have established that we can generate 3D images and send them directly to the brain … but what kind of images shall we generate and send ? Obviously these need to be images that we see in the world around us … images of people, other people who are around us, together with images of the environment – roads, trees, houses, cars ..

And where do we get this ?

It is readily available in an MMORPG[9] which is a genre of online computer role-playing games (RPGs) in which a large number of players interact with one another in a virtual world. In these games, players assume the role of a fictional character (most commonly in a fantasy setting) and take control over many of that character's actions. MMORPGs are distinguished from single-player or small multi-player RPGs by the number of players, and by the game's persistent world, usually hosted by the game's publisher, which continues to exist and evolve while the player is away from the game.

MMORPGs are very popular throughout the world, with combined global memberships in subscription and non-subscription games exceeding 15 million as of 2006. Overall, revenues for MMORPGs exceeded half a billion dollars in 2005 and are expected to reach over a billion dollars by 2009.

How exactly does all this relate to the Maya of Vedanta ?

OK, let me explain in greater detail with reference to a very specific MMORPG called Second Life though in fact SecondLife is actually more than a game. Wikipedia describes[10]

“Second Life as an Internet-based virtual world which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007. Developed by Linden Lab, a downloadable client program enables users to interact with each other through notional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse”.

According to Wired Magazine[11]

“The vision of former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale, Second Life emerged from beta just three years ago. Rosedale was convinced that the increasing adoption of broadband and powerful processors made it possible to create a 3D virtual world similar to the metaverse Neal Stephenson described in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab govern Second Life and rent property to the steady stream of fresh immigrants, but beyond establishing a few basic protocols, they pretty much stay out of the way. Almost everything you'll see has been built by the locals, from the swaying palm trees at the Welcome Area to the pole-dancer's dress at the XXX Playground.”

Second Life is a fairly standard, client-server application that runs on the Internet but the analogies which it offers are truly staggering. You use the SL client software, running on your computer, to “enter” the virtual world that resides on the server machines, with a userid and password. Immediately an avatar – a graphical representation of the user – appears in the virtual world and become visible to other avatars, who are connected to and representations of other users who have similarly entered the world from their computers.

Avatars interact with each other in a virtual landscape populated by persistent objects like houses, trees, lakes, cars, shops, merchants, animals, aircraft – you name it, it is there. Each of these objects has been created by other users through their own avatars inside Second Life. This an eerie, but enjoyable world, filled with almost all ingredients of real life – there is a thriving economy, based on a convertible currency, almost as large as the GDP of a small country, there are relationships between avatars, there is law and politics and inevitably crime – committed by avatars and appropriate punishment. A key ingredient of Second Life is the concept of property rights. What you build is what you own and what you own, is what you can sell or rent !! And this is why Second Life is no more a game but an all new world to explore and profit from where the average daily transactions is a shade less than USD 1 million every day !

If you are immersed in this world – an at the time of writing, there are more than 3 million users of whom nearly 15-20,000 are concurrently in-world – it occasionally becomes impossible to determine the borders of what is real and what is virtual. Is this Maya ? Obviously not but if you consider the following … the analogy could be very compelling indeed.

Have you actually been there ? Or are you simply talking about it ?

Well at least in this case, not only do I know the path to Second Life, I have actually walked along that path. I have my own personal property in SL where I have built the Mahamaya Kali temple and it all began with a simple desire, to know who was visiting this temple. The first step was very simple – a phantom, nearly-invisible, trip-wire around the teleport point that sent out an email whenever someone passed through it and this helped identify visitors quite effectively. But then I got ambitious and decided to see if I could create an in-world camera that would snap a picture of the individual instead of just sending the email. Unfortunately this proved to be impossible .. and here is why.

Objects in SL are represented as pieces of raw digital data and it is the SL client software that assembles this data and gives it a visual representation. So to create an in-world camera, one would have to have a full fledged SL client, that runs recursively within the SL client itself … and this is infinitely more difficult than writing code to do a host of normal things like driving a vehicle or creating a flying bird.

This leads us to the larger philosophical question .. does the existence of reality depend on the existence of a mechanism, a consciousness, to perceive the reality ?

This is where we can invoke the analogy and state that the SL client is the equivalent of Maya ( or illusion) that assembles the view or perception. Without this Maya ( or the SL client) there is no Reality or at least the no perception of Reality. Is it that the act of seeing or perceiving is the cause for the existence of the object of perception ? Is it that I perceive, therefore the world exists.[12]

Of course it may be argued that even if the SL client was not around to perceive the artifact in SL, the artifact would still exist in the SL asset server database. But the representation of the asset in the server is a series of “real” digital bits in a database which, however, is far removed from the “virtual” tables, chairs, houses, trees and other “solid” objects that are perceived when they are viewed through the SL client.

So in Real Life, the Reality could be in a form that is significantly different from the way we see it ... and we see it the way we do because of a Viewer that is placed between that Reality and us .. and that is what the Advaitin would say is Maya. When this Maya is removed, what remains is something quite different.

In Second Life, if we equate the SL client to Maya and if the Maya is removed, then there are no artifacts, only a stream of digital bits. In Real Life the big challenge is to know the equivalent of the digital bits. That question may not be answered here but the fact remains that Second Life client is the closest analogy that we have of Maya that the Advaitin talks about.

And more importantly, the thought that the world is an illusion may not be so difficult to accept any more. For a humorous take-off on this idea, you can see the movie Are You Real ?[13]

So would you say that we have a live example of Maya – the Illusion of Vedanta ?

Not yet. All that we have are three very interesting pieces of technology, namely
* MMORPG – that allows multiple individuals to interact with each other and with a very realistic environment that does not really exist but that seems very real
* a 3D display technology that makes this realistic environment even more realistic by replacing the flat 2D computer display with a something more dramatic and
* Finally the bionic eye technology that can eliminate the need for the computer display and beam the signals created from the first two technologies directly into the brain so that the brain cannot distinguish whether it in a virtual MMORPG world or in the real physical world.[14]

But that means that you have blurred the borders between the real and the virtual ? Why are you not saying that this is a demonstration of the Maya of Vedanta ?

Thank you for your faith in me, but I do not deserve it as yet. All that I have demonstrated is that it is possible to create an environment that seems to replicate Maya but unfortunately this is not Maya as yet.

Why ? What is missing ? …

You need to understand that computer technology has significant limitations when you use it to model the mental side of human beings.

[1] For an overview of MWI see

[2] As quoted in The Everett FAQ at

[3] These dialogues are taken from a version of the script assembled by Shelly Poole ( and available on the internet

[4] See for a more detailed story on Kevin Warwick in Wired magazine.


[6] This section adapted from a report in the BBC website A Google search with Bionic Eyes will reveal more information.






[12] In a recent paper published in Nature (Nature 446 871) and reported in Physics Web ( ) physicists from Austria claim to have performed an experiment that rules out a broad class of hidden-variables theories that focus on realism -- giving the uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it.


[14] In fact technology is moving so fast in this direction that as of March 07, 2007 we have an announcement at that Emotiv Systems have introduced a new helmet that will allow players to control the game with thoughts and emotions. The product is expected to be in the market in 2008.


Prithwis Mukerjee said...

The possibility of a direct machine-brain interface is becoming increasingly feasible. Thought-controlled devices are moving from the domain of science fiction to the realm of science.

Please follow the following link to know about thought-controlled devices that may be in the market in 2008 - 2009

leprechaun said...

Wow! Quite amazing indeed!!!

I am extremely fascinated by your description and I'm going to introduce some friends to this intriguing blog of yours!

So, let's move ahead to chapter 5... jumping jive! :)